Concern over plans to scrap city Petitions Committee

The plans will be discussed today at the City Chambers
The plans will be discussed today at the City Chambers
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Local concerns could be sidelined in favour of bigger issues if plans to scrap the city’s petitions committee are given the green light, residents have warned.

Today (Thursday) councillors will discuss plans to disband the committee, which has met 18 times to consider 31 petitions involving more than 17,000 signatures since 2012.

Instead of the current system, the proposed move would see petitions taken directly to executive committees in a bid to speed up the decision-making process.

But residents have said they fear the new approach could mean issues subject to a petition could be given less consideration.

Melanie Weigang, secretary of Lorne Community Association, used the petitions committee process to help Lorne Street residents successfully overcome the threat of eviction.

Ms Weigang said she felt as many as 150 residents could have lost their homes were not for the traction gained with the help of the committee.

She said: “The support would never have been there if we hadn’t had this petition and the media finding an interest in it - this was really the turning point.

“We were told by the housing convener and the council that they had done all they could - this is what gave us the attention we needed and turned it around.”

Ms Weigang said it was a “no brainer” to keep the committee, saying she feared some issues could slip through the net if it was removed from the petitions process.

She added: “There may be petitions which are very important and valuable and they might not be accepted if there don’t fall into a certain committee.

“Things might not just be in one area and then which committee is responsible for taking on the petition? They might then be missed out or they might go through the wrong committee.

“I find it very important that this committee stays the way it is.”

Petitions from individuals can currently be considered by the committee if they are supported by at least 200 people, although those with just 50 or more can also be declared valid if a local issue.

Nuala Fahey, 44, who currently has an open petition regarding a dangerous junction in Shandon, said putting petitions straight to executive committees could see them ending up as last on the agenda.

Ms Fahey said she would not support dissolving the committee but said it could be beneficial to help speed up the process, as well as making sure more people knew of its existence.

She said: “I found it very straightforward but I did need to be told that it existed.

“Finding out what people care about on a local level is what local government should be about and the petitions process should do that with the right support in place.”

The plans will be discussed at today’s council meeting at the City Chambers.

Chas Booth, Green councillor for Leith and convener of the previous petitions committee, said the committee served an important role in opening up the council and making it more accountable.

He said: “We’ve taken action to prevent homelessness, pressed for convenient affordable bus travel for food bank users and allowed campaigners to highlight concerns about the council’s pensions funding the arms trade.

“Our city will be poorer without the opportunity for residents to bring up issues which otherwise would get neglected.

“The suggestion that petitions go direct to subject committees may have some advantages, however, only if the petitions process remains as open as currently, in that any individual can raise a petition.

“It would also have to guarantee that petitioners can question officers and that time would not get squeezed on already busy committee schedules.

“That’s why I think keeping a separate committee is best.”

A council spokesman said: “The petitions process is a valued component of our democratic arrangements.

“Whilst the proposed new model would mean that a dedicated committee would be discontinued the process would remain.

“Petitions would be taken directly to the relevant executive committee.

“This would enable citizens to have their concerns considered promptly by the body with decision-making powers on the matter.

“Where previously a petitioner was required to engage with two separate committees, often a couple of months apart, before the matter was properly considered, this new approach would speed up the decision-making process.”