GIVE the people their say.

That is the message to health chiefs after councillors demanded a referendum on fluoridation.

Southampton City Council agreed to call on South Central Strategic Health Authority to hold a public vote on the controversial scheme to add fluoride to the tap water of nearly 200,000 Hampshire residents.

The move is the latest significant development in the campaign, backed by the Daily Echo, for a referendum to decide on the scheme because of claims residents’ views have been ignored.

But health bosses again last night insisted the vote, by the only local authority which previously had supported fluoridation, would change nothing.

The motion, calling on the SHA to hold a referendum and be bound by its result, was backed by the City Council’s ruling Tories while opposition Liberal Democrat and Labour councillors abstained.

Tory councillor and deputy council leader Royston Smith, who received rapturous applause from around 40 anti-fluoride campaigners packed into the council chamber, said the public consultation had been “flawed at best, but at worst it was probably derisory”.

Earlier, a group of activists waved banners and placards as they demonstrated outside the Civic Centre before the meeting.

Cllr Smith said: “The electorate are our employees. It would make sense that the people who are going to be affected by this should be the ones that should be consulted.”

He said the mechanism for holding a referendum was irrelevant. “This motion sets out very clearly what should happen. People should have the opportunity to have their say in a referendum and the SHA should hold that – and they should be bound by that result.”

Opposition councillors labelled yesterday’s debate on a fluoride referendum as “shameless electioneering”, attacking the motion – tabled by Tories Royston Smith and Jeremy Moulton, who are both bidding to become MPs – as highly political, costly and impractical.

Labour councillor Peter Marsh Jenks, who backed fluoridation when the council debated it during the initial public consultation, led the criticism.

He said: “Two Tory prospective parliamentary candidates are hijacking a Southampton City Council meeting to beg for people to vote for them in the general election. It’s a shameful attempt to get them elected.”

Fellow Labour councillor Simon Letts said debate was pointless, as the SHA had no powers to call a referendum and that local authority boundaries did not fit within the proposed fluoridation zone.

Anti-fluoride campaigners said they are also pleased the scheme is again being debated, but do not support calls for a referendum because they believe the people have already had their say.

An SHA spokesman said the authority does not believe the council’s decision will lead to a public vote: “There is no mechanism by which South Central Strategic Health Authority is able to hold a referendum.”

• New chairman of Hampshire Against Fluoridation Stephen Peckham said: “There’s already been a vote and 72 per cent of the people said no.

“More than 10,000 people were involved in the consultation and that’s quite a substantial proportion of the people who would be able to vote on it.

“The people don’t want it and there can be no justifiable grounds for going ahead with it.”

Romsey and Southampton North MP Sandra Gidley last night welcomed the council’s vote, and said she believes the final say must lie with the people affected.

She said: “I’ve supported the idea of a referendum because the whole consultation and decision making process was shown to be totally undemocratic.

“The SHA view seemed to be ‘oh well, the majority are against but we know best’.

“I’m pleased the decision has been made, but unfortunately I think it will be ineffective.”