I spent my train journey to London this morning thinking about David Cameron’s ideas on the citizen initiatives in local government. If you haven’t seen them, he proposed that petitions (already a feature of local government) could be used to trigger citizen initiatives leading to a debate or vote in their local council. They might even be able to trigger a referendum in the local area.
I started off thinking it was probably a bad idea – the model it suggested was the Swiss citizen recall of legislation or the ballot initiatives in some US states. Those systems can work well, but they relate to the actions of legislatures with wide powers: the federal or cantonal governments in Switzerland, and the state governments in the US.
Local government in the UK is a very different beast: strongly controlled by central government, and with effective powers only over relatively narrow areas. If people are concerned about things like street crime or local hospitals, citizen initiatives and referendums are not going to give the local council direct authority over those areas.
The second problem is that a likely topic for initiatives and referendums would be council service provision, such as bins or park services. It’s easy to imagine the sort of issues that would come up: more street cleaners, longer opening hours for libraries, better services for elderly people. None of these are bad things in themselves, but the financial consequences of change in these areas can be huge – and councillors are there to make the trade-offs between these different pressures.
But thinking about the issue more as the journey went on, I started to think that there might be more to the idea than there seemed. Petitions are a popular way of interacting with councils, but the complaint about them is that they are received but then not acted on. For the most part, this is because the numbers signing petitions are small and the issues they discuss are quite parochial (more parking spaces in suburban streets being a perennial favourite). Gathering petitions makes the ward councillor look active and supportive; acting on them has much less benefit for the Council as a whole, particularly if the petitions come from opposition-held areas.
A real benefit might come from making petitions both more pointful for citizens, and more useful for Councils. The solution could be to allow citizen initiatives or referendums, but only on issues covered by the budget and policy framework.
The budget and policy framework is a network of strategies (including the budget) that are approved by the Full Council to govern the work of the executive (whether an elected mayor or a leader and cabinet). The executive cannot act outside the budgetary and policy framework without the permission of the Council.
The benefits of restricting citizen initiatives to the framework are, first, that it prevents them from mandating spending or action in their local area alone, and second, that it requires petitioners to look at the policy context more widely, and consider the rationale that the council has for providing services in a particular way. Rather than being complaints, citizen initiatives could be positive suggestions for change, linked in to the wider objectives of the Council.
Where expenditure would be incurred, a budgetary provision should be included: Chief Finance Officers already assist opposition parties with costing their proposals when the budget is set: it would not be much different advising the leaders of a citizen initiative on the consequences of their proposal. A financial consequences statement could then be issued alongside the proposal before a referendum or a council vote, with an additional sum added to Council Tax in following years by way of payment.
There would still need to be provision to prevent frivolous initiatives, and initiatives with malicious intent towards minorities or the underprivileged. This idea also doesn’t solve the problem of local government competences – where the initiative covers issues which either partly or wholly outside local government’s control. The local authority is, however, the only democratically-elected body at local level, so there may be opportunities for citizen initiatives outside the local government remit to be considered by overview and scrutiny committees, calling in the relevant partners to give evidence.