We need more councillors, not less

The MJ reports on Buckinghamshire County Council’s successful bid to reduce the number of members elected to it, from 57 to 49, in the name of cost cutting.

County deputy leader Bill Chapple said: ‘I’m delighted the commission is taking our proposals forward. We are living in a time of austerity when tough decisions have to be taken, and in making these proposals members are supporting the cost saving process.’

Drawing up new divisional boundaries will take account of an average 7,750 voters to each member, 1,050 below the national average. Mr Chapple said the revised ratio would maintain a ‘good democratic representation for the electorate, and save £100,000 a year.

Not commenting specifically on this example, but I think that, in general, we need more councillors, not less.

I mentioned my reasons in an earlier post. Basically, we have too few people doing too much, and a rethink about the role of the elected member is needed if we are to attract more people to get involved.

Cllr James Cousins argued persuasively on Twitter that if councillors took a more strategic view on issues, rather than getting bogged down in operational stuff, they would then be able to do better with fewer numbers.

It’s certainly a view I have sympathy with. Having been a member services officer in a previous life, I have far too many memories of trying to coax from councillors their views on a strategic report, rather than just having typos pointed out to me.

However, I think the thought of spending hour upon hour in town hall meetings and reading countless numbers of reports is still going to put off a large number of people getting involved.

As well as more councillors, we need better councillors. People with drive and ambition, people passionate about issues with fresh perspectives and different attitudes and cultures. Not only will this make council chambers more representative but it ought to make them better at what they do.

But these people – dynamic types with ideas and enthusiasm – are generally pretty busy being successful at other things. They don’t have a lot of time. Being a councillor right now – even if you take the strategic outlook Cllr Cousins encourages – takes up a lot of time, especially if you want to do it properly.

So rather than just having one or two representatives per ward, let’s have have a few more. Many as many as five or even ten for the bigger ones. These councillors split the work between them, taking on as much as they have time for and preferably the bits they are good at, or at least knowledgeable about.

They work together collaboratively – which would bring in the most culture change, especially where more than one political party is represented. Elections would certainly be very different affairs – but then I would argue that local elections are dominated by either local personality or national politics and policy – rather than specific local policy. In fact it might be that the party system loses its relevance in the local context.

This is, as always from me, half baked thinking. I’ve no doubt that there are stacks of reasons why this is a dumb idea. But I’ve never one been tempted to stand as a councillor, having seen the stresses and workloads it brings. Given the option to be involved, but sharing the effort with others, I might change my mind.

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Dave Briggs

I'm Head of Digital and Design at Adur and Worthing Councils.

3 thoughts on “We need more councillors, not less”

  1. Dave,

    With central government pressure on more towns and cities to have directly-elected executive mayors the case for fewer councillors becomes stronger.

    Take Newham, where I live, as an example. Before 2002 we had 60 councillors; now we have an elected mayor – and we still have 60 councillors. And they all get £10,500 a year in allowances, and a third of them get extra money for ‘additional responsibilities’. That’s a lot of money for people who really don’t have that much to do. The full council meets just 5 times a year.

    And it’s made worse by the fact that Newham is a one party state. All 60 councillors and the mayor are from the same party. The level of challenge and scrutiny is tiny. Realistically, no-one holds the mayor to account.

    So the other half of the argument is about how we elect councillors. If we want councils to be more reflective of our communities we need to reform our local election systems too.

    Personally, I’m not a fan of elected mayors (could you guess?) and I like the idea of a more distributed, more strategic leadership. But in the current political and financial climate I can see little hope for that.

  2. Dave,

    I’m afraid our system of local government is broken. Too much direction from above and badly hampered by party politics. I’m a former Metropolitan District Councillor for Sefton MBC, from 1980 -1987. For a while the Council was controlled by a single party and the opposition could posture as much as we liked (I was part of the opposition). We used to argue to the public, ‘Vote for us and smash the Tories’, at both local and National elections, but frankly we were misleading the electorate. I also, very quickly, became aware of the internal struggles in political parties. Churchill was right to caution people to watch those behind you, rather than those in front of you. Even today the local Sefton MBC Tories have just announced a further falling out, 11 only now holding the whip.
    In short over time since 1974 there are too many Councillors who have allowed themselves to be dominated by Party Political concerns before the need of electorate. My most intriguing experience was serving on the Sefton Local Strategic Partnership by now as an independent representative of Sefton’s Parish and Town Councils (From 2000-07). Here I found calm detailed examination of the wider communities’ aspirations hopes and aims as set out in the Strategic Plan. Needless to say once the local Councillors spotted my appointment on this body, they started to attend and interfere with expressions of fear about their role etc!
    They continue to fight over the bones of a reorganisation of ‘neighbourhood management’.
    Oddly enough, having painted this picture of disarray, I would support the need for more councillors, but for independent Town and Parish Councillors rooted in their communities, accessible and accountable, they also ‘do it for free!’ So I support the idea of clear strategic thinking but working in partnership with very locally based community councils, ones where representatives are seen walking around the local shopping ccntre and are known. Remote Cabinet members are invisible and therefore not democratic though an elected Mayor with personality and talent may prove a useful leader/figurehead and focus for the wider civic life we should all be living.
    I must stop now, I hope some of this makes sense, but I’ve got a meeting at one of our local allotments.

    Sean Brady
    Independent Parish Councillor
    Formby Parish Council

  3. Sean

    These seem to be persuasive arguments to prevent councillors representing a political party. If they all stood as independents, they might do what their electors wished for, not what the Party machine says.

    In Scotland local government is now PR. As a result I think there are only 2 Labour contolled councils, instead of 32. In South Lanarkshire there is a Tory : Labour coalition I think. In Edinburgh it is Lib Dem : SNP.

    PR has helped break the one party state. We also have multi member wards. It is very early days as it all started in 2007.

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