The cross-party Communities and Local Government Select Committee have today released details of an inquiry into the modern councillor. The inquiry looked at the role of councillors and how to tackle the different barriers that prevent people from standing to be a councillor.
Crucially, the inquiry identified three barriers to becoming, and then remaining councillors. Firstly, the time commitment involved; secondly, employers do not always take a positive view of staff becoming councillors, and finally, the level of allowances paid to councillors to cover expenses.
Media reports this morning have focused on the issue of allowances; in particular, the fact that the Conservatives suggest that councillors are volunteers, not salaried town hall staff.
In the current climate, the issue of councillor allowances is difficult and as Clive Betts MP, Chair of the Select Committee points out – few councillors would vote for higher allowances for themselves even if there are legitimate reasons for doing so, due to the public controversy that this would provoke.
But in order to be a councillor individuals will have to take a range of decisions around family, lifestyle and employment – and remuneration will have to play a part in this. Removing barriers to being a councillor by ensuring they are remunerated is something that the LGiU supports. It is not about councillors being salaried staff, but instead it is about ensuring that barriers to becoming a councillor are removed.
Decisions on the level of remuneration however, should be determined locally and not by central government. Levels should be based on local factors and crucially, should involve communities in the decision making process. The inquiry calls for the powers to make decisions on allowances to be transferred to an independent local body – this could be a good model for doing this and something which should be explored further.
It is a shame however, that the media has solely focused on the issue of money and the party politics attached to this, when the inquiry has raised a number of issues, that urgently need to be tackled, if we are to encourage more people to become councillors. In doing so, it misses the real debate, which is that the role of councillors needs to reform – it needs to focus on the front-line and councillors need support and training to do this.
Furthermore, the inquiry points out that if communities are to take up the opportunities that are offered by localism, councillors have a vital role to play in this – but that central government must embrace localism by continuing to devolve powers and give local
authorities the real ability to make decisions.
The real debate now needs not to be about money, but instead about the powers that should be devolved, how councillors can be supported to make the most of devolved powers and how their roles will change to reflect the need to be on the front-line. Significantly, central and local government and political parties need to look at how we challenge all the barriers and out of date practices that deter people from becoming councillors.
A full briefing on the inquiry will be published next week.