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Tories shun petitions policy

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Flagship Conservative proposals to use petitions to hand power to local people are widely opposed by Tory councillors, as well as those of other parties.

According to a survey conducted for LGC by pollsters ComRes of 426 councillors, a majority oppose plans to allow residents to force referendums on any local issue through petitions gaining the signatures of 5% of the local population.

The policy was a central plank of the Tories’ Control Shift localism green paper, which was hailed as “a radical decentralisation to reach every corner of the country” by party leader David Cameron when it was published in February 2009.

However, opposition to it was strongest among Tory councillors, with 55% opposing or strongly opposing the policy, compared with 53% of Labour and Liberal Democrat members.

The survey also showed barely a quarter of councillors support proposals to allow residents a veto on council tax rises above a centrally set threshold. While support for the referendums on tax levels is strongest among Conservative councillors, almost two-thirds of Tories oppose them.

Shadow local government minister Bob Neill said councils must be prepared to accept greater accountability as the price for increased powers.

“Greater use of direct democracy is never going to win overwhelming enthusiasm among some town hall members, yet its checks and balances are far better than Whitehall or regional interference,” he said.

Meanwhile, writing in LGC this week, Baroness Hamwee, the Lib Dems’ local government spokeswoman in the House of Lords, criticised the government’s plans to allow residents to call council officers to account at public meetings through petition as having “the potential to become kangaroo courts”.

Other proposals from the Tories’ green paper mustered stronger cross-party support. More than two-thirds (68%) of councillors said the Tories’ proposed power of general competence was needed to give councils the confidence to innovate.

More than half of councillors expressed support for the proposed transfer of funding away from formula grant towards incentives for housing and business growth.

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