Tuesday, 11 January 2011

So how many councillors do we actually need then?

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I ask this question in the context of Buckinghamshire County Council getting agreement to look at reducing the number of councillors on that authority:

Proposals by Buckinghamshire CC to reduce the number of councillors from 57 to 49 have been accepted in principle by the Local Government Boundary Commission for England.
The Commission today starts the next stage of its review by inviting proposals for new divisions based on a county council size of 49 members.

The council agreed in November to put forward the proposed structural changes, along with plans to revise the existing 10 two-member divisions and create a one-member-one-division format, to take effect from elections in 2013. 

In one respect this is a matter of little consequence since the good folk of Buckinghamshire aren’t going to notice that they’ve eight fewer councillors. However, there does need to be a debate about the numbers of councillors we elect and, just as importantly, those councillors’ roles. For some, the reduction is numbers represents a retrograde step (and not just those councillors who might miss out in the new structures). Here’s Dave Brigg from LearningPool:

...rather than just having one or two representatives per ward, let’s have a few more. Maybe as many as five or even ten for the bigger ones. These councillors split the work between them, taking on as much as they have time for and preferably the bits they are good at, or at least knowledgeable about.

They work together collaboratively – which would bring in the most culture change, especially where more than one political party is represented. Elections would certainly be very different affairs – but then I would argue that local elections are dominated by either local personality or national politics and policy – rather than specific local policy. In fact it might be that the party system loses its relevance in the local context.

Now like this idea but don’t see the solution as lying in having dozens more county or metropolitan district councillors. To explain let me tell you about the councillors in my ward. There are three of us grand and important district councillors representing the five villages in the hushed corridors of Bradford City Hall. But there are also 36 parish councillors representing different parts of the ward – men and women who do that community organising, worrying and caring about the locality. Councillors who lift a load of the burden from the district councillors allowing us to concentrate on the big issues, on the things that ordinary people helped by parish councillors haven’t been able to resolve. I think we need more of these folk and fewer of the grandiloquently pompous like me.

So to return to Buckinghamshire – in addition to the (current) 57 County Councillors, there are around 200 councillors serving on the four district councils making up the county and over 1000 councillors doing their bit on 171 town and parish councils. Perhaps as many as 1200 councillors serving Buckinghamshire’s 479,000 people – that’s roughly one councillors for every 400 folk. Not really a shortage of councillors it seems to me!

Our problem is that, in our cities these active local people simply aren’t there because there aren’t the parish, town and community councils for them to serve on. I have argued for urban parishes in the past – and in Bradford the Trident Community Council shows how they can work – only for political considerations or fear of competition to stop them. If we are to reduce the numbers of top tier councillors – and there’s a case for that – it can only be in the context of having the effective first tier local government we currently lack across most urban areas.

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1 comment:

Dave said...

Good post Simon and you make some good points. What you don't mention is that in a lot of cases the parish, district and county councillors are all the same people!

Perhaps my view is a rather utopian one, but it isn't about having more cllrs doing the same, but changing the role. It must be off putting to others and not just me that cllrs need to be able to know about planning, transport, health, local government finance, social services, the benefits system, etc etc.

I accept that we don't need more cllrs really, but better ones.

The sheer volume of work and time commitment mut put people off. Likewise the thought of spending hours listening to old men chunter on in town halls. So we need a better way of conducting council business too.

Without this, we won't get better cllrs, because the best people will be to busy to be able to take it all on.

I want more people doing less. Maybe the very local level is the right way to go, I don't really mind! Maybe we don't actually need 3 tiers of politicians as well as of government.