Proposals for a new constitution at Kingston Council have been criticised as “draconian” and a “step closer to closing down open democracy and a transparent council.”

Leader of the opposition, Conservative Councillor Kevin Davis said that while he was “broadly supportive” of some of the changes, he was “somewhat horrified” at the proposed changes to the thresholds for petitions and call-ins, which are used to stop council decisions and delay their implementation.

The Liberal Democrat-controlled council hopes to raise the threshold for community call-ins for committee decisions to two per cent of the electorate, currently 2,310. This is an increase of 2,210 per cent from the current threshold of 100 signatures.

It is also more than the number of votes any Kingston Councillor won during the 2018 local elections.

Cllr Alison Holt won the most in 2018, with 2,286 votes in Surbiton Hill.

Call-ins will likewise have to be made in hard copy or through the council’s existing petition portal to allow for verification checks.

The threshold for debate at Full Council will also increase from 500 to one per cent of the electorate, currently 1,134.

In a press release, Kingston Council says this “brings the council in line with other local authority petition schemes,  reflects the borough’s population growth and the improvements in digital technology, which allow more signatures to be collected”.

The new proposal points to a recent peer review report “by the Local Government Association which references the “confusion and ambiguity” of the current constitution and risk “that a small number of voices, who may or may not represent the view of a wider set of stakeholders, come to have an impact on the thinking on any given issue only at the culmination of the council’s decision-making process or potentially switch the focus and

attention of a meeting to a matter that isn’t under consideration on the agenda.”

However, some opposition councillors and residents are worried the changes will prevent local people from challenging the council.

Cllr Davis said: “We know that some issues the council deals with seriously affect small groups, and when thresholds for those groups to interact with the council are set at many thousands then we are a step closer to closing down open democracy and a transparent council. It seems this is more about closing down debate to have shorter meetings than giving the public confidence we are taking decisions in their interest.”

Green councillor Sharron Sumner likewise argued that the new threshold was too high, even though she thought “there was room to do something and tighten some things up, and maybe 100 signatures for a call-in was too low.”

She said “now it’s virtually impossible. The only people who will be able to raise anywhere near that will be the big political parties like the Conservatives and the Lib Dems who might have a huge database.”

“They are saying that they want to reach out to other people, and people that may not normally necessarily come, but you do not get more engagement by being more strict.

“If you want people who would not ordinarily come to a council, then you make sure that it is easy for people to do it. Not harder.”

She added that the Liberal Democrats should look closer to home when criticising the Prime Minister’s use of prorogation.

“Whilst they’re jumping up and down about what’s happening in Westminster about the prorogation of parliament, look what’s happening in Kingston. Look what they’re trying to take away from residents, they’re trying to limit their ability to influence and shape what’s going on, and I just think that’s hypocritical.”

Resident and campaigner Helen Hinton, who has previously used and 38 Degrees to start local petitions, said she was worried about the requirement to gather hard copies or use the council’s petition portal.

“The problem with that is you’ve got to sign in and put your postcode in and all sorts of stuff like that, which puts people off. When you’re confronted with that, you just think I can’t be bothered to do that.”

She also said her own experience gathering the required number of signatures has been difficult:

“You can get 200 quite easily on a petition website like because it’s quite easy to do. But when you’re standing in the street to try and get hard copies, even just 100 is very difficult. Most people don’t want to sign petitions and when you’re increasing it to 2,310 and saying that it has got to be on the council’s website, that’s virtually impossible. So they’re basically ending the opportunity to do any community call-ins.”

The council is also proposing a new ‘Question Time’ which will give the opportunity for anyone to ask questions for 30 minutes at Full Council meetings.

This will replace the current system of deputations, which allow people to make a statement to Full Council or a Strategic Committee.

Deputations have been criticised in the report for their potential “to delay proper discussion of council business at the meeting.”

Under the proposed ‘Question Time,’ questions must be submitted seven working days in advance of the meeting.

The Mayor may also reject a question. Examples include if it is seen as essentially the same as one asked in the last six months, not related to the business being discussed, or will take a disproportionate amount of time or money to answer. 

Kingston council says it believes it is the only council that enables a community call-in process, which they will continue under the new proposals, albeit it with a higher threshold of signatures. 

Councillor Andreas Kirsch, portfolio holder for community and governance at Kingston Council, said: “Kingston is unique in offering the opportunity for residents to call in the decisions of elected members in committee. We are not aware of any other authority in England or Wales which provides residents with the ability to do so.

“The threshold for the number of signatures needs to reflect the very significant potential impact of any delay of a decision, and that it effectively halts a decision made by democratically elected members with a direct mandate from Kingston residents.”