The report of the Communities and Local Government Select Committee, Councillors on the frontline, is the latest in a long line of aspirational reviews of the role and responsibilities of councillors. Inevitably the Committee considered perennial issues of representation and democratic mandate, but this cross-party group of MPs has made some important contemporary findings, and reached some useful conclusions. This post is based on an LGiU briefing by LGiU associate Hilary Kitchin, the full briefing is available to LGiU members.
The move away from committee decision-making and the creation of separate groups of – ‘backbench’ councillors and cabinet members or committee chairs has led to more than a decade of debate about the role of the councillor in the community. The relationship between individual councillors and the communities they represent is now discussed positively as a frontline role, and this report from the Communities and Local Government Select Committee has tried to address important questions about how the role can be promoted, supported and sustained.
In recognising all councillors as being on the frontline, their conclusions suggest that the frontline role improves local representation and supports the many complex roles that councillors play, including difficult decision-making around priorities and budgets.
For despite the decade of debate, the nature of the councillor’s role remains contested. Without being explicit, the Committee has shown its disagreement with what seems an emerging view that the councillor is a community volunteer, perhaps first among many, but one who’s unusual commitment of time, skills and resources is not deserving of recognition either by acknowledgement of its responsibilities or by adequate compensation.
But the emphasis being placed by government and the LGA on the role of councillors as volunteers in contrast with being a fully employed officer or politician needs to be challenged. Councillors are volunteers indeed – but volunteers undertaking an increasingly demanding role, which involves many in levels of responsibility and judgement never called upon from most members of parliament.
It’s hard to see what solutions could be found that sought to adjust a councillor’s role to the time they had available after full time work and would still allow local government to function in a democratic way. The time taken on case work, meetings, and committees by councillors in their frontline roles is unavoidable once elected to office: the responsibilities of cabinet members and particularly council leaders demand further time and adjustment to professional career and family responsibilities.
In practice, the status of councillors can without difficulty be placed on a scale of public volunteering, attracting public recognition and adequate compensation, without being treated as an employment. The real difficulty is that the problem presented by decision-making on allowances, already thorny largely due to public attitudes towards politicians, has become acute due to pressures on council budgets. A solution that protects local democracy will be one that acknowledges both the financial pressures and the necessity of valuing and preserving local democracy.
The Select Committee made a considerable effort to hear from those who don’t normally contribute to public discussion, so that its findings on the obstacles to becoming a councillor and its recommendations – with regard to support, allowances, consistency in government policy, and expectations placed on councillors and on political parties – demand particular attention. The MPs summarised the current position, emphasising that democracy at all levels depends on the health of its councillor base. To maintain this base it’s necessary to provide support so that the duties councillors take on do not overwhelm them, and not to shy away from the issue of remuneration.
The initial controversy over the Commission’s recommendations on allowances risks making this debate harder to resolve, rather than making it possible to fully air the issues in a way that the public can understand. It will be necessary for ministers, the main political parties, and those in local government to consider the findings and recommendations collectively and constructively. The proposal for a review of the ways in which employers can be encouraged to support those of their staff who serve as councillors could be a good starting point.
This post is based on an LGiU member briefing by Hilary Kitchin, LGiU associate. The full briefing is available to LGiU members.