Representing the Future

My thanks to Westmoster for bringing my attention to this report from the Councillors Commission. Dame Jane Roberts writing in the foreword to the report says that she and the commission she chaired had a number of principles that underpin the recommendations they have made:

  • Local authorities are key to promoting local democratic engagement;
  • Promoting a sense of efficacy – the feeling that an individual is able to influence the democratic process and the course of events – is key for better engagement;
  • Councillors are most effective as locally elected representatives when they have similar life experiences to those of their constituents;
  • Key to effective local representation is the relationship and the connections between councillors and their constituents;
  • It should be less daunting to become a councillor, better supported once elected as a councillor, and less daunting to stop being a councillor.

Some of these issues are ones that I’ve tried to reflect on before so I’m interested in what the report finds and where they suggest government go with their findings.

The report begins by setting out the changing nature of our local councillors:

The average age of councillors in England is 58.3 years, which is itself a significant increase since ten years ago when it was 55.4. Younger councillors are becoming rarer: in 1985, 26 per cent were under 45 and by last year this had declined to 13.5 per cent. A negligible 3.5 per cent of councillors are under 30, even though one third of the country’s total population is in this age group. Younger disabled councillors are notably absent from most council chambers. Although the proportion of female councillors has doubled over the past 40 years, the increases over the last decade have been very small and women still comprise only 29.3 per cent of the total even though women form the majority – 52 per cent – of the population.

Only 4.1 per cent of councillors come from ethnic minority backgrounds, less than half the 9.5 per cent of the adult population who describe themselves as belonging to ethnic minority groups. Councillors are less likely to be in employment than the population at large: they are overwhelmingly more likely to be retired or self-employed (see Chapter 2 of Haberis and Prendergrast (2007), for a more detailed analysis).

Tellingly, one of the most significant changes over the past decade has been a decline in the percentage of councillors with one or more caring responsibility, from 34.2 per cent in 1997 to only 24.2 per cent last year (IDeA/LGA/LGAR, 2007).

There are some 61 recommendations, which include:

  • making sure that elected office is compatible with part-time work (even for leaders should they want to keep their hand in);
  • using a range of communications tools (including blogs) to show the wider public a bit more what the role of being a councillor involves;
  • votes at 16;
  • incentivising participation in elections (which I suppose is at least different from compulsory voting which usually gets rolled out in these discussions);
  • introducing pilots of STV to elect councils;
  • limiting the number of times someone can be elected in a row (they suggest 5 terms is enough for a councillor, and 3 terms enough for a directly elected mayor);
  • providing political parties with money for projects aimed at improving the recruitment, training and selection of candidates;
  • have more leeway for councillors wanting to exercise their conscience in votes which affect ward issues;
  • provide training for officers so they appreciate the role of councillors; and
  • parachute payments for those members of the executive that are turfed out by the electorate.

I’m going to try to find time to read all 130 odd pages of the report (or at least skim it) in the next few days.  If anything pops out then I’ll be sure to let you know.

In the meantime here’s another Government owned Artwork:

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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