Ward councillors and community leadership: a future perspective

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.

As is usual with the JRF there’s a summary and a full report.

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

  1. 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.
  2. A councillor should be a skilled advocate for the community with a high profile locally.
  3. The first port of call rather than the last – for the community and officers.
  4. They should have real powers of scrutiny and action, and real budgets to do things locally.
  5. Councillors should have a much bigger role in the community – in decision making, scrutiny and getting local issues heard.
  6. Members should be a real source of local intelligence – for communities and the council.
  7. Councillors must be able to speak freely about issues affecting their communities.
  8. Councillors should be supported by officers, not undermined by them.
  9. A councillor should be someone who can educate communities about how to work with their elected member, the council and other bodies.
  10. 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.

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 and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to Ward councillors and community leadership: a future perspective

  1. AP says:

    Quite an effort!

    You views are very well concluded.

    Seems like you’re a master of research?

  2. Lone Ranger says:

    Connected with your comments has to be the issue of how councils are funded. If I understand the treasury report to the Mayor correctly 70 – 80% of what the council spends comes from central government. To deliver homes that are decent to live in the council needs to comply with government wishes. In 2002 the council had almost 30,000 properties on its books, this looks to be reduced to around 15,000.

    If I recall correctly, originally the proposed new secondary school was to have been a community school. Since then the government has I believe said it will only finance community schools in exceptional circumstances, and the Mayor drops the idea of a community school.

    You welcome the locality funds (although only £10,000) as it gives councillors the power directly to decide how the money is spent. Earlier this year you welcomed the scheme where it was thought local people would have a say how large sums of money would be spent in their area. I think you were dissapointed to discover it was only £42,000.

    Doesn’t this indicate without control of the finances decisions are meaningless?

    Hopefully I’ve got the following correct…in 2006/07 £88m was raised through Council Tax. The council paid £25m as interest on loans and paid £40m-£50m in repayments, leaving around £10m-£20m to spend on local services.

    Almost 10 years ago the council borrowing was about £480m now I think it’s around £450m, but the council seems now to be paying external bodies to borrow on its behalf. The council already has long term PFI committments and more are on the way.
    For example the council for the next 32 years will £1.6m a year to a private company for Downham Leisure Centre.

  3. Andrew Brown says:

    The issue – as I see it – is that we have national services (education in particular) being managed at a local level. Government is under pressure not to allow too much variation – postcode lottery – so puts its local managers under pressure to deliver similar services.

    Raising more of local council spending from local tax payers has some attractions – if you raise it locally you are likely to be more accountable for spending it. It has also got some pretty major drawbacks – an even more exaggerated postcode lottery as poorer areas will find it more difficult to raise as much tax as richer ones.

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