How to bring on the best

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As the Councillors Commission, set up to find ways of attracting younger and more diverse members, holds its first full meeting, Paul Wheeler writes an open letter to its chair, Dame Jane Roberts.

Dear Jane

I hope you are looking forward to your new and demanding role. You certainly have assembled an impressive group to work on the commission. As someone who combined the role of parent and a demanding job with the leadership of a major council, you certainly have first-hand knowledge of the pressures of the councillor role.

As your commission starts its work, I hope you won’t mind if I offer some thoughts based on 30 years’ involvement in politics and local government. One issue is around the thorny question of councillors’ allowances. Ask many existing councillors and they will say – give us a living wage, and set it nationally. Problem solved.

Well, you can see their point, but the evidence from Scotland and Wales is that the introduction of a national scale hasn’t exactly brought forward a flood of previously under-represented groups. Plus there is the difficult question that one person’s living wage is another’s starvation ration/gross over-payment.

There clearly is a need to ensure the councillor role is not restricted to the traditional 3Rs of the rich, retired and redundant, but at the same time, we may have to be creative in resolving some of the recruitment issues. I have a suspicion for many councillors, the question of available time is just as critical as remuneration, especially for those who don’t want to be full-time councillors.

Too many councils view member time as a limitless commodity. Let’s start regarding it as a precious and strategic asset which needs to be properly supported for maximum impact.

While your brief is, quite rightly, restricted, I do sometimes wonder if part of the current barriers are related to our present council structures. Put bluntly, in comparison with the rest of Europe, we have too many elected councillors on too few democratic institutions.

What are sometimes dismissively regarded as ‘town councils’ are the bedrock of local democracy elsewhere. Perhaps, as part of the current debate on new unitary councils, we might see an imaginative proposal that promotes elected office at all levels.

A really brave suggestion might even propose more councillors overall but a smaller number on the new unitary councils, with much higher levels of remuneration. One of the dangers is that the debate is seen as an internal one for local government.

However, what is critical is the wider perception of the councillor role.

If we are really serious about encouraging councillors of working age we have to start with employers. We have a long way to go even to convince most of them that being a councillor is part of wider public service.

Business in the Community encourages major companies to put 1% of available staff time back as part of their wider social responsibility. Volunteering as a school governor counts, serving as a councillor doesn’t. Partly, we have ourselves to blame. The Industry and Parliament Trust exists to promote the benefit of those with business experience becoming MPs. It is one of a host of organisations and events to profile and promote parliament and the role of MPs.

We need to have a range of organisations which can do the same for the local councillor role, and explain the contribution elected office can make to strong and prosperous communities. If we want a good role model, just look at how effective SOLACE is in promoting the contribution of senior managers in local government.

There is a specific need to encourage active citizens of working age to serve as councillors. And there is a real opportunity for the LGA to work with a range of public-spirited employers.

Since 95% of councillors are representatives of the three main parties, they are absolutely critical to the future wellbeing of local democracy. They are vital if we are to bring on new groups of citizens to serve as councillors and build the community solidarity and cohesion that is integral to healthy local politics.

But it is not just their job to support the councillor role, especially when elected. We need a huge change in attitude among councils – and especially their senior managers – and national agencies.

Effective member support and development opportunities are still the ‘Cinderella service’ in the vast majority of councils. When we consider that as a sector, we are spending more than £100m on leadership development, it might be an interesting line of inquiry to ask how much of that is devoted to profiling and supporting the councillor role.

Good luck. It’s a complex and challenging role, but if anyone can do it, you can.

Yours
Paul Wheeler