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