The councillors of 2012 face a challenge, yet they have also been presented with an opportunity

Ian Briggs and Karin Bottom

Given last week’s frantic media interest in the local elections and the Mayