Local Referenda Briefing
The Localism Bill, introduced in December 2010 and currently in the committee stage in the House of Lords, contains a duty to hold a local referendum in response to a petition. This new measure effectively replaces the Duty to Respond to Petitions, except of course where a petition was calling for a referendum. This duty would apply to county councils, district councils, London Boroughs and the Greater London Authority.
Petitions to hold a local referendum
Local people may require their local authority to hold a referendum by submitting a petition which has been signed by five percent of local government voters in the area; however, the Secretary of State can change this percentage in the future. In addition, a local authority must hold a referendum if one or more councillors makes a request to hold a referendum. Local authorities can, but are not required to, provide an online petition facility.
A petition is valid if it:
• Is made in writing and specifies the question to be asked in the referendum
• Is made to the proper officer at the local authority
• Relates to an area within the local authority
Determining whether a referendum must be held
If a local authority receives a petition to hold a referendum and the petition meets all the necessary requirements (as listed above), it must hold the referendum. An exception to this is if a petition is received by a district council about a matter which is dealt with by the county council, in which case the district council must refer the matter to the county council. The local authority has the power to reword the question to be asked if the wording is misleading.
A local authority can only reject the petition or the call for a local referendum if:
• It is not on a local matter (meaning that it does not ‘relate to the environmental, social or economic well-being' of the area in which it is proposed, or does not specifically have a local connection).
• Action taken as a result of the referendum would be against the law
• The question asked is vexatious or abusive
• The petition is about an issue which is specified in regulations by the Secretary of State.
Holding a referendum
Upon determining whether or not a referendum should be held, the local authority must notify the petition organiser and if the petition is rejected, publish the reasons why. If the referendum is to be held, it should occur within two months of the date the petition was received by the authority, unless there is an election due to be held within six months, in which case they should be held at the same time.
The local authority must publish ‘as it sees fit' the fact that the referendum is taking place, the date and the question to be asked.
Consequences of referenda
Currently, the proposal in the Localism Bill would not be officially binding on local authorities to act on the referendum result. Upon receiving the result of a referendum, the local authority is required to publish the results, decide what action (if any) to take and inform any relevant partner authorities. If the decision is reached not to take the action resulting from the referendum, the decision and reasons for this must also be published.
Localism Bill amendments to local referenda
Amendments to the Localism Bill are currently being considered that would prevent referenda taking place that would interfere with planning decisions, in addition to other issues specified by the Secretary of State.
An amendment is also being considered in the House of Lords that would mean that councils could only hold one referendum every five years, and could also reject a petition to hold a referendum if it would be too expensive to run or if there is already a consultation in place in relation to the issue.
A private members bill sponsored by Zac Goldsmith has been introduced which aims to make local referenda binding upon local authorities, which will have its second reading in January 2012. However, it currently remains that local authorities will have the discretion on whether or not to act on the results.