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Much of the emphasis of recent government policy has been predicated on the “active citizen” eager to assist in the delivery of local public services and assume the leadership of their communities. NHS foundation trusts, for example, assume a local base of informed, energetic activists who will come forward to help govern their local hospital.

Yet the evidence indicates that the active citizen is under threat – and civic volunteers under 30 almost an endangered species. Over the last 20 years, social institutions that have nurtured and developed active citizens, such as civic societies, churches and trades unions, have been weakened.

The reasons for this fall-off in community involvement are debatable. Certainly, our culture of long working hours is a primary reason, and the lack of consistent support and profile for public services is another.

For political parties, which provide over 90 per cent of local councillors, there is an added problem. If local democracy is to be robust and capable of defending itself from central challenge, then it needs to be representative of the communities it represents. Yet the latest survey indicates the average councillor is white, male, 57, middle class and retired.

We cannot afford the myth of the “born leader” drawn from the narrow confines of the comfortably-off and retired as the only form of local leadership. It is a waste of talent when we desperately need to provide effective local leadership to improve services.

The best council groups are already happy to work with a wider group of organisations, such as the Improvement and Development Agency, to develop the potential of all their councillors. The Office of the Deputy Prime Minister is preparing to publish papers on governance and local leadership. We should use these to expand the debate on what steps we are prepared to take to widen and improve local leadership.

While we have to acknowledge that political parties are voluntary organisations, the wider public can rightly ask that they review their selection and the recruitment processes. Too often at a local level they appear to be detached from the community.

And yet it need not be like that. There are encouraging examples of local political parties acting as “talent scouts” and actively recruiting local talent of all ages. These include the Liberal Democrats in Islington, north London, the Labour party in Blackburn and the Conservatives in Reigate.

We have to improve the profile of local councillors. It is no accident that the Territorial Army appears at summer fairs and produces regular features in local newspapers profiling local people as TA volunteers. We also need a debate with business to sell the value of political skills and move the perception of service as a councillor from being a “career destroyer” to a “career developer”.

The Industry and Parliament Trust promotes the idea that parliament benefits when those with business experience become MPs. We need to apply the same logic to council leaders and offer the opportunity for secondments and combined political and business careers. Perhaps we need a Public Service Act that will encourage – possibly through tax credits – businesses to incite staff to take up public service.

If we can improve the supply then it will be easier to spur political parties to modernise their selection processes to accommodate this new intake. The role of local councillor is a complex one and does involve mak ing hard choices, rather than being just a local advocate. However, the limited membership base of political parties means they must be much more willing to recruit more widely to involve the civic minded.

Some local parties already select from outside their membership base. We should provide parties with the opportunity to become talent scouts for future local leaders. In the debate on state funding for political parties, why can’t we reward local parties that are willing to recruit and develop a more diverse range of councillors?

Councils work best when they ombine political leadership with effective management. We have recognised the need to invest in the executive management capacity of our councils through schemes such as the National Graduate Development Scheme and Advanced Leadership Programme. If we want effective local democracy and councils, we should be willing also to invest in our future local political leadership.

This article first appeared in The Guardian, 26th January 2004

Paul Wheeler
26th January 2005