The changing role of local councillors – what next?

The debate about local democracy and local governance has led us in some quite interesting directions in recent years and has generated significant change in local council political structures – or has it? On the surface, with the initial change from the committee system of local government to cabinet and scrutiny and now the introduction of directly elected Mayors in some areas, things have definitely changed. We have a very different model of local governance now than we did in the 1990s and there’s a very different way of doing things, but how have local councillors adapted to this? In a blog post in November I talked with nostalgia about the old committee system and to a point lamented its loss. I also raised the point about the changing role of councillors over the last 15 years or so which I will elaborate on further here.

There is an excellent opportunity available to us a the moment, through the Local Government Boundary Commission Review, but sadly in Bristol (and probably elsewhere) there is little or no initial public discussion on this issue. It is held for now within the political confines of the party groups and officers of the council to decide what they want to do – which in this instance may well mean very little as it could be a bit like turkeys voting for christmas. I’ll explain that one in a minute.

But first, what is the Review about? Bristol has been included in the programme of review for 2014/15 which will seek to look at the size and boundaries of electoral wards and make changes in time for the whole council elections to be held in 2016. This enables the council to consider the number of councillors it needs and the number and size of wards across the city. Whist this doesn’t address the issue of how things work it does enable some structural change to reflect new governance arrangements.

Currently there is an obvious problem of disparity in terms of the size of wards in Bristol, with some ward councillors representing 3-4,000 more people than others. The biggest disparities are seen in central areas such as Cabot, Ashley and Lawrence Hill with 20-30% more electors than the average, and in areas such as Kingsweston, Henleaze, Henbury and Whitchurch Park with 10-15% fewer electors than the average. So the first job of any response to the Boundary Review is to try and redraw ward boundaries to even this out by creating similar sized wards in terms of electorate. That’s probably the easy bit actually and one that many councillors will agree on, but it’s only part of the issue. The questions then begin to arise about whether or not we need 35 wards with 2 councillors in each ward. Given the changes mentioned above, do we really need 70 backbench councillors to keep an eye on George and to represent local communities?

So the bigger question is given the changing role of councillors, from strategic, policy development, representation, decision making to more of a local representation and scrutiny role, do we really need to hang on to 2 per ward and 70 in total? Perhaps equally important is the question about whether or not this issue is even being considered seriously. Now you can see why that might be difficult, because the very people who need to consider the idea of reducing the number of councillors are the very people who would be out of a job if they decided that was the right thing to do. Hence my turkey’s voting for christmas comment above. However, to be fair, there has actually been some debate on this with some suggestion that perhaps you could lose a few councillors but I’ve yet to see any real discussion or evidence or a serious review and debate.

If you were to take a logical approach to this and accept two main premises which I believe to be true – first that the role of councillors has now changed quite significantly and second that local people want clarity about who represents them, after all that’s one of the reasons we have an elected mayor isn’t it, people wanted a clear leadership figure that was identifiable? Shouldn’t we translate that same principle to the very local level? How does having 2 councillors per ward, sometimes from different parties, help local people? Doesn’t it just add to the confusion? So how do we address this?

Well, my proposal for debate is to go for single member wards and establish “mini-mayors” for each ward that local people can relate to and identify as their representative and their first point of contact with the council. One councillor representing a smaller area, taking on that local leadership mantle seems far more sensible to me under this new system than sticking with a structure that was developed decades ago under a very different system. The debate about quite how many wards to go for will clearly create some tension and generate some debate, but 50 is a nice round number so why not start with that as an idea! We could have 50 local ward mayors in Bristol, with a clear remit as the representative for that area, involved in local partnerships and groups, on top of local issues and the key point of contact with the City Mayor. These changes can be achieved through the Boundary Review and I hope the Elections and Democracy Commission of the council will have some interesting discussion on these issues in 2014 – their last meeting in October sets out the process in detail – worth a look if you want to know more.

