Cinderella goes to the ball

Something interesting is happening in politics. After years of being the ‘cinderella’ of political parties local councillors are now the centre of serious study. The interim report by Sir Michael Lyons (National prosperity, local choice and civic engagement) is a thoughtful and well evidenced case for local choice and the critical role of local councils in ‘place shaping’ However it is what the report says about the role of local councillors that is most striking for advocates of local democracy.

If we are honest we know that the profile of local councillors is not that great. It sometimes seems that we suffer from a collective crisis of confidence about the roles and responsibilities of councillors. What Sir Michael and his team have done is to avoid the well worn route of job descriptions and other well meaning attempts to shoe-horn managerial concepts into the political environment. Instead they have focused much more about the practical skills and knowledge that councillors and especially front line councillors need. Limited space cannot do justice to their analysis (the full report is available at www.lyonsinquiry.org) In brief they see four major roles for councillors as ‘engagers’ who can articulate local preferences and priorities; ‘community advocates’ who can speak up for local communities; ‘mediators’ who can understand and seek to reconcile different and conflicting views and interests and finally ‘political entrepreneurs’ who can engage local communities in civic life and promote community action to solve problems and provide local innovation.

I am particularly pleased with the last role as I first suggested it twelve months ago in a report for the Joseph Rowntree Foundation on how political parties can recruit their council candidates from a wider cross-section of society. Whilst there may be individual views on the particular roles what they do allow is for political parties and local councils to sell the role of local councillor to a much wider audience. This is language and roles that people understand. Just as the promotion of ‘social entrepreneurs’ transformed the role and profile of the voluntary sector the use of positive language and identification of role models amongst existing councillors can transform local democracy. Whisper it softly but it also means that councils will have to provide more practical support to hard working councillors beyond member development sessions.

However there are challenges as well as opportunities in this brave new world. If can articulate more clearly to the electorate what councillors should be doing there then we should be prepared for some exposure of councillors who have a very different and much more limited view of their role. The new administration in Lambeth have an interesting take on this dilemma. As part of a wider review of councillor roles and allowances they will be asking all councillors to provide a monthly report on their work which will be made available on the council web-site. Their electorate will have a chance to assess the respective work and contribution of councillors over their four year term.

Greater power, more support but ultimately greater accountability to the local electorate. Could be something in that for the House of Commons too!