Changing the culture for our councillors

By Ed Hammond | 07 June 2022

Once again, the elections have brought a new cohort of councillors into local authorities across the country. Some councils have experienced more than a 50% turnover in their elected members.

No council would want to be without new members – they bring new perspectives and experiences. But, in preparing to support and induct these new councillors, we shouldn’t forget the people who were councillors until a few weeks ago and now, suddenly, are not.

Is there something about the contemporary councillor experience that is pushing new members away from the sector? Evidence on this is sketchy and largely anecdotal, but it does seem there are a range of factors that make local government an unfriendly and inflexible place for people who want to represent local people.

First, there is juggling ‘being a councillor’ with caring and professional commitments. This has long been a challenge but has been thrown into starker relief by the pandemic. This is not just about meetings – the weight of expectation attached to the role makes it difficult to fit around normal life. We know some councillors spend long hours on their work, and post-pandemic, it does not feel as if that figure will reduce. It is telling that, in 2018, 45% of councillors were retired and only 26% in full or part-time employment.

Second, there is the issue of being the victim of harassment from the public, or fellow councillors. Within the council, monitoring officers have limited power to curtail poor behaviours. The quality and nature of disciplinary action within political groups can also vary significantly.

Abuse and harassment from the public is a different beast. Councillors continue to be personally threatened. The murder of David Amess MP in 2021 demonstrated the kind of risks elected politicians take in carrying out ordinary constituency work – councillors are usually of a lower profile, but this provides little sense of security.

Third, and perhaps the most difficult to define, there is something about the culture of local government which can still make it unwelcoming. This can be something as simple as the ability to regularly attend evening or daytime meetings at the town hall or civic centre. Councillors can feel disengaged quickly for other reasons – turned off by the performative politics of the council chamber or by committee business which seems difficult to understand and follow.

The way councils work increasingly privileges people with a conventionally professional background – councillors able to get to grips with the need to act ‘strategically’ and with the flexibility in terms of time to be able to engage productively. It feels relevant that 68% of councillors in 2018 held a degree or equivalent qualification compared to under 30% of the general adult population.

What can we, as councillors and officers, do to change this?

We should not be trying to mould new councillors into a shape that suits our own convenience. We should be changing our institutions – political parties and councils – to ensure they are more welcoming and more supportive of councillors with a wider range of experiences and characteristics.

There is a natural focus on gender balance (63% of councillors in 2018 were male) and age (the average age of councillors in 2018 was 59).

However, disabled councillors and those with chronic health conditions which limit their ability to engage, and, outside major cities, councillors from ethnic minorities, are often conspicuous by their absence.

What we should also be do is listen. With an election cycle just complete there is an ideal opportunity for officers to engage with two particular cohorts of councillors – those who have just stood down who will have useful experiences for councils as they put in place new member development strategies, and those who have just been elected, whose expectations need to be fully understood at the outset and where possible, acted upon.

Ed Hammond is deputy chief executive at the Centre for Governance and Scrutiny


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