COMMONS

Councillors' future role is on the frontline, says Communities and Local Government Committee

10 January 2013

Councillors have a vital role to play if communities are to make the most of the opportunities offered by localism, and people from all walks of life should be encouraged to stand at local elections, say MPs on the Communities and Local Government Committee.

Launching the report of a recent inquiry that looked at the role of a modern councillor, Clive Betts MP, Chair of the Communities and Local Government Committee, said:

"Councillors are spending less time in council chambers and more time out and about in their communities. In future, they will increasingly need to be on the frontline, working with constituents and external organisations such as GPs, schools, police, local businesses and voluntary organisations to ensure their communities make the most of all the opportunities available to them."

Power and resources

The Committee also found that both local and central government had to devolve power and resources to support councillors having a more frontline role. Clive Betts said,

"We saw some excellent examples of councils empowering their councillors.* Other authorities should learn from these examples and consider how they can help their councillors play an active role in their communities. At the same time central Government must fully embrace the realisation of true localism by giving local authorities real ability to make decisions. Only then will running for local office start to carry the status that it should."

Diversity

Councillors will need to be seen to be fully representative of their communities: greater diversity will assist this. Clive Betts said: 

"It is vital that communities have councillors to whom they can relate. Political parties have a critical role to play in raising the proportion of women, younger people and black and minority ethnic people serving on their local council.  Some progress has been made, but change needs to happen more quickly.

Local authorities must also do more to promote democratic engagement, and to popularise the idea of becoming a councillor among under-represented and hard-to-reach groups – especially young people."

Barriers

The committee identifies three key practical barriers to people becoming and remaining councillors:   

  • Some people are put off by the time commitment involved; "As the role becomes increasingly demanding, councils should consider providing councillors with officer support to help them, for instance, to manage their casework," adds Clive Betts.  
  • Employers do not always take a positive view of staff becoming councillors and may not give them the support or time off required. "The Government should consider whether employers can be given specific incentives to support employees who are councillors," says Clive Betts. 
  • The levels of allowances paid to Councillors to cover their expenses is also identified as a deterrent to many people who might otherwise stand for election."Few councillors will vote themselves higher allowances even if there is a legitimate reason for doing so, because it provokes so much public controversy. Councils should be given the power to transfer decisions about allowances to independent local bodies.  It would be inconsistent for Parliament to deny councils the option it has chosen for the determination of its own pay and conditions," says Clive Betts.

Support and training

The inquiry raised questions about the support and training that councillors receive. 

"At a time when councillors are being called on to make increasingly difficult decisions about service reductions and budget priorities, it’s essential they get sufficient training and resources to carry out their role. This support should be regarded as a wise investment for the long-term benefit of the council taxpayer" adds Clive Betts.

In addition, the Committee calls on:

  • Political parties and local authority to put in measures to support councillor performance
  • Local authorities and political parties to offer "taster sessions" to people thinking about standing for election
  • The LGA to expand its Be a Councillor programme, under the established branding, to promote and share best practice between councils about ways to improve democratic engagement. 

*  Several innovative models for empowering councillors are mentioned in the report, such as devolving budgets, giving councillors front line duties and an ability to respond rapidly to local concerns. They include Sunderland City Council's community leadership programme which aimed at giving councillors a much stronger role in responding to local people's needs, turning "backbench" representatives into better "frontline" councillors. Hertfordshire County Council has developed a new "vision of localism", as part of which it was devolving budgets to councillors. Leeds City Council has established area boards and led the Commission on the Future of Local Government, which suggested councillors should be acting as "civic entrepreneurs".    

Image: iStockphoto 

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