19 February 2010

POWER TO THE PEOPLE!!! or “Report from the Constitution Working Group Meeting 17 February 2010, Civic Suite, Lewisham Town Hall”

I have written about the Constitution Working Group (CWG) before – it is an ad-hoc group used by councillors and officers to explore changes to Lewisham's constitution prior to formal motions put before full Council for adoption, hopefully by consensus. There were three main items this week – my proposals about the appointment of the Directors to the new council-owned company which owns and runs the Catford Shopping Centre, a review of the scrutiny committees and the issue that I think is likely to be of most interest to bloggers – petitions.

When the final legislative hurdles have been overcome, Lewisham will be introducing a formal petitions scheme for residents to bring matters to the attention of Councillors, officers and the Mayor. This will mean that in general, if a significant number of people living in Lewisham call for a matter to be debated by the Council or one of its committees it will be. There are also provisions for certain senior officers to be called to give evidence on issues to again the Council or one its committees.

The CWG discussed the merits of how many signatures a petition needs to trigger a debate. The range discussed varied from 3,000 to 13,000 (5% of our population and the legal maximum we would have been allowed to set). A concern raised at the meeting was that if the threshold was set too low far too many issues could be brought forward creating a logjam at Council or our committees. I was not particularly convinced by this argument for raising the threshold above 3,000. For me, it was important to understand what Lewisham's residents might expect the threshold to be. I was far more concerned that residents understood what the purpose of the threshold is – it is not to limit the workload of the Council or its committees – for me it is convey to the residents that this is a mechanism whereby Councillors and the Mayor can confidently assert that this is an issue that warrants serious consideration and that ultimately it may mean that we have to do things differently. It is part of listening to and understanding what a significant proportion of our residents think are important.

This was why I was in favour of adopting a threshold of 10,000 – 10,000 as with any figure we could have chosen without further evidence is arbitrary. 'Ten thousand' is a number that people can understand as being 'a lot' – in voter terms it's about the size of an electoral ward in Lewisham. Some members thought the statutory maximum of 13,000 (5% of the population as a good figure) was appropriate, others believed a lower figure was better. In the end, as this is very friendly CWG we compromised on 8,000.

The threshold can and should be reviewed in a few months – then we'll have a better idea as to how it is used in Lewisham.

There will be no change to the way in which smaller petitions typically presented by a smaller number of residents in a tighter geographical area will be dealt with – these won't be downgraded – and of course it needs to be added that Lewisham will be developing a way whereby petitions can be held on line. With Lewisham's active bloggers and other online activities this will become the main way that petitions are fed into the Council.

UPDATE

An about turn from the Lib Dems caused this discussion to descend into chaos. We noted that the consensus on the issue had clearly fallen down when the Lib Dems changed their position quite dramatically to reducing the threshold to 1500 (I think that was their proposal but can't recall) we called for the issue to be referred back. In the end the proposals were passed as proposed in the paper on account of Labour's majority.

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