citizens' initiative and referendum


Exchange of correspondence about a parish referendum, held in July 2003, triggered by citizens' initiative in Swaffham, Norfolk, England.

Letter from Margaret Cannon, <m_t_cannon@NOSPAM.hotmail.com> Swaffham Taxpayers Action Group, to

Michael Macpherson, Citizens' Initiative and Referendum I&R

Subject:  Parish Poll (Referendum)
Sat, 26 Jul 2003 18:31:35 +0100

As a taxpayers action group, several residents of Swaffham in Norfolk organised a Parish Poll on the question of whether or not our Council should build a town hall extension. (There are lots of finance issues which I wont go into, but the main issue is that they want to use interest on  money belonging to the people which was realised from the sale of allotment land to pay the interest on a loan.Tying the money up for 25 years. We held the Poll last week and just over 11% of the town voted, 80% of the vote was against the building. The Town Council has already told the Press that they are going to go ahead anyway (which we always realised they could)  Do you have any ideas where we go from here. Somebody did mention a vote of no confidence in the Council, but we're not sure what that entails. We are also thinking of involving the district auditor, as the way in which the money has been handled is scandalous. Would this involve the town in any expense? We would be grateful for any information you could give, or links to informative sites.

Thank you

Margaret Cannon
Swaffham Taxpayers Action Group


Michael Macpherson
Citizens' Initiative and Referendum I&R

Margaret Cannon
Swaffham Taxpayers Action Group

Mon, 28 Jul 2003

Dear Ms. Cannon,

Speaking for our campaign group, Citizens' Initiative and Referendum, I
can comment on your problem only regarding democratic system.

It's admirable that your group has taken the initiative to propose and
organise a Parish referendum. I would be interested to find out how you
got the idea, how the idea was converted into reality, what the
referendum proposition was, the reaction of citizens of the Parish, the
reactions and behaviour of the politicians and town officials.

According to my knowledge of the law about parish referendum, the result
is not formally binding on the local government. Clearly, in a democracy, the electorate should have the right to select and decide on public issues if they so wish, but, as we know, in Britain to date this is not the case. In short, here we are dealing here with a *democracy deficit*. For the time being we have to live with that. Now, even if a referendum result cannot produce a legal mandate, it can sometimes have a political effect.

At face value the participation in your referendum looks rather low --
11 percent. This may be the reason for which the Town Council thinks of
ignoring the result. We would expect a ruling group to take heed only of
a more powerful message from the electorate, one which suggests
consequences for their chances of hanging on to office and power. So,
your group is now left to seek other tactics. I want again to emphasise
that, even if the turnout was disappointing, the very fact that you
started and pushed through a citizens' referendum in Britain is of great
importance, as a lesson, example and precedent. Most people, I think,
are unaware that they have the right to initiate a referendum in this

How to proceed? Without being "on the ground" in Swaffham it's difficult
to advise. Why not telephone the district auditor to for her/his
opinion, "off the record" if necessary? Another source of advice could
be university politics departments. You could try Cambridge University
(look for political or government studies department in WWW then e-mail
or 'phone).

Some political experts with an interest in democracy:

Ian Budge, Dept. Government, University of Essex

Gerry Stoker, Dept. Government, University of Manchester
Gerry.Stoker@NOSPAM.man.ac.uk Telephone  0161 275 4910

"information about citizens' referendums can be obtained from The
National Association of Local Councils, 108 Great Russell Street, London, WC1B3LD. Tel: 0207 637 1865". You might contact this association and ask
what to do if a successful referendum is ignored by the Local Council.

Thanks for your inquiry,

Michael Macpherson


From Margaret Cannon, Swaffham Taxpayers Action Group, to

Michael Macpherson, Citizens' Initiative and Referendum I&R

Wed, 20 Aug 2003

Dear Mr. Macpherson,
Thank you for your reply to my e-mail, sorry its taken so long to get back
but things have been moving quite fast here and it was only when looking
through my e-mails that I realised I hadn't replied.
Just after your note I was contacted by Chris Booker of the Sunday Telegraph who was interested in the story, within a week he had written the story sent a photographer to Swaffham and printed the article. It was in the Sunday Telegraph on 10th August. It caused quite a stir here, particularly as in the meantime our Mayor had put out a Press Release locally stating that anybody thought to be Harassing councillors would have legal action taken against them.  Add to that the fact that our Council pushed through an addition to Standing Orders which states that only the Mayor and Deputy are allowed to speak to the Press and we have townspeople who are completely cut off from the truth of most matters. Following the Poll the Mayor (without a Council meeting) declared to the Press that they would not take any notice of the Poll. We have reported this to the Standards Committee.

About the Parish Poll:
We got the information from the internet and called the Public meeting. We
knew that we had 10 people to put the vote through and were pleasantly
surprised when unexpected locals turned out. We could have had at least 30
votes if necessary. From there we organised a leaflet to be distributed to
each household. We had lots of phone calls prior to the Poll and all but one were supportive. Its probably true to say that we felt for sure that we had 80 votes on the day and we decided to spend the time of poll at the polling station to gauge reaction.  The start time was 4pm and when we turned up about 10 past, queues had formed right through the building, down some stairs and out into the street. Some people queued for up to 20 minutes to vote. It wasn't until we asked a lady leaving the building how she had voted, and heard the response from others stood near her that we realised it was going completely in our favour. The best thing was that people were really angry at the way the Council was treating the electorate, and were prepared to queue to show them. Since then the majority of Councillors has closed ranks, but of course even if they had changed their minds they aren't allowed to speak to the Press and we cant "Harass" them. Since the article in the Telegraph we have been contacted by other groups, some asking how we did it others offering advise it has been very heartening.

As far as the 11% turnout goes, 13% is average for a local election and
there are councillors now standing who got there with less votes than we

We haven't given up yet!!!




Note: The abovementioned newspaper report about the Swaffham citizens' campaign and local referendum may be found here. It provides important background information about the case.