Earlier this year De Montfort University’s Local Governance Research Unit and the Municipal Journal 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 local councillor as a catalyst for change within their communities is becoming evermore 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 councillors 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.
There are three things that 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 – the government and the civil service 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 about, rather than replicate. 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 and 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 one or two service areas. There are a myriad of organisations that spend public money, develop public policy and impact on the well being of communities but all of whom lack the unique feature of our councillors: an electoral mandate for what they do. Local government, across the country, must organise itself to support its councillors in these processes as it is through negotiations, compromises and interactions with external agencies that local government can govern and achieve the best results for the communities they serve.
The ‘Voice of the Councillor’ needs to be heard if the necessary changes, locally and nationally, to the powers, roles and responsibilities of councillors, are to be made. To ensure that voice is heard a unique partnership has been formed raise that voice to any who need to listen. De Montfort University, the Municipal Journal, the Association of Democratic Service Officers, Kirklees MBC, Leicester City Council and Test Valley Borough Council have organised three #cllrcommission events to explore with councillors, officers, local communities and all those passionate about the state of local democracy. Those events will explore the findings of the commission, provide an opportunity to share the good practice that is already underway and, vitally, plan how to bring about the changes suggested by the Commission and, identify other ways of strengthen the office of councillor and local democracy more generally.
Hearing the Voice of the Councillor events will take place in Andover, Hampshire on 21st November, Leicester City Council on 8th December and Kirklees Metropolitan Borough Council on 13th 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, to ensure that our councillors have the tools they need to get on with the job and to make sure we no longer lose good councillors to parliament or good councillors who just step aside because of the frustrations of the job, to explore how we can encourage the many community champions out there to become councillors in the future, and to make sure that those councillors who keep coming back for more – continue to do so.
The full report, an executive summary and a separate list of our recommendations can be found here: http://lgru.our.dmu.ac.uk/councillor-commission/reports/