Is number up for old timers?

The Councillors’ Commission set out to address problems with the imbalance of elderly, male and white members occupying council seats. Paul Wheeler asks how it has fared.

Well let’s be clear what the Councillors’ Commission is not. It’s not about doughnuts for voting, large payoffs for councillors, or any other of this week’s tabloid headlines. They were all the intended consequences of national politicians’ desire to use local politics as part of their on-going general election campaign – and an object lesson in why we need to detach local and national political agendas.

Rather, the commission’s report was the culmination of several related campaigns and reports to make the case for devolution of powers and funding to local councils, and attract talented and ambitious people to the local councillor role.

The report makes sensible and practical suggestions. The removal of the current Widdicombe restrictions’ on public office and abolition of the ludicrous restrictions imposed on promoting the councillor role in the Code of recommended practice on local government publicity are long overdue and welcome.

The move to four-yearly elections on a regional basis at different times from general elections is inspired, and helps with the necessary detachment of local and national politics. Giving local standards committees the power to remove or reduce allowances on the basis of performance is also intriguing and removes the ‘elected in Maidstone, now living in Miami’ councillor role.

The report is also strong on its recommendations in supporting the councillor role, with a strong direction for local councils to develop best practice standards on supporting the councillor role and linking them to Investors in People designation. By allowing councillor service to be linked to pensionable service, and recommending the more extensive use of telephone and video conferencing, the report increases the opportunities for those of working age to serve as councillors.

Other recommendations seem a bit surreal. I simply don’t understand the logic of removing the opportunity for by-elections. It wasn’t part of the commission’s brief to encourage voting.

However, if it was then far better to use the analogy of shareholder votes and offer discounts to council services – leisure centres spring to mind, as part of a wider public health initiative – for those who participate in the ‘company AGM’. Where I think the report has a long way to go is in its attitude to those vested interests which have no real desire to see any increase in the power and profile of local councillors.

A whole range of professional and managerial interests in the public sector have grown comfortable – and prosperous – responding to a centralised public services agenda. A growing salaried voluntary and campaign sector greatly prefer dealing with the Westminster Village than take the trouble to develop local organisations. Nevertheless, right up there at the top is the prevailing attitude in political parties and most national politicians. It is naive to expect these organisations to give up their
addiction to centralised power and resources – have we heard any more about regional select committees? – willingly.

For all of us who genuinely care about local democracy, the report is a welcome one. Let’s hope it is considered by the political groups at the LGA, and that there is a mature response by the political parties for their 2008 spring conferences.

Clearly, there will be some robust debate. We may not want term limits for councillors – and if so, then MPs too! – but there may be more of case for leaders and certainly powerful, directly-elected mayors. We need to create more powerful voices within political parties and the wider community to advocate for the local elected role. And central to this is the commission’s suggestion for a local democracy foundation supported by the LGA which can make a serious and longterm contribution to restoring the profile and power of local democracy.

As Winston Churchill might have said, it’s not the end, but it may be the beginning of the end for the over-centralised public state.