Having got so exercised about the Guardian article previewing the report I should have known the full thing was going to be a much more nuanced piece of work.
Skipping to the heart of the report. What is it that councillors have identified as their ideal role:
Aspirations for the future ward councillor role
- Councillors should be out on the streets much of the time. We are talking real engagement with all parts of the community, not just people who share their values.
- A councillor should be a skilled advocate for the community with a high profile locally.
- The first port of call rather than the last – for the community and officers.
- They should have real powers of scrutiny and action, and real budgets to do things locally.
- Councillors should have a much bigger role in the community – in decision making, scrutiny and getting local issues heard.
- Members should be a real source of local intelligence – for communities and the council.
- Councillors must be able to speak freely about issues affecting their communities.
- Councillors should be supported by officers, not undermined by them.
- A councillor should be someone who can educate communities about how to work with their elected member, the council and other bodies.
- Councillors should be able to make better-informed decisions locally and strategically – that means having access to the right information and intelligence, and playing a bigger role in local partnerships.
Nothing to complain about there. These are good aspirations for councillors to have, though how compatible pavement bashing “much of the time” and real scrutiny are I’ll leave as a moot point.
There’s an interesting discussion on the political role, which is seen by some as somehow in conflict with the idea that councillors will have a more hands on approach to managing local services in the future. I’d argue that the two aren’t as conflicted as some involved in the consultation seem to think.
It leads on to a section on delegated budgets which is topical. The paper says:
Non-executive members without control over delegated budgets felt strongly that, of all the White Paper proposals, delegated budgets would have the greatest impact on their ability to sort out local problems and to improve dialogue and relationships with residents and community organisations.
However, delegated budgets were felt to be problematic by some officers and nonexecutive members working in urban areas. These interviewees expressed concerns that delegated locality budgets would encourage members to focus on tackling short term public realm issues rather than looking at the big picture, which was about working to shape mainstream services to support local needs and priorities.
Whether that’s how the Brockley councillors and contributors to Brockley Central will feel once they’ve made their selection will be intersting to see.
There’s an interesting finding on the ability to influence the executive, which may explain my own experiences:
The most critical factor in terms of influencing the executive would appear to be having a personal relationship with executive members. Those councillors in wards that have executive members expressed the greatest satisfaction in terms of their ability to exercise influence.
In my original assessment of what councillors needed I suggested time would have been at the top of my list. That’s a theme in what councillors told the researchers too:
The most fundamental problem identified was that councillors are so busy trying to fit in their councillor role with wider commitments they do not have sufficient time for training, not least when the quality of training is so variable.
If you’re interested in this you might also want to take a look at a very good post by Andy Howell on the need for training at Ministerial level.
The paper makes the following suggestions for reform:
- National standards for party groups – there should be a series of ‘national
standards’ for the operation of political party groups, particularly in relation to
issues of diversity, recruitment and selection.
- Reduce or prohibit whipping outside full council – there should be cross-party support to significantly reduce, if not prohibit, the use of whipping in all aspects of local democracy other than full council.
- There needs to be significant improvement in councillor remuneration – opening a genuine national debate about member allowances and support.
- Raising the profile of the councillor – a national campaign to promote the value of the councillor role to employers and the public.
I’d agree with the first of these, it seem to me to be critical that political parties try to reflect the communities we set out to represent. I’m fully behind the second (and that’s how it worked in Lewisham for the period I was a councillor, at least after the 2000 Act came into force).
I’ve not been comfortable about the idea of paying councillors in the past, I’ve not been convinced that doing so wouldn’t narrow the range of council candidates even further. But I do recognise that it time needs to be created then me wishing for a magic wand isn’t going to cut it.
And I don’t have a problem about raising the profile of the importance of civic duty with employers. I was lucky enough to have flexible employers (at least when I was looking to reduce my hours!) but I know that’s not universal.