Much is expected of councillors in governing their areas and in solving multiple and intricate problems. Yet, their powers and responsibilities are increasingly out of step with the work need to undertake. Colin Copus and Rachel Wall draw on their work with councillors to explain the problem and its possible solutions.
Exploring the work of the councillor has been a favourite field of study for academics and government inquires over the decades which have pored over and categorised councillors and their work, at length. The Maud and Widdcombe committees in 1967 and 1986 respectively and the more recent and admirable 21st Century Councillor report by INLOGOV with many writers in between, have examined how to make councillors more effective and to improve their lot. So, why another inquiry now? Well, such investigations often work to a series of set questions that inquires want to answer and are aimed at perceived problems or weaknesses about councillors that require a national fix.
The De Montfort University Local Government Research Unit and the Municipal Journal Councillor Commission took a different approach and set out to listen to what councillors wanted the government, policy-makers, media, and public to understand about their work and what they can and cannot achieve. Throughout 2016 and early 2017 the Commission listened to what councillors had to say about the tasks and challenges they face and what needs to change in their powers, roles, functions, and responsibilities to enable them to govern their localities more effectively.
The commission organised 31 roundtable discussions, across the country, at which over 300 councillors spoke about every aspect of their work and we received almost 130 written submissions. The study revealed that councillors are dedicated to their communities and motivated by a deep sense of public service. In England some 90% of councillors are members of the three main political parties – so national party politics looms large in everything they do.
Our report is called ‘The Voice of the Councillor’ because one of our councillors attending a roundtable commented: ‘this is marvellous because no one has ever bothered to ask us before about what it is like to be a councillor and now I can say my piece’. All councillors said their piece about the following:
There is a clear need to make sure that all aspects of every councillor’s work is supported by each council. But resources at the moment are focused mainly on leading councillors, with opposition members feeling the most ‘resource and support poor’. Without sufficient access to information, or support in obtaining information, councillors can be constrained in what they can achieve across a range of their responsibilities and functions. There is a need to strengthen the powers of councillors to demand and receive information from their council and to do so in an accessible and usable form. Indeed, council constitutions do not fully provide members with the protection they require or any guarantee of resources and support– and there is a question remaining about the fitness for purpose of constitutions.
Beyond the Council
An increasing aspect of the work of all councillors is interacting with a vast range of public, private, and third sector organisations which operate with different purposes, objectives, and priorities and which spend public money and develop public policy without clear lines of accountability to the public.
Influencing such bodies, attempting to draw them into a coherent policy direction, aliening their activities with the priorities and polices of the council, and working with such bodies strategically again requires resources and support. It is clear there is, among some, a poverty of democratic respect and a failure to fully engage with councillors when they seek answers or justifications from others and this is a situation which damages accountability and opens up a wide democratic deficit.
Image credit: geralt/Public Domain.
Central Policy Change
Councillors expressed frustration at the level of central government interference in their day-to-day activities and in their ability to shape the policy and decisions required to meet local needs. Councillors’ frustrations cut across the political spectrum and results in a demand for greater local autonomy and discretion. Indeed, it was clear to our councillors that devolution has yet to signal a fundamental change in the relationship between central and local government and there is a need for an organic and open-ended process to replace the centrally driven approach.
Councillors are concerned about public perceptions held of them – about their powers, functions, abilities, and responsibilities. Our councillors are far far from ‘Living the life of Riley’ off the rates or ‘well meaning volunteers’ but are professional-minded, dedicated public servants who operate in a political environment where they have to made hard choice often without the powers to tackle the problems that confront their areas. While councillors do not expect ‘three cheers’ for doing their jobs, they need the public, media, and politicians to understand the pressures they face and the limitations on their office.
The workload of the councillor is increasing and they face greater demands on their time and commitment, greater weight and complexity of the work they must undertake, and an increasing need for them to be able to respond to the demands made on them. Yet, the support councillors receive from their council in order to undertake the range of their responsibilities – inside and outside the council – is not consistently adequate across the country. Without adequate support, councillors will have to commit more of their own time and resources to meet the increasing demands made upon them. We cannot expect to get our local democracy on the cheap.
Parish and Town Councillors
It is very clear that parish and town councillors experience similar pressures to those at the principal level in terms of the tensions and increasing complexity of their roles. Yet, the diversity of size and resources at the level of parish government increases the likelihood that councillors will often face resource problems when conducting their activities. The commitment and dedication of parish councillors often goes unrecognised but given the large size of English local government compared to the rest of Europe, supporting, maintaining, and expanding parish government is vital in keeping communities linked to local elected bodies.
It is time to set our councillors and local government free from central interference and for devolution to become just that and not the decentralisation of functions and tasks. Rather, devolution must be a devolving of real power to our localities. It is also time to stop reorganising, reshaping, and enlarging English local government while there is still some semblance of locality left in the structure. We ask much of our councillors but are reluctant to grant them the support and powers needed to refresh local democracy; our report provides a way in which that can be achieved.
Note: The full report on which the above draws on can be found here.