Giving councillors a voice

By Colin Copus and Rachel Wall | 06 November 2017

Earlier this year De Montfort University’s Local Governance Research Unit and The MJ published the results of a year-long commission exploring the work of councillors across England. The final report of the councillor commission - The Voice of the Councillor – confirmed that, now more than ever, we need to support our councillors in the work they undertake in representing and governing their communities and in engaging with the public.

With a greater focus on place-based working being the key to unlocking many of the big issues councils and their partners are facing, the role of the councillor as a catalyst for change within communities is becoming increasingly important.

We are still very much getting our local democracy on the cheap and even among many councillors, there is reluctance to spend public money on ensuring they have the support and resources they need. Such reluctance, in times of austerity, may appear very reasonable and play well in the press. But, the councillor commission findings tell us that it is time for local government to be bolder and braver in standing up for, and supporting, its councillors. Three things are needed.

First, councils must recognise the legitimate role all councillors have in governing their communities and provide the resources and support for them to carry out that task. Support for councillors must not be confined to the leader and cabinet alone, but available to all members. All councillors have a vital role to play in enabling, co-ordinating and bringing communities together around the issues that matter most to people.

Second, Westminster and Whitehall must see and treat councillors as a vital part of the governing fabric of the country, rather than dismiss the office as some quaint hang-over from the Victorian experiments with democratising the localities. Councillors are elected officials; they have a legitimacy and an immediacy to communities that MPs and MEPs can only dream of. Devolution, therefore, must recognise the democratic mandate of the localities and see governing power, not just more functions and tasks, passed to our councillors.

Third, the commission’s research revealed that councillors are spending more time interacting in complex, multi-layered networks of public and private agencies whose goals differ from the elected council, whose territorial area may be greater than the council and whose service and policy focus is on a single or two service areas. There are myriad organisations that spend public money, develop public policy and impact the wellbeing of communities, but all lack the unique feature of our councillors: an electoral mandate.

Local government must organise itself to support its councillors in their interactions with external agencies and in shaping the local environment as it is through negotiations, compromises and influencing others that local government can govern and achieve the best results for the communities they serve.

To ensure that the ‘voice of the councillor’ is heard, a unique partnership has been formed by De Montfort University, The MJ, the Association of Democratic Service Officers, Kirklees MBC, Leicester City Council and Test Valley BC. Together, we have organised three #cllrcommission events to explore the commission’s findings and provide opportunities to share existing good practice with councillors, officers, local communities and all those passionate about the state of local democracy.

Those events will also plan how to bring about the changes suggested by the commission and identify other ways of strengthening the office of councillor and local democracy more generally.

The events will include ideas from the Kirklees Democracy Commission’s report. The citizen focussed research showed that the councillor role is becoming increasingly complex and, although citizens value councillors, they often do not understand enough about what councillors do or who they are. Many practical ideas for working with (and supporting) our councillors have emerged from the Democracy Commission’s work.

Hearing the Voice of the Councillor events will take place in Andover, Hampshire on 21 November, Leicester City Council on 8 December and Kirklees MBC on 13 February 2018.

These are the first of three events that will take ‘The Voice of the Councillor’ across the country to stimulate debate and push for the changes that are needed to strengthen local democracy and local government, give fresh impetus to a faltering devolution agenda, ensure our councillors have the tools needed and to avoid losing good councillors to parliament or who just step aside because of the frustrations of the job.

The events will also explore how we can encourage the many community champions that exist to become councillors in the future and to make sure that those councillors who keep coming back for more – continue to do so.

Professor Colin Copus is Professor of Local Politics and Director of the Local Governance Research Unit and Rachel Wall is a PhD Student in the unit and was the researcher to the councillor commission

The full councillor commission report, an executive summary and a separate list of our recommendations can be found here

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