Wednesday, 10 September 2014

What are local councillors for?


I attended the Annual General Meeting of a local wellbeing charity this evening and, while waiting for the meeting to start, I chatted to the man who runs the charity's community garden and allotment project. Partly the conversation was about potatoes and runner beans but he also asked one of those deceptively difficult to answer but simple questions - what does a councillor do?

Now I've an answer to this question - people elect us to represent them. And this means that we do two things. The first is to go down to City Hall and make decisions for the simple reason that not all of those people can get down to do their own voting. In our discussion of such glories as community leadership and 21st century councillors, we often forget this simple - and central - function of the people we elect. Making decisions about the things that local councils do is the core function of the councillor and the main purpose of representative democracy.

The second way in which we represent the people who elect us is by acting as a route through which those who elect us can ensure their voice is heard. Sometimes this is a communal voice campaigning for new things or preventing old things from going, and sometimes this is an individual voice that the councillor can amplify by making sure it is heard by the right person at the right time.

None of this is about leadership, change or indeed anything other than being something of a voice for the people who elect us. Which is why I was interested in Localopolis' idea that us local councillors should be mini-mayors:

Mini mayors are local councillors with added status and recognition.  More than simply the community’s representative on the Council they are the focus for community governance.  Many councillors already act informally as mini mayors – the idea here is that this role could be formalised and given legal weight. 

I rather like this idea - I would because, as a local councillor, it strokes my ego. I'm not just a little voice in a big council but a big voice in a little community. In making the proposal Localopolis observes that, under the 'leader and cabinet' model of governance most councils use, backbench councillors feel unfulfilled and are excluded from council-wide decision-making. So we seek out a new role for councillors - the mini-mayor.

The idea is that the councillor - ex-officio - sits on a number of sub-council bodies like parish or community councils, school governors and the management boards of any 'community initiatives'. This brings me back to my conversation with the chap who ran the allotment project - I made the observation that, dull though it sounds, my special skill as a councillor is 'going to meetings'. I said this partly in a moment of self-deprecation but also in a recognition that 'going to meetings' is not an end in itself, you have to do something as a result of going to the meetings!

If this idea of the mini-mayor is seen as a good one, it needs to get beyond going to meetings. As a local councillor I represent five villages, four of them parished, three secondary schools, six primary schools, two village societies, three community associations, two village halls and a host of other people and organisations making up Bingley Rural's 'Big Society'. However hard I try and even with the support of my two ward colleagues I can't make it to all the meetings. And even were I to achieve the nearly impossible and get to all the meetings, I would not be in a position to "join things up locally".

If mini-mayors are to work then councils have to delegate some of the decision-making from the eyries of City Hall to the local wards - to councillors. Because - back to the point of electing us - it is decision-making that is the main purpose of the councillor. Localopolis's idea only works if councillors have a formal decision-making role in the communities they represent. Without that authority, the 'mini-mayor' operates in a contested environment - parish councils with their own income and status, community groups jealously guarding their ideas and territory, and village halls or sports clubs promoting what they want to do. And this is before we remember that, in most places, the role of the councillor is also politically contested.

Much though I see merit in the mini-mayor idea, it is a reminder that the 2000 Local Government Act emasculated local councillors and created the situation where many ended up flapping around wondering what their role and purpose might be. Fortunately local councils - thanks to Mr Pickles - now have the option to create governance models that bring councillors back into decision-making. Councils can also - and should - devolve a great deal more to area committees and other structures below the main council administration.

In the end though - and to answer my question - local councillors are for 'representation'. What we need to do is give those councillors the support, access and capacity to actually do that vital job of kicking down the doors of bureaucrats to ensure that the people's voice echoes round those offices as loudly as possible.


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