Headlines: December 11th, 2007

A new duty could be imposed on councils to publish clear information about how they work and to promote the role of councillors as part of a package of measures to strengthen democracy. Local Government leaders have responded by suggesting the best way to improve voter turn-out at local elections would be to give councils more power.

The new duty is at the heart of recommendations from the Councillors Commission. It says councils must support more active participation through such groups as tenant and residents’ associations and school governing bodies and to equip councillors to act as two-way links between local authorities and their communities.

The Commission’s report, “Representing the Future”, says, “Councillors carry into the council the views of the public and explain the decisions of the council to the public. As such, they must be given the tools to work effectively.” In all it sets out 61 proposals to transform councils and encourage participation in local elections. They include lowering the voting age to 16 and creating regional Local Government Days with all council seats in those areas being contested on the same day. It also stresses that the work of councillors has to be compatible with full-time employment while the role of council leaders should be compatible with part-time work. Dame Jane Roberts, who chairs the Commission, said,” Our democracy faces a major problem of disenchantment and disengagement, at times, even mutual incomprehension between citizen and the state.”

Responding to the report, the chairman of the Local Government Association, Sir Simon Milton, said, “More people would vote at council elections if local authorities had powers to raise and retain more money locally. It is vital, too, that councils communicate effectively with local people.”

He said a mature debate around ensuring councils were relevant, responsive and representative was much-needed and the LGA would be talking with councils before making a full response in the New Year. “The Commission has put forward a raft of innovative and challenging proposals and has taken an incredibly broad view of the sector,” he said and added, “The report recognises that the best way to reinvigorate democracy is to start right at the bottom. Councils and councillors are at the coal-face, working directly with local people every day to make their lives better.”