Changes to petition rules in St Albans

CHANGES to rules regarding petitions were passed at a council meeting last week.

Previously there was no set number of signatures required on petitions for them to be considered in a council debate but there will now need to be at least 1,000 after the majority of councillors voted through a recommendation put forward at the Annual Council Meeting on Wednesday (May 19) evening.

The change was to bring the system in line with new government guidelines which has already seen Herts County Council change its policy. If any petition has fewer than 1,000 signatures but more than 30 it will be passed on to the relevant body instead.

The new policy was agreed despite strong objections from Tories who argued there should only need to be a minimum of 500 signatures otherwise villages would face difficulties putting together a petition, a view echoed by Labour and independent councillors.

Tory council leader Cllr Julian Daly said he understood the need for a substantial number of signatories to demonstrate real concern, but pointed out that if matters related to the villages then on average at least 20 per cent of the electorate needed to show their support for a petition if they wanted it to go before a council debate rather than the “lesser process.”

“Petitions with over 10 per cent of the electorate of a typical ward demonstrates real concern. The council had an opportunity to show the public we were open and willing to listen to their concerns. The Lib Dem’s turned it down.”

Cllr Chris Brazier, the planning portfolio holder, said that he understood the concerns raised but pointed out that government guidelines had recommended that the council set a minimum of 1,500 signatures, so the figure had already been lowered significantly.

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But he said: “The figure can be reviewed in six months time, but if we lower it too much now there could be a lot of people triggering debates at council that could well be debates what we don’t need to have.”

He stressed petitions with 30 signatures would still be looked at by the relevant body and could even be sent onto the overview and scrutiny committee or the cabinet committee if need be.

Cllr Brazier added: “1,000 seems to be the right figure but we’ll see how it goes and then look at lowering the figure if we need to. In villages like Sleapshyde I can see that it would be very hard to get a thousand signatures but as long as you can get 30 on a petition, you are not disenfranchised.”