A local authority which has been accused of ignoring residents’ views looks set increase opportunities for members of the public to voice their opinions over a spectrum of issues.
North Yorkshire County Council’s executive will on Tuesday consider whether it should recognise online petitions in the same way it does paper-based petitions, which if sufficiently supported by the public can trigger debates and policy changes by the authority.
The move follows numerous councils approving e-petitions as acceptable barometers of public opinion and comes some 16 years after an e-petitions process was created by the Labour government. In the first six months of a Downing Street website facility being launched, some 2,860 petitions were created, and one attracted more than one million signatures.
It also follows action by the council in 2018 to lower the number of signatures needed on a petition to 500 for an issue to be automatically considered by one of its six constituency committees.
However, in recent months the North Yorkshire authority has faced criticism from campaigners, particularly over planning matters and road safety concerns, for taking residents’ views with a pinch of salt.
Ian Conlon, of 20s Plenty for North Yorkshire, said the authority did not have a good track record of listening to representations made to them by elected councillors and democratically-elected members should be carrying out consultations rather than considering petitions.
He said: “This feels like a bit of a non-starter as we could spend a lot of time and effort raising an e-petition just for it to be ignored.”
An officers’ report to the executive states despite the council’s existing petitions scheme still being based purely upon the submission of a paper petition it had received three e-petitions that have been organised through the 38 degrees and Change.org sites.
The report states: “These petitions do not conform with our scheme as when they are submitted to us a link is provided with details of the petition and the number of signatories, but not complete details of their address nor a signature.
“The most information that can be provided, upon request, appears to be the name and postcode of those people who have accessed the site and
expressed their support for the petition.”
Under proposals to accept online petitions and to counter concerns over their accuracy, the report states anyone wanting to start an e-petition would initially be directed to the council’s website.
Those wanting to sign the e-petition would be asked to provide their name, address and postcode, plus a valid email address, which they would need to confirm.
The report highlights concerns that there is a risk that e-petitions are so convenient to use that the number of signatories is artificially inflated by people who are not engaged in the issue and that some of those signing may have no connection to North Yorkshire.
However, it adds: “There is a need to embrace technology, particularly when all that is required is to enable an existing feature on a system that is already in place at no additional cost.”
The authority’s leader, Councillor Carl Les said it would be important to ensure e-petitions were an accurate reflection of people’s views.
He said: “It is a concern that petitions may lose their value if they are being completed erroneously.
“We want to make it as easy as possible for people to raise issues with te council and submit petitions, if that’s the process they want to follow, but it’s not the only process to get the council to discuss or debate something. People can do the same by using their local member, very effectively.”