Friday, 11 January 2013

Councillors as agents of the state


The Communities and Local Government Select Committee has been worrying at the role of Councillors. And they have published a report that says Councillors' role is "on the frontline". It seems that this doesn't mean they're shipping us to Afghanistan apparently but rather that we should be out of those fusty dusty council meetings.

Here's Clive Betts MP, the committee chairman:

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."

Now let me explain something here. As a councillor I am elected with the specific and express purpose of representing - in my case - the residents of Bingley Rural in the decisions that the council makes. That really is my role - it's why we have councillors since all 13,000 of those residents can't squeeze into City Hall to make the decision.

What Mr Betts and his committee appear to want us to do is something entirely different. Partly this is because the last Labour government (anticipating an age of elected mayors that never happened) abolished the committee system that had served local government pretty well for a 100 years or so. Instead we are told we're now "community leaders" - in reality little more than agents of the state and deliverers of bacon to the masses on behalf of benevolent state authorities.

For most councillors their main role - being a representative - is exercised only two or three times a year. When we elect a leader (although technically this is only done once every four years now), when we set the level of council tax and when we make the two or three decisions that statute has reserved to full council. Instead we are treated as some kind of community development worker - urged to make sure that all the state's goodies (those "opportunities" Mr Betts refers to) are available to our residents.

From being involved in debating and deciding on major issues - how must to spend on housing, the organisation and operation of social services and the building of public facilities - we have descended into pettifogging details. Worse still we are sucked into the little bans and controls that officers like to introduce - passive aggressive "no doorstop selling" campaigns, raising awareness of obesity or supporting campaigns against drinking or smoking.

In the end we scuttle round a few dozen active people in our wards and work with all sorts of "agencies" (when these can be bothered to involve us) with the main aim of delivering the goodies to the ward or accusing the other side of taking all those goodies for their wards. And we do a pretty good job of this in the main despite the system making it ever more difficult for someone with an actual job to fulfil the role.

...but it isn't what councillors are for, it isn't the point or purpose of representative democracy. And if the future is just about community development we need to ask why we need so many councillors. Or whether forcing us into being agents for state agencies simply undermines our democracy.



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