But seriously this is only a small part of the debate, it’s easy to focus on this because we can tinker with maps and boundaries, argue over the number of wards, councillors and where the lines can be drawn. However, whilst this is important it ignores the bigger issue of how the role of scrutiny can be developed to be a useful function which challenges the mayor and his decisions but also has a proactive role to play in the development of policy and direction. This was one of the critical challenges when I was a councillor at the time when the change to cabinet/scrutiny was first introduced. Politicians and officers alike struggled with what it meant, neither were particularly well equipped to respond to the change in a positive way, and in the couple of years I was involved it was a real struggle to define the boundaries of scrutiny in a way that worked. Part of the problem was it pitched scrutiny chairs in a role that could potentially be in conflict and disagreement with the cabinet member, and in my day we were in the same party, so you were pitched against your own colleagues in dialogue, challenge and debate. This led to real tensions which played out in different ways depending on the personalities involved. I also found that officers didn’t quite know how to deal with this new system either – how could they work with a cabinet member and a scrutiny commission chair? Their response was to divide the officer core, the cabinet member got to work with the Director, whilst as a scrutiny chair I was left to work with the next level down! Equally, some officers did a pretty good job of playing us off against one another, so when they didn’t get the answer they wanted from the Cabinet Member, they came to me as scrutiny chair to see if I would pick the issue up. Lots of room for conflict and confusion there then.

Now I’m not sure how much things have changed, as I was only involved for the first couple of years of the new system and haven’t had much if any involvement since. But from what I can see sitting on the outside, scrutiny is still less well developed than it should be and cabinet members/Mayors are still defensive about challenge. My belief – there is a real opportunity there to develop a system that engages all councillors in critical challenge, policy development and scrutiny in a way that is collaborative and effective but we need the right officers to support that and training and development of councillors to understand these new roles and ways of working.

As an aside, if you add into the equation the introduction of things like Local Enterprise Partnerships and their impact on the role and function of local councillors and local democracy then there are a whole host of other debates that need to be had to understand how the role of a local councilor has changed.

There’s so much more to say on this issue that I may have to blog again as I have merely touched the surface of what I wanted to say here!

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20 thoughts on “The changing role of local councillors – what next?

  1. I know you are not talking about the issue but if we are to achieve a ‘Greater Bristol’ this surely needs looking at sooner rather than later and be part of this process. It would make sense then to have a smaller number of wards from 2016 and then increase them later when the other boundary changes can come into being. I completely agree with the reduction of the number of members per ward to one.

    It may not be George that is the mayor from 2016 so they may have to keep an eye on someone else!

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  2. Robert, true but not sure this is even on the agenda at the moment. I am a great advocate of extending the Bristol boundary to take in all the urban area and beyond, but little political support to make this happen.

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  3. I can’t see why it is not on the agenda. Perhaps George needs to promote it more- or maybe he isn’t in favour. I haven’t talked to anyone who, given the choice would have the city boundary where it is. As you say the whole issue of boundary reform is a big issue which sadly doesn’t seem to get much debate. Bristol will see more change over the next ten years than we have seen for a long time with the anticipated increase in population by 11%+ so the ward boundaries and number of councillors will be very important. Again I know you weren’t talking about it in this blog but the imapact on the planning process will also be critacal as there are bound to be some important principles to achieving the number of homes required. This will also have an impact on the numbers in each ward.

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  4. On the other hand there are many who would oppose a Bristol takeover of others such as us in South Gloucestershire and welcomed the setting up of the unitary authorities that replaced the county of Avon. We believe that we run our own affairs very well and for the most part our residents are satisfied with us, albeit they will lessen as it will with all LAs as Government slashing continues unabated so that they can blame reducing services on local government. There is a flaw in the argument on here, in that it assumes that all authorities have a cabinet and doesn’t recognise that, like we have already done, there is an increasing number of authorities returning to a committee system and the extra democracy it affords to non executive members.

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    • Hi Roger, thanks for your comments and yes my points were specifically related to the situation in Bristol. I am aware that S.Glos went back to the committee system of governance and indeed my previous blog on the matter advocated that as something worth thinking about. I was certainly not, in this blog, talking about Bristol expanding into S.Glos, although I may have done elsewhere! The role of cllrs varies across the different systems but my main concern was how it works or could work in a Mayoral system and how scrutiny could be improved.

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      • Understood Tess, this is the first of your blogs that I have read (sorry) and felt the need to respond and accepting that it was about Bristol I think that it was worth putting into print. I refrained from giving any comments that I might have about the mayoral system or the LEP, maybe another time!

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      • No problem Roger, all comments welcome, honest! My next blog may well be about the LEP and their Strategic Economic Plan as well as the role LEPs have played in taking power/influence/responsibility/accountability away from local councillors.

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  5. My concern is about single councillor wards….which of course would be single party. At present in Ashley ward we have two Green Party councillors who are unwilling or unable to represent the Ward in a efficient way. One is a cabinet member who complains that his duties prohibit full engagement with the ward and the other is very young and new, and has no idea what he is doing. The residents of the ward are becoming increasingly frustrated with the councillors unwillingness to engage in informed debate about several issues and particularly Residents Parking, all discussion of which has been banned from their FB page which they say is their official link with ward residents. Also they are imposing a Green Party agenda which was never stated in their manifesto and not representing residents to the council or mayor. We have had to do it ourselves. So though I am certainly pro redrawing boundaries in places like Ashley, a hugely diverse ward, I am concerned that a one councillor per ward system would lose some political checks and balances.

