Letter to Communities ministry re. “state of the art” local democracy

Rt Hon Eric Pickles MP
Department for Communities and Local Government
Eland House
Bressenden Place
London SW1E 5DUE-mail to:

Localism Bill Part 4 — Community empowerment Chapter 1 — Local referendums
Clause 53 Application to parish councils

Dear Mr. Pickles and colleagues,

We understand that it is the intention of the Minister to reform the regulation of referendum democracy at the level of parish. We have already submitted a memorandum about the Localism Bill to the Public Bills Committee (1) and wish to present here some recommendations about parish democracy.

Regulation of parish polls was included (for England and Wales) in the Local Government Act 1972 but according to our information the option remained largely unused until the mid 1990s. Since then a steady rise in Parish Meetings calling on the District Council to hold a referendum (poll) in the parish has been observed, mainly in England.  Many dozens of polls have been held. This increase correlates in time with a growing public demand for participative democracy, particularly citizen-instigated referendum, across Europe east and west and in many other countries of the world.

From reports and analyses of local direct democracy in other countries (which almost invariably co-exists with indirect, representative democracy) a fairly detailed assessment of quality may be distilled. Our preliminary observations concern such factors as levels of public information about the issue in dispute, rules governing right to initiate a referendum, co-operation or hindrance by authorities or interest groups, facilities provided for citizen-proposers, “user-friendliness” of electoral procedures e.g. timely information of the electorate about the poll and about the background of the issue at stake, distribution of polling cards, convenience of polling arrangements, option of postal voting, application of e-deliberation and availability of e-voting.

The quality of local democracy enabled by the Local Government Act 1972 and subsequent modifications to the rules has been criticised for a number of reasons. For instance there has often been low turn out to vote in parish polls. Probably however this has *not* been to do with apathy or lack of interest but more likely because most residents were not informed about the issue at stake or were even unaware that a poll had been organised. A major cause of low turn out is the poor design of the existing referendum procedure. It takes just a handful of residents to demand that a poll must be held. However, in order to ensure that there is strong public interest, enough to guarantee a reasonable turn out, a substantial proportion of the parish electorate should at an early stage become involved by being approached and persuaded to endorse the proposal. The ideal “hurdle” depends on the size of the community, larger units such as a town requiring a smaller percentage (3).

A number of other aspects of design and regulation need to be improved.

Over the last decade our education and advocacy group I&R ~ GB has circulated preliminary suggestions for reform of local (here parish) democracy to  active local electors, to councils and local government organisations (plus some MPs and central government departments). These suggestions may be found here at our web site: Reform of Parish Poll and other Direct Democracy Regulations March 2009, memo re. need for reform of Parish Poll and other DD rules

Reference to a related memorandum (1) and link to further reading about procedures in local direct democracy (2) are to be found below.

Yours sincerely,
(signed) ________________________

1. Associated Memorandum submitted by Dr Michael Macpherson (L 40)     01.02.2011

2. Journal of the Association for Accountancy & Business Affairs 2006 Vol.5, No1, 47-86. The Citizens’ Initiative and Referendum:  Direct Democracy in 5 Countries of Europe by Michael Wallace-Macpherson, Paul Ruppen, Roland Erne, Radoslaw Gawlik, Ralph Kampwirth, Bruno Kaufmann and Arjen Nijeboer. Via http://www.iniref.org/learn.html

3. In the article cited here (2) Arjen Nijeboer, writing about The Netherlands, describes a “sliding scale” of threshold requirements for political units of varying size.


3 Responses to “Letter to Communities ministry re. “state of the art” local democracy”

  1. Ian Says:

    I totally support the wishes of INIREF regarding reforms of local democracy. The current system is not working as needs a reform.

  2. iniref Says:

    Please continue to lobby the Communities ministry to include better democracy in their Localism Bill. Some ways to do this, some from your desktop, are detailed at our Facebook site, see comment in reply to Geoffsky Weoffsky April 16 at 12:21am http://www.facebook.com/home.php#!/event.php?eid=117619011650368

  3. Campaign Aims: Power to the People. Essential principles of governance outlined. | Iniref's Blog Says:

    […] Letter to Communities ministry re. “state of the art” local […]

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