County's got it wrong over the number of signatures

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We presume the idea was supposed to be that new laws on petitions would give people more of a say in what happens locally. But it's not turned out that way. In fact, the new rules are a bit of a mess.

What was promising in principle has proved to be a big let-down in practice.

The government initially suggested five per cent of the population in any local authority's area must sign a petition in order to spark a full council debate. The intention was to empower those people who felt strongly about certain issues and ensure that their voices were heard.

But many local authorities have set their own petition thresholds, with Hampshire County Council deciding that it requires 32,000 signatures to trigger a debate in the council chamber.

We think that's wrong. As Catherington Lib Dem Councillor Sam Darragh points out, the issue of a village fire station closing would never attract the required number of signatures, but to those affected it's every bit as important as a city fire station closing.

If the government intended to make local democracy more accessible, then Hampshire has done nothing to help. It has actually put a big obstacle in the path of the people.

In contrast, Portsmouth City Council has asked for just 1,000 signatures to earn a debate, while Havant, East Hampshire, Fareham and Gosport have chosen 1,500 signatures as their threshold.

These are much more realistic figures.

Hampshire leader Ken Thornber protests that it could have insisted on 64,000 signatures if it had stuck to the five per cent guideline. But West Sussex County Council, another large local authority, says it requires just 3,000 signatures.

Cllr Thornber is right when he says there are still many other ways that residents can raise matters of concern.

But we can't help thinking a lower threshold would have been the best way of ensuring people felt they were being listened to.

If other councils are happy to hold debates based on much smaller petitions, why isn't Hampshire?