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    • Many thanks for your comments. I understand your point, but in your case it clearly doesn’t work with 2 member wards either! I think the role of Neighbourhood Partnerships or the potential for Parish Councils or the like could potentially address the problem better than trying to ensure checks and balances are in place by having more councillors in a ward? The issues you raise are critical to how we engage communities in the democratic process and in taking control of local issues for themselves – a much bigger but important agenda.

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      • I agree that one member wards are the way to go, but the criticism Maita Robinson makes of the Ashley councillors “unwillingness to engage in informed debate” despite the fact that these two have produced a far more comprehensive response to the residents parking issue than any other ward in the city, shows the extent of the demands that fall on councillors and demonstrates why any reduction in their number would be a mistake.

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      • Chris, thanks for commenting. And yes I agree to a point, expectations of what councillors will and can do is high. An open discussion of their role, how others can engage and where the limits are might help this.

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  6. I think having two councillors here in Bishopsworth works pretty well. Although I don’t agree with their stance on many issues, they do work hard for their constituents on a wide range of problems. It also means that if one is say, Party Leader, and spends more time away from Ward issues, the other can help out. As for Neighbourhood Partnerships, too much influence for those not elected for my liking!

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    • Thanks Paul, I think smaller single member wards is an attractive proposition and with whole council elections in 2016 might make sense. In terms of neighbourhood partnerships then I think experience is varied but I do share some of your concerns about unelected bodies and their role.

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  7. Actually, the two Ashley councillors produced a report after huge pushing from residents…and the data was only complied on post it notes from meetings that were very poorly attended and with the aid of residents who produced quite a lot of data themselves. The good part was that they finally produced a report, however with very little analysis…and only because they were forced to do so by residents and the Neighbourhood partnership in time for the Cross Party working group on parking and transport which originally they said they weren’t going to do.

    You are not addressing the problem we have also of one councillor being a cabinet member and saying that he has very little time for ward business. I am sure I can find a quote for that. So how is that OK for one party Wards?

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    • Hi Maita, my point in raising this was to air the debate in public. I am no expert so don’t have all the answers. There are many other areas where single councillor wards are in operation so would be interesting to see how that works. I think overall it is up to individual cllrs to get the balance right – I was a committee chair as a councillor but never used it as an excuse not to do ward work as both are important. In terms of neighbourhood partnerships, then not sure I know the answer really, they could be more important but relies on those in power being willing to give up some of that power/resource to others. And then you do get into the debate about accountability as raised by Paul above.

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  8. Sorry, that should be one councillor wards above not one party wards. One more point…if councillors take no notice of Neighbourhood partnerships…what then?

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  9. Given that we are having all out elections then single Councillor wards make more sense to me. People are then clear who they are voting for. If a Councillor is in the Cabinet or whatever and can’t cope with ward issues, then Councillors from adjacent wards can take some of the load. Many issues will be cross boundary anyway, especially with smaller wards. Smaller wards would also make it easier for Councillors to get to know and get known by residents.

    As for numbers then the number of Neighbourhood Partnerships would also need to be considered, these should also have roughly equal numbers of residents. So say, start with the 4 parliamentary constituencies, then devide them into three partnership areas to give 12 partnerships covering the city. Then either five or six wards in every partnership area to give either 60 or 72 Councillors.

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    • Thanks for your comments Rob. I think the idea of smaller wards is interesting as you are right, it should enable councillors to know their area better. As for numbers, then I think it largely depends on what you see as the role of councillors now we have a mayoral system and is the one thing that most will disagree over.

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      • I believe that smaller single member wards would also have the effect of increasing diversity among councillors, as people may be more prepared to put themselves forward as representatives of their immediate neighbourhood.

        If the option of a cabinet member or party leader passing ward work on to a colleague did not exist, they would be obliged to take a greater interest themselves, and this would be more feasible in a smaller ward. For the rare occasions where a councillor just does not do the job, there should be a right of recall .

        Powers of Neighbourhood Partnerships need to be defined and they should be elected, like parish councils.

        I think all out elections in two member wards will lead to an increase in representation being shared between two parties, and the resulting squabbles will not be to the benefit of electors.

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  10. Pingback: Who really governs our cities? | TessaCoombes

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