West Dorset DC is set for a referendum on returning to the committee system, only the second to be forced on a council by a voters’ petition.
Public First, a pressure group led by local resident and prominent human rights lawyer Clive Stafford Smith, successfully gathered more than the 4,069 signatures - equivalent to 5% of voters - needed to require West Dorset to hold the poll.
The council last week decided that residents will be asked to choose between retaining the cabinet system or moving to a strategy committee with politically proportionate membership, with other committees having decision-making powers as decided by full council.
Public First’s campaign statement said: “The fundamental fact is that…in West Dorset, 43% of the votes cast translated into 67% of the seats, giving the leader and his personally selected colleagues from the same party 100% of the seats in the cabinet.
“This left those other councillors representing 57% (i.e. the bulk) of the electorate’s votes with little ‘say’ or influence in the council in the stages of policy formation. We believe this system is not a basis for sound democracy.”
The council comprises 30 Conservatives and 12 Liberal Democrats.
Leader Tony Alford (Con) said: “The costs are regrettable, but we have received a petition signed by over 6,000 people and under the law this has triggered a referendum which requires us to give the rest of the 80,000 electorate the democratic right to decide if they want the council to have different committee structures.
“We are doing all we can to limit costs and will save about £50,000 by holding the vote at the same time as the police and crime commissioner elections.”
The Localism Act 2011 contained provisions to call local referendums on changing to the committee system.
This has previously happened only in Fylde BC, which changed in 2014.
Canterbury City Council changed to committees without holding a referendum before it received a petition.
This story has been updated to reflect that Canterbury decided to restore the committee system after a petition began to be collected but before enough signatures were gathered for it to be binding on the council.