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November 28, 2007

Communities need a new breed of councillor

Saffron James of the Young Foundation argues that community empowerment won`t work while local councillors value influence at the town hall higher than local issues. Is it time for a new type of local representative – free of party ties. Who will be more focused on the perceptions of local people?

Saffron James

Community empowerment is a high priority on the Whitehall agenda. The government wants a new relationship between citizens and the state and to reinvigorate local democracy by devolving power to town halls and neighbourhoods. Yet, councillors could be forgiven for thinking their future is uncertain.

Ministers have called for more use of citizens’ juries, participatory budgeting pilots and community “kitties”. These are welcome ideas but are not the bread and butter of local democracy, more like the icing on the cake.

They do boost direct democracy by giving communities the power to take some decisions into their own hands, but communities also need clear and effective ways to deal with all the issues that impact on neighbourhood life. Councillors can provide that link by championing issues that communities don’t want to, or can’t, take on.

Backbench councillors are already marginalised by local government. They have too little power, too little profile and too little support to influence council decision making on big issues such as education or planning, or to tackle neighbourhood problems. Local government structures keep councillors at arm’s length from power and decision making, and at arm’s length from the community by prioritising town hall meetings over local engagement. So it is unsurprising that many people are cynical about their relevance.

New research has asked councillors how their role should be renewed. The answer is clear: more power to act on ultra-local issues through delegated budgets and the power to hold public agencies to account; more power to influence council decisions about strategic services not just ward-based decisions; real power to hold service providers to account through local scrutiny; and more support to meet the demands of the future role.

Many of today’s councillors agree that a new breed of local politician is needed to take forward this agenda. They must be younger and more representative of our increasingly diverse communities than the 50-year-old, white male that is today’s average councillor.

Tomorrow’s councillors need new skills and support systems to deal with the challenges thrown up by representing diverse interests – conflict brokering, mediation, understanding equalities and community cohesion issues.

Two things stand in the way of revitalising councillor roles. First, political parties. Nationally, political parties may agree on the importance of devolution, but this has not trickled down to local party groups where influence in the town hall is valued over community matters, and frequently councillors are forced to follow the party line against the interests of neighbourhoods.

Second, local authorities need to rethink how they work with councillors. Their connections can be used to improve public services if councils are willing to see councillors as a valuable resource rather than a necessary evil.

Little progress will be made in improving the credibility of councillors until the public can see local democracy has value, and this will not be achieved until people can see the effects of real influence over a range of local issues.