*For those who have been following the debate about White Paper and the Lyons Review of Local Government neighbourhood governance is the flavour of the month. However we have to be very clear about the very low base we are starting from. A recent survey by MORI for Birmingham showed that over half of the respondents had no idea what councillors actually did! *
Recently I undertook some research into improving the role of councillors as community leaders and went to South Somerset. It was impressive to see one of the exemplars of neighbourhood governance in action. In particular the combination of effective area working from a district council in combination with town and parish councillors made for effective and genuinely representative local democracy. It confirmed a long standing opinion that we have to broaden the base of those who stand for elected office in local government. By including the 80,000 town and parish councillors along with existing 20,000 councillors from first and second tier authorities we have the potential for a strong 100,000 plus advocacy group for local democracy and an extension of powers and funding to a local level.
We need to be passionate about the value of elections at a local level. Elections provide the scope for approval and judgement by the relevant group of peers and offer clearly defined visibility, roles and powers for the elected organisations. Locally elected people have a desire for local value for local money and ‘sweating the available resources’ that cannot be matched by any quango or appointed official
So the first task is to promote and define the role of elected members more effectively but (and it’s a big but for some councillors) we have to include ALL elected members and also extend the opportunities for elected office. For all those in favour of local democracy we have to demand that the opportunities for elected office are fully promoted as part of any proposed change to local government. If for no other reason we have to raise the awareness and expectations of the wider public about what good councillors can actually do!
Clearly there are challenges here. At a national level it is important that the National Association of Local Councils and the Local Government Association work collectively to promote the value of local democracy and elected office. Just as we have a highly successful Reputations Project for Local Councils we need an equivalent ‘Political Reputations’ project. A critical part of this will be to reclaim the language around local politics. I recently surprised a conference of independent councillors by referring to them as politicians. They thought they weren’t but anyone who wins an election is a politician (and a successful one at that!)
The next few months represent a real opportunity to advance the case for local democracy as the most effective form of governance. It also allows local democracy to make a case in the debate on state funding of political organisations. Let’s take both and transform our local politics