England & Wales, Northern Ireland, Scotland Democracy, devolution and governance

Lend your voice to capture the role of councillors in the UK

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Dr Thom Oliver is a Senior Lecturer in Politics at the University of the West of England, Bristol. Thom completed his PhD at INLOGOV in 2011. Along with Dr David Sweeting (Bristol), Prof Colin Copus (Gent), and Dr Bettina Petersohn (Cardiff), he is leading the Return of the Councillors study in England, Wales, Scotland, and Northern Ireland. Thom leads the Qualitative Election Study of Britain and is a co-investigator on the Bristol Civic Leadership Project.

Local councillors are the bedrock of democratic governance, wielding significant influence, in representing and shaping the people and fabric of communities across England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland.

Whilst the roots of local governance in the UK trace back centuries, the continuity in the face of numerous reforms and transformations has sat with those individuals who put themselves forward for the collective travails of modern-day democracy. Our villages, towns and cities, have been formed, shaped and reformed by the actions of individuals and groups who stepped forward to oversee the development of infrastructure, represent community interests and shape the trajectory of localities.

From the emergence of municipal councils in Victorian England, the historic championing of the rights of Welsh communities advocating devolution and greater democracy, the establishment of parishes in the 19th century in Scotland, which laid the groundwork for a more decentralised governance, or the vital role councillors in Northern Ireland have played in post-conflict reconstruction efforts and fostering community cohesion. Councillors have been the voice and the continuity against the contestation and challenges of modern-day governance.

In the contemporary landscape, the role of local councillors remains as crucial as ever, navigating complex challenges and opportunities in a rapidly changing society. From addressing housing shortages and promoting sustainable development to tackling inequality and enhancing public services, councillors serve as the voice of their constituents, advocating for policies that reflect local priorities and aspirations.

That is why the project team of academic experts from the University of the West of England Bristol, Ghent University, University of Bristol and Swansea University have come together to deliver a study which aims to shed light on the pivotal role of councillors in shaping local governance. The ambitious aim of the project is to capture the experiences and insights of local councillors from across the political spectrum, young and old, of all political parties and none, and across the geographic diversity of England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland.

Academic exploration of the role of the councillor has often depicted different framings of the councillor role, from delegate to trustee, independent to partisan, or community champion to community leader. On the other hand, debates around the collective experiences of councillors have discussed the notion of central versus local dynamics, shared services and creativity in addressing community needs in resource-limited contexts.

But these will always be a simplification, and only by broadening our exploration (this year, the study has been opened up to all local councillors in England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland), can we begin to capture the nuance and difference between urban and rural, between different tiers of governance and against different other organisational contexts. We might be able to capture both the adaptability and resilience of councillors and speak more about that diversity of what it means to be a councillor in 2024.

Despite their indispensable role, local councillors face a myriad of challenges in fulfilling their duties effectively. Limited resources, bureaucratic hurdles and public scrutiny often pose significant obstacles, requiring councillors to demonstrate resilience and creativity in addressing community needs. However, amidst these challenges lie many opportunities for innovation and collaboration, as councillors leverage their local knowledge and networks to drive positive change. It’s this innovation that the survey wants to begin to capture.

About the study

The team have collated a contacts database to ensure that all councillors have been sent an individual link to the study directly to their local authority email address. To complete the survey should take around 20 minutes, and the survey is designed to make sure councillors can complete the survey over multiple visits by simply clicking on the original link, answers will be stored and ready to be built upon.

Responses are stored in an anonymised data file and not linked to individual councillors. The UK dataset will be merged with responses from councillors in other European countries. The anonymised dataset will be circulated between research project members and will be made publicly available upon completion of the project. The data will be used in academic books, articles, and reports for local government stakeholders, and the project members will publish the results in such a way that no single councillors are identifiable.

As this survey is being rolled out across 28 countries across Europe, we are urging councillors to join the dialogue and lend their individual voices to the study. Any councillors who are unable to access the survey can reach out to Dr Thom Oliver via the contact details below. The survey data collection period will close early next month.

Thom Oliver added, “It’s an honour to be co-leading this study, we are a crucial part of a large European project which is trying to deliver a clear understanding of the day-to-day life of councillors, and it’s a big responsibility for us to try and capture as many of those voices as possible.”



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