Features: December 19th, 2008

By Maureen Alderson

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

Devolving power from Whitehall to town halls and then to communities is seen as the route to revitalizing democracy. Within this empowerment process, councillors play a vital role because they represent local people and are concerned about local issues. But they can only play their full part if they are empowered to respond to the changes sweeping across local landscapes. The author looks at how empowerment is developing and what more is needed.

The local elections in England and Wales in May gave rise to a new wave of councillors. Imagine what it is like to be a new councillor. Within five days of being elected, a councillor is sworn in and greeted with forms to complete, an overwhelming amount of information to digest—from the local constitution to various strategies and plans—and they are tasked with having to quickly understand how the organization works and the responsibilities of each individual officer. Decision-making begins from day one and waits for no-one as constituents want swift action on the issues raised during the election.
Without strong support on how the systems works, and without better understanding from the public about the role and its limitations, councillors will not feel empowered in their role. A councillor’s lack of empowerment can undermine the extent to which he or she can make an effective difference to the local area. Support and information are the lifelines for councillors and local government needs to provide this.

Many local authorities are taking up this challenge and reaping the benefits of having an engaged councillor acting as a conduit between the council and the community.

Who is empowered?

When we talk about empowerment in local government, we need to consider empowering not just communities, but also local councillors. Too often, the focus is on participation with little or no consideration given to the critical role played by the local elected representative—the councillor. Local councillors are the key to empowering local people.

We need to ensure that now and in the future councillors are seen as the cornerstone of local democracy and that local decisions about services are made by those who represent the community—councillors—in dialogue with their community. It is also essential that the public, especially young people, understand the role of a councillor and see it as something to aspire to—as it offers career possibilities, the opportunity to contribute to the community and develops life skills. This is important in order to develop a new generation of councillors and inspire people to see local government as an effective, empowered and empowering institution which improves the local area.

Supporting councillors

How can we ensure that local councillors exercise their community leadership role and be the conduit between the community and the council?

While it is important to recognize that all councils operate slightly differently as their local areas have different needs, there are some actions that councils can take in support of members and provide information to those who may be thinking about becoming candidates.

Councillors are being increasingly asked to do more as their role expands into all areas of policy through overview and scrutiny, area committees, neighbourhood working and increasing work linked to partnerships. Without strong support and information, the extent to which councillors can meet their expanding role effectively is jeopardized.

The timely report of Dame Jane Roberts’ Councillors Commission (Representing the Future, published by the Department of Communities and Local Government on 10 December 2007, made significant recommendations advocating actions that fall into four areas:

• Making councillors central to local democracy.

• Making the role of councillor more widely known and better appreciated.

• Making it easier for everyone with the potential regardless of background, to come forward
and stand for election.

• Making it easier for busy people to be councillors.

Local people want their decisions to be made by people from the area and they trust local politicians more than officers and more than national politicians. So the challenge is to develop the role by giving councillors sufficient powers and support to operate effectively in a way which reflects public expectations of the role.

A manifesto

The Local Government Information Unit has recently published Supporting Councillors: A Manifesto for Councils which builds on the recommendations of the Roberts Commission and sets out 12 actions, many of which are already within the power of local councils to enact now. All of these actions relate to supporting and promoting the role of councillors and informing the public about the nature and remit of the role. Communities need to be made aware of the limits within which councillors are working so that they have realistic expectations of their elected representatives and their local council.

The Manifesto calls for councils to:

• Develop and implement a charter containing minimum standards of support to help local councillors carry out their councillor responsibilities effectively.

• Develop with councillors a clear role definition which sets out the main functions and duties and the typical demands of being a councillor. The role definition should also help to explain the councillor’s role to the public.

• Provide training after elections so that members are able to become excellent councillors with a good understanding of their role and responsibilities.

• Review arrangements for working with councillors so that councils adopt modern ways of working, including making the best use of technology.

The Manifesto has already received a great deal of support from councils, as well as interest from central government as it works on its response to the Roberts Commission report and recommendations. In fact, over a third of councils have expressed support, and more continue to sign up. This is a real opportunity to demonstrate the importance of the representative to local democracy and is indicative of the recognition that more support is required for those who become councillors.

A balance of empowerment

As the empowerment agenda moves forward, government needs to balance citizen participation and the role of councillors. The concordat between central and local government is a step in the right direction. It acknowledges the principle of subsidiarity from the European charter of self-governance. This is important as it argues for decisions to be made at the lowest appropriate level. The role of the local council here should not be bypassed. As councillors are the democratically elected representatives of the area, they are locally accountable. As government considers the issue of local accountability, particularly in developing the empowerment white paper, the importance of councillors and the democratic structures currently in place must be recognized and utilized. They have the opportunity to strengthen the powers of councillors in holding other local public services—be they health, police or other public service providers—to account. By providing councillors with effective tools to do this, such as expanding powers of overview and scrutiny, central government can go a long way to empowering the local area by empowering councillors. The public can then see that local councillors are the first point of contact for the local area, and that they have an impact on the decisions made across public services. The legitimacy is in their status as the democratically elected representatives.

Cornerstones of communities

Councillors make decisions in dialogue with their communities to improve the local area. If given the necessary support, information and recognition by councils for their role in ensuring local accountability by all parts of government, councillors can be seen as the cornerstone of local community leadership and can therefore effectively carry out their expanding role. The time has come to recognize the importance of the role of the councillor, now and for the future.
The Department for Communities’ empowerment white paper provides a response to the councillors commission. The test will be to see if central government, as it moves to empower communities, will also deliver on the empowerment of councillors.

Maureen Alderson is with the Centre for Local Democracy.