As Conservatives, we believe that government should be closer to the people, not further away.
We want to see more local democracy, instead of more centralisation – whether to Brussels or Whitehall. Communities should have more say over their own futures.
That is why the Conservative group has taken a strong public stance against a decision by the Labour mayor of Brighton and Hove City Council to block a council debate taking place on three petitions at meeting of the full council on Thursday (22 October).
The mayor is a symbol of our city and a position that as Conservatives we respect. We are always reluctant to publicly criticise this office.
But the mayor is also meant to be an independent facilitator of debate and representative of the views of the public.
Council regulations state that when a petition passes 1,250 signatures it becomes eligible for a council debate of 15 minutes.
The Conservative group submitted three petitions on behalf of community groups that passed this threshold
- A petition to save Benfield Valley from development had 2,180 signatures at the time of writing
- A petition to save land next to Horsdean Recreation Ground and Ladies Mile by the Ladies Mile Nature Reserve from development (1,784 signatures)
- A petition to save Whitehawk Hill, Ingleside Stables and the South Downs Riding School from development (1,554 signatures)
These are genuine petitions filled with the signatures of thousands of local residents who want to save their green spaces. Community groups have worked hard to get the signatures and our Conservative councillors have supported them.
All three petitions were submitted in plenty of time. Councillor Dawn Barnett submitted the Benfield Valley petition to the council back in July for debate at the August meeting. She was told there was no space to debate it at that meeting but she was given an assurance that it would be listed second for debate at the council meeting in October.
This assurance has now been broken.
The subject of the petitions are an uncomfortable topic for Labour and Green councillors who have so far voted to support a City Plan that would result in these green spaces being built on – in many cases in defiance of their own local communities.
But there is still a chance to change the outcome. The City Plan consultation process runs until Friday 30 October and residents have a right to have their say and must be heard by the council – now more than ever.
The decision is not right democratically and the Conservative group believe that is not right constitutionally either.
I outlined this in an open letter to the council’s chief executive this week. I wrote: “We are advised that one of the reasons (for the mayor rejecting the petitions) was that ‘planning issues are not normally debated at council as there are other avenues for concerns to be raised and considered’.
“This is an unconstitutional reason to refuse the petitions. The petition scheme only excludes petitions that apply to a planning application.
“City Plan Part 2 is not a planning application. It is a policy document.
“You authorised and convened a special council meeting on Thursday 23 April that was dedicated to City Plan Part 2.
“Petitions instigated as a consequence of that council meeting should not be refused debate unless it is now deemed that the April special council was inappropriate to hold and as such should render the decisions taken as unlawful and invalid.
“Another reason given to us was that council had already approved City Plan Part 2. That respectfully is a nonsense.
“Council approved consultation. It did not approve the plan as presented unless of course there is now an admission that the consultation is merely a ‘tick-box’ process because the council has no interest in the consultation outcome.
“In any respect, it contradicts the position that council does not consider ‘planning issues’.
“It was also advised that the petitions had been rejected because a consultation process was in progress. That again is a nonsense. Petitions are part of public engagement.
“The decision is entirely inappropriate and unconstitutional and will only be viewed as having no foundation and undemocratic.
“You are denying thousands of ordinary members of the public a right to have their views and opinions expressed to the council.”
The mayor now has up until the night of the council meeting on Thursday to change course and include these petitions for debate.
Given that the mayor is at the start of an extended two-year term, due to the covid-19 pandemic, it is vital that he reconsiders and does not set a damaging precedent for local democracy that would last until 2022.
We encourage residents who share our concerns to contact the mayor’s office at email@example.com to ask that he allow the petitions to be debated at Thursday’s meeting.
As Conservatives we will always stand up for the rights of petitioners and local democracy.
Councillor Steve Bell is the leader of the Conservative group on Brighton and Hove City Council.
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