Extremists could exploit the new petitioners’ power and force councils to debate inflammatory proposals that damage cohesion, the Local Government Association has warned.
The Department for Communities & Local Government has also admitted that councils could have to respond formally to petitioners who call for an officer’s dismissal or a councillor’s resignation.
Communities and local government secretary Hazel Blears has launched a consultation on the new right which would allow anyone who can secure an unspecified number of signatures to require a council to respond.
Ms Blears has not defined ‘respond’, but said: “These powers would mean the concerns of local people can no longer be filed away and ignored. Giving local people a greater say is not a threat to local government’s legitimacy good councils actually do this already.”
Councillors could trigger scrutiny hearings if a council responded inadequately to a petition.
An LGA spokesman said: “Someone could raise a petition calling for all foreigners to be thrown out of an area, and the council would have to waste time and money responding.”
A DCLG spokeswoman said: “People are entitled to petition about any matter relating to the council we are simply saying that they should also be entitled to a formal response if enough people support it.
“That does not mean councils must always do what the petition says, but they should at least explain why.”
David Clark, director-general of the Society of Local Authority Chief Executives & Senior Managers, said: “I’m not clear what ‘has to respond’ means, and people will sign petitions about anything.”