Minister Eric Pickles: Localism Bill/ Parish level democracy and polls

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Thu Apr 14 18:33:35 BST 2011


Rt Hon Eric Pickles MP
Department for Communities and Local Government
Eland House
Bressenden Place
London SW1E 5DU

E-mail to:
contactus at
decentralisation at

Localism Bill Part 4 --- Community empowerment Chapter 1 --- Local 
*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)     

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

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.

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