Could a pe­ti­tion be your trump card in per­suad­ing the politi­cians to lis­ten?

Kentish Express Ashford & District - - Helping Others -

When par­ents launched a cam­paign for a new gram­mar school an­nex in Kent, a turn­ing point in their cru­sade came at a county coun­cil meet­ing in 2012.

It was a meet­ing that proved piv­otal. Cam­paign­ers had man­aged to get enough sig­na­tures on a pe­ti­tion to be granted the op­por­tu­nity to lay out their plans be­fore the politi­cians who could con­vert their dream into re­al­ity.

It had come about as a con­se­quence of Kent County Coun­cil’s pe­ti­tion scheme, which al­lows any­one to ad­dress coun­cil­lors if they can per­suade enough peo­ple to sign up.

Look­ing back, par­ent Sarah Shilling, who to­gether with hus­band An­drew led the cam­paign, says it was the point at which the cam­paign re­ally took off.

But while the pe­ti­tion was im­por­tant, she says it might not have been acted on had there not been coun­cil­lors who were sym­pa­thetic to the cause.

“Pe­ti­tions can be ef­fec­tive so long as there is a sup­port­ive au­di­ence,” she said. “We would do it again but at the time there was not so much use of so­cial me­dia. Now there are pe­ti­tions for all sorts of ridicu­lous things.”

For county coun­cil­lor Cllr Gary Cooke, the politi­cian who over­sees the coun­cil’s pe­ti­tion scheme, the op­por­tu­nity for res­i­dents to raise is­sues is an im­por­tant part of the author­ity’s role in “com­mu­nity en­gage­ment”.

“The scheme works well,” he said. “Ev­ery­one who sub­mits a pe­ti­tion gets a re­sponse of some kind. And we have re­duced the num­ber of sig­na­to­ries needed to make it eas­ier. It is an im­por­tant part of the demo­cratic process.”

Po­ten­tially vex­a­tious pe­ti­tions are barred but “we al­low most things,” says Cllr Cooke.

De­spite this, at 10,000 sig­na­to­ries, the thresh­old for trig­ger­ing a de­bate at a full coun­cil meet­ing is still chal­leng­ing.

For those who pe­ti­tion on an is­sue re­lat­ing to a spe­cific district, a more mod­est 1,000 sig­na­to­ries will get you a de­bate at what is de­scribed as “the most ap­pro­pri­ate lo­cal meet­ing”.

Since the start of its pe­ti­tion scheme, there have been 16 de­bates at county coun­cil meet­ings, but of these just three have reached full coun­cil.

And many more – KCC says it does not keep a tally – fall well short of the tar­get. Partly, this seems to be be­cause many are on very par­tic­u­lar lo­cal is­sues, such as call­ing for pot­holes to be fixed on a lo­cal road.

Traf­fic calm­ing and pedes­trian cross­ings crop up a lot. Even on big­ger is­sues, the num­bers can seem mod­est: a call for plans to scrap a third Thames cross­ing at­tracted 628 sig­na­to­ries.

Na­tion­ally, as the de­bate on Pres­i­dent Trump’s visit has shown, high-pro­file is­sues can gain trac­tion quickly.

But the head­lines they gen­er­ate one week can just as quickly dis­ap­pear the next or trig­ger ri­val pe­ti­tions that take a con-

Cllr Gary Cooke

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