Features: December 5th, 2008

By Kris Hibbert

An investigation into the barriers that limit the flow of people who serve as councillors found that politicians are generally not well respected, political parties are viewed with suspicion and councillors seen as out of touch. The Councillors Commission has come up with proposals to put this right. The author outlines the main proposals of the Commission and describes the different approaches that are being used to put them into action.

Dame Jane Roberts is a passionate advocate for being a local councillor. Her evangelical zeal made her the obvious choice to chair the Councillors Commission which reported in December 2007. The Commission was charged with making recommendations on the incentives and barriers ‘to suitably able, qualified and representative people to be candidates to serve as councillors’. One of its core principles was that it should be less daunting to become, and later to stop being, a local councillor, and there should be better support while serving. The Commission’s report has 61 recommendations.

Public perception

Dame Jane’s research throughout the country with her fellow commissioners engaging with people outside local government brought her into contact with some uncomfortable observations: politicians are generally not well respected, political parties are viewed with suspicion and, despite councillors thinking they keep their constituents well informed, they are seen as out of touch. There is dissonance and disengagement which the recommendations of the Councillors Commission aim to put right.

Duty to promote councillors’ work

Broadening of the pool for councillors was thought too important to be left to politicians, and the Commission has recommended that a new duty be established for local authorities ‘to facilitate local democratic engagement by…proactively promoting the role of councillors and the activities of elected members’.

From an officer perspective, it will be useful to have clarity to make sure that a positive effort is made to engage local people. Many council websites bury details of their councillors and few have information on their roles and how they get elected. If you don’t know what a councillor does, how can you think about becoming one?

The media also has a part to play in promoting local democracy. The Commission reminded public service broadcasters to ‘fulfill’ their remit to facilitate civic understanding’ by giving councillors air time on radio and television.

The Commission is particularly keen on engaging young people in democracy. Young mayors could be the way forward. In London there are now four—all elected with larger turnouts than for local council elections.

Support and development

The Commission recognized that there is much that can be done to support and develop councillors to equip them for leadership, and as someone who has spent a lot of time promoting and supporting member development I would agree with that. It proposed a charter to set out basic standards of support that councillors can expect. However, all regions now have a member development charter accredited by the Improvement and Development Agency (Idea) which could be extended instead of setting up something new.

Working with employers to improve their views of their own staff as councillors is a challenge. Prospective or serving councillors are not often seen as being positive assets by employers despite the range of skills and expertise they acquire in their various roles. The Commission wants local authorities to step up their engagement with employers to raise awareness of the advantages of employing councillors.

Variety of representation essential

The Commission’s proposal for a cut-off point of four terms provoked much criticism and it is unlikely that this will become statutory. However, hoping for a seat on some London councils can be a little like being on the waiting list for housing! Breadth of representation is also an issue: the sole BME male leader has just replaced the only woman council leader in London. Restricting term lengths of itself will not improve the range of councillors, so London councils is launching ‘Project 2010’ to encourage more people to consider standing in the 2010 London elections.

Life after politics

Standing down from politics is not always a positive decision. Sometimes it is the choice of the electorate. One of the commission’s recommendations is to have ‘parachute’ payments for full-time members unseated at an election. There is a lack of parity between councillors’ exits from public life with the generous arrangements provided to MPs. Unfortunately this proposal has already been discounted by government.

It could be you!

Research shows that many people become councillors because someone asked them. So the question is ‘have you thought about it?’ PM PA members must have a lot to offer their local communities—unless of course, like me, they have the ready excuse they are politically restricted! You can’t all be white, male and over 55 can you? and, if you are already a councillor or an officer, why not take up the challenge and put the Commission’s recommendations into action as a volunteer council.

Kris Hibbert is principal member development manager of London Councils.

This article was first published in Public Management and Policy and is reproduced by permission of the Association. http://www.cipfa.org.uk/pmpa/index.cfm