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28 March, 2005

Just park it

Petitions: why?

A couple of hundred years ago, they might have been an appropriate means by which a populace could convey public opinion to their slightly remote lords & masters, but nowadays, with saturation media coverage of even local issues and public policy influenced by polls and focus groups, I don't see the point.  I've always thought them an anachronism, but a specific example has arisen.

Recently, Lancashire County Council decided to close Greaves Park nursery school (kindergarten) in Lancaster, but protests from parents obliged the Council to think again. Having taken those views into account alongside other considerations, such as cost and the absolute necessity of there being a nursery school in that location (perfectly adequate coverage apparently exists elsewhere), the Council confirmed the existing decision.
Last week the local paper, The Citizen, reported that parents had launched a petition against the decision, and already had 350 signatures. And? The parents had been heard, and their objections deemed insufficient to counterbalance the other factors. So far as I see, the matter's closed. The Council had to listen, and did, but it didn't have to agree. The Council already knew the decision would be unpopular with some in the local area, so why does the precise number of objectors matter? A vocal minority (and let's face it, 350 from the area's entire population is a pitiful number) can't just keep making further representations until they 'win' an outcome they like; that's collective petulance, or genteel mob rule.

Incidentally, please don't mistake this as support for the Council's decision. I'm commenting on the decision-making process, not the issue itself.

Even if the very concept wasn't outdated, I distrust the accuracy of petitions anyway.

  • Firstly, they can be faked (padded with false identities) too easily.
  • Secondly, assuming all names are genuine, petitions can be padded with irrelevant contributions. I wonder how many of those 350 actually live in the affected area, or even have children.
  • Thirdly, peer pressure could add the signatures of several people who mightn't otherwise choose to contribute. Had this been a secret ballot, I don't believe all 350 would have voted.
It's probably better as the subject of a different posting, which I don't have time to write right now, but I simply don't believe in collective action. I'm not a member of any political party, pressure group or trade union. I feel no urge to add my voice to anyone else's. Irrespective of whether I agree with a petition's objective, I wouldn't sign. I'm vehemently opposed to the introduction of identity cards, and have used this site to publicise a few of the negative aspects, but I won't sign the No2ID petition.

I wonder whether public bodies are obliged to observe any specific protocol about petitions, such a logging their receipt or formally adding them to the documentation of a decision-making process. Personally, If I was a civil servant receiving a petition, I'd politely thank the person making the submission, then dispose of it unopened.


I have to agree. We have 3 kids, none of which attend the affected nursery, despite us living a minute away from it. I can understand why parents would be annoyed at the decision to close a succesful nursey, but they had their chance to protest (the protest walk, last summer?) and a petition is unlikey to ever change a decision of this nature.

We had a member of the Green Party come round and ask us to sign the petition. My wife did, but I doubt she would have bothered if it wasn't someone knocking on our door to procure it.

Posted by Andy at March 30, 2005 05:30 PM
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