Local referendum scrapped

Communities lose the chance to use local referendum to debate the issues they think are important.

As the Localism Bill enters its last stages the government dropped a clause that allowed local people to instigate referendum on any local issue and concerning any local public body.

This is disappointing because it takes away an opportunity to give older people a way to be involved in local decision making and get their issues debated.

The change of heart came after a Lords debate earlier this month, which suggested the referendum process would be expensive and at risk of abuse from extreme groups.

The government could have responded to these challenges by strengthening the Bill rather than scrapping the whole idea.

In the original proposals the local authority would have been able to decide whether it was appropriate to carry out the referendum or not. There could have been clearer standards to give councils the ability to legitimately decide whether or not to take a topic forward as a referendum. This would have reduced the risk of the process being hijacked.

It’s also important to remember that in fact the Bill stated the results of the referendum were non-binding. Councils could have decided whether or not to act on the results.

This supported an alternative argument that the local referendum was too weak.

On the other hand referendums would have given another method for communities to participate in local debate, rather than waiting for the council to consult them.

Baroness Hanham claimed there was “pretty good coverage for people to have their voice heard”.

Having spoken to older people’s forums about the Localism Bill I thought this seemed a little disingenuous. More ways are needed for there people in later life to shape the neighbourhoods they live in and services they rely on.

There are other measures still in the Bill that give communities more rights, including running public services, neighbourhood planning and buying local buildings. Yet what marks all of these is the level of complexity that is neededto understand them and the commitment needed to make them work. (See previous blog – Can you take the community challenge?)

The government now needs to focus energy on making sure engagement and inclusion are at the heart of the remaining community rights so that everyone is given equal opportunity to participate.

The referendum idea may not have been perfect. It was however a fairly straightforward option for individuals to understand and be able to initiate  debate on issues that come from the community rather than the council.

Read our brefing on the Localism Bill

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