‘Town hall blues’

Jonathan Myerson a former councillor in Lambeth (and I think a regular in The Guardian) has written a piece for Prospect about reforming local democracy.

Jonathan’s experiences mirror a number that I had in my 9 years as a councillor, and he’s accurate in identifying the problems that local democracy faces – low turn out, councillor competence, and how to involve the public in decision making – but I can’t agree with a single one of the reforms he proposes.

He proposes six reforms:

  1. Pay councillors (he suggests £45,000);
  2. Reduce the number of councillors by having single member wards;
  3. Provide an office for each councillor and give them secretarial support;
  4. Abolish 90% of public consultation;
  5. Get rid of political debate at Council meetings; and
  6. Increase the term of office to 7 years.

Paying councillors is superficially attractive, at least to those who might want to do the job. But we need to think about why we’d be doing it. Most of those I’ve read supporting full time councillors have argued that it would help widen the potential base of candidates. I’m not certain it would, rather I suspect we’d just be shifting the deck chairs, making local politics an even more attractive offer for middle class party activists and professionalising politics even more than it is now.

I’m not against councillors being recompensed for their time, but let’s not kid ourselves that paying this sort of salary will do anything but narrow the type of person likely to enter politics.

If I don’t think councillor’s should be full-time then the idea of single member wards doesn’t stack up. When we reduced the number of wards here in Lewisham a few years ago I was one of those arguing that we should have gone further than we did. On reflection I think I might have been wrong.

What I found was that at roughly 14,000 electors in a ward it was difficult to be as active everywhere as you might want – there are only so many evenings in a week. Having three councillors allows you to spread the load.

Secretarial support and an office, is probably more than can be justified. As a cabinet member I shared secretarial support with a colleague and even there I wasn’t sure that we were filling her time. I think this idea would just make councillors feel self-important (a trait that some would argue that goes with the territory already).

Consultation isn’t well understood, or particularly well delivered. That doesn’t mean that council’s shouldn’t be required to do it. When I was a councillor there were some of my colleagues who could remember the first moves that Lewisham took to open up council meetings (and Lewisham was, they said, amongst the first to do that). To return to the days were councillors were cocooned inside the town hall making decisions without the benefit of talking with their electorate doesn’t sound like progressive politics to me.

That said, councils need to improve the way they deliver consultation, and need to help people understand how their engagement can help shape the decisions that need to be made. Consultation isn’t delegated decision making it has a more subtle role, helping decision makers understand the hopes and fears of the public being served.

The proposal I have most time for is the idea that we should end the student politics that passed for debate in the council chamber.  I can’t tell you how bored I was most of the time during council meetings, and they did always seem to drag on well beyond that which normal human beings should have to endure.

But the issue shouldn’t be my boredom, or the lack of skill shown by most of my colleagues in putting forward a coherent or entertaining speech.  The thing is whether the ideas and decisions that are tested, that other points of view than the majority party’s are heard, or that there is a level of corporate scrutiny between politicians.

Personally I would like to see fewer questions from councillors – or at least those with no discernible need for political input.

But the worst idea of the lot is increasing the term that councillors serve.  All that’d achieve is complacency and if there’s a bigger (legal) sin than that in politics I’m not sure what it is.

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About Andrew Brown

I live in Lewisham, South East London, and spent 9 years as a Labour councillor in the borough between 1997 and 2006.
This entry was posted in Civic Society, Politics. Bookmark the permalink.

5 Responses to ‘Town hall blues’

  1. Lone Ranger says:

    I have been provided with a Lewisham Official Guide probably of 1996 it states there were 67 councillors from 26 wards compared with the current 54 councillors from 18 wards.

    Isn’t one of the problems the people coming up with the ideas for changes to local democrarcy are the very politicians who have failed to engage fully with the public.

    The New Local Government Network for example appears to be academics, politicians and council chief executives, financed by companies who have large contracts with local governments.

    The public seem to be on the outside merely being asked to show how successful the NLGN’s ideas have been by, for example, being able to name the Mayor. Following an elected mayor being introduced a lower percentage of voters turned out in Lewisham than boroughs operating under a different sytem. Where is the evidence decision making has improved, rather than similar to how it was before.

    Having spoken to representatives of NLGN they came across like cult followers with unflinching commitment to their cause, because they repeatedly tell themselves how good their ideas are.

    Not added to your article, but vented my spleen. Which I will now repair.

  2. andrewkbrown says:

    I do worry for your internal organs on occasion. So much spleen venting, so few moments of (on-line) happiness, can’t be good for you.

    The challenge I’m going to set myself – and you may want to join me in this – is to try to set out some positive ideas for reform. I think lots of people understand some of the problems, but trying to address them, that’s a bit more tricky.

  3. ShaneMcC says:

    Positive ideas for reform. I’d be up for that. Where shall we have the conversation?

  4. andrewkbrown says:

    Hi Shane, well I’ll be trying to write a few down here and if they feel substantial enough maybe I could wiki them.

  5. Max says:

    What about having Overview and Scrutiny before Mayor’s decisions instead of after?
    In that way the Mayor would get the officer’s advice together with eventual comments for amends or improvements from Councillors.
    One step further would be to give O&S power to Full Council and webcast the meetings.

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