On Being a Councillor

I seem to have had quite a few comments and discussions recently about politicians and planners, and several people have asked me why I became a politician, what it was like on planning committee and what I think of politicians now. So I thought I’d have a go at writing a blog about it!

I was a Bristol City Councillor between 1994 and 2002, representing first Southville Ward and then Knowle Ward, at a time when Labour controlled the council (with a pretty big majority when I first got elected). It was also a time of constant change, as after my first year we transitioned to being a Unitary Council, with the abolition of Avon County Council, operating with the same tight city boundaries as before, but taking on massive new functions including Education and Social Services, with massive new budgets. We also took a decision to remove the post of Chief Executive and restructured the council on at least 3 occasions during my 8 years as a councillor. Just to add to all that, the government also inflicted upon us the Cabinet/Scrutiny system, moving away from a traditional committee system that had operated in local government for many years, to one which no one was familiar with and which many resisted. So a lot was packed into my 8 years, a lot of change and even more learning.

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Why we need Planning “Champions”

DSCN0268In the July edition of The Planner I wrote an opinion piece on why we need more planning champions, both locally and nationally (see article below). Part of the purpose of the comment piece was a response to the local election results, but actually when writing it I came to the view that these results were unlikely to have a major impact on planning  locally, at least not in the short term. What seemed more interesting as an issue was how local politicians deal with planning and what they know about planning before they are elected.

This is important because even in this world of cabinet and scrutiny, or mayoral systems, we still have planning committees where real decisions are taken by back bench councillors. Existing and newly elected councillors will undoubtedly pick up planning casework and some will sit on these planning committees, but how do we prepare them for this quasi-judicial role? There is a real need for ongoing training for councillors on the workings of the planning system, and I say ongoing quite deliberately, as things are always changing in the planning world. Even once a local plan is approved there is still plenty to be aware of as a councillor.

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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!