Ideas for reforming local democracy – defining the issues

Having said I’d try to come up with some positive ideas for reforming local government I guess I need to define the issues I’m interested in addressing.

The following is a rough first draft, feel free to try to make me think further, or suggest things I should read before I try to grapple with things that might make a difference.


First off I’d like to think about how we might improve the representativeness of local councillors.

The Guardian have some useful figures.

According to a 2006 census of councillors in England, 69% of those serving are men, 86% are over 45, and 95.9% are white.

4.1% are from ethnic minorities.

There’s also an issue about workload and recompense.

Apparently councillors spend on average 21.9 hours a week on council business.  The Guardian suggests that backbencher’s can expect to be paid between £3 and £10k a year for that.  Or if you’d rather believe the TaxPayer’s Alliance (who don’t make a distinction between back bench and portfolio holders) an average of £9,300 a year.

As an aside I’m sure its worth noting that the Alliance say that Lewisham councillors’ earn on average £18,592.59.  Which is a bit misleading, in that the mean will be somewhat lower, and doesn’t mention that it’s set by a committee of residents from the borough who aren’t councillors.

And I’d like to look at the relationship with voters.

This Joseph Rowntree Foundation report suggests that there’s about 1% of the population that gets actively involved in public life (I’ve discussed this report before).  We know that turnout at elections is low.  What changes this?

But beyond that there’s a conversation to be had about accountability.  How do people get to understand what their representatives are doing and how can they influence them (or at least try) when they need to?

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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.
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5 Responses to Ideas for reforming local democracy – defining the issues

  1. ShaneMcC says:

    In terms of representativeness I think we need to focus upon Age and Gender. In England as a whole (according to the 2001 Census) 95.4% of people aged over 45 considered themselves to be White. Fairly in line with the councillor ethnic mix. If we manage to break down the age barrier then maybe we would see a more representative ethnic mix too.

    The gender balance won’t get addressed that way but perhaps some other reforms might help in that respect.

  2. andrewkbrown says:

    That’s helpful, thanks Shane. I also want to think about socio-economic mix. I think I’ve seen research done by Trades Unions about working people’s representation in Parliament – it’s not as high as it was – and I think this is important too.

  3. Lone Ranger says:

    A positive move would be to hold a referendum to confirm the public wish to continue being governed locally by a directly elected Mayor. The government withdrawing the imposition of the 10 year referendum rule would be another positive move for local democracy.

    Another positive move could be to consider having a quorum below which an election would be declared void.

    Installing a “democratic” system supported by less than 10% of the voters, based on a postal vote is not good for democracy.

    Rodger Godsiff MP (former Mayor of Lewisham) drew the attention of the Hosue of Commons to the misuse of postal votes in Birmingham.

    http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/england/west_midlands/4406575.stm

    And only yesterday……

    http://icbirmingham.icnetwork.co.uk/birminghampost/news/tm_headline=city-lib-dems-arrested-ahead-of-election%26method=full%26objectid=19029648%26siteid=50002-name_page.html

  4. Andrew says:

    I note Tristram Hunt was calling for elected school boards in last weekend’s Observer. Worth a thought (could be elected by parents rather than on party lines).

    I honestly believe that if you remove some of the more contentious aspects of local government (adult social care for one, give it to the NHS to worry about) and leave councils to get on with place-shaping (for want of a better expression but cleaner, safer and greener was another I’ve heard recently that sums up their role) then more people would be inclined to stand.

    In terms of Jonathan Myerson’s recommendations, I actually agreed with most of them, give or take some slight modification. It’s a very American view (something I would have thought Gordon Brown would like). We need big city chiefs with smaller full-time councils (just not in small towns like Mansfield and Watford).

    Whichever way you look at it, things aren’t working at present. But local government is too resistant to change and national government is generally too clueless to implement it.

  5. Dean says:

    In Queensland, Australia a voluntary process for Local Government Reform has been replaced by a forced amalgamation process. The people are not happy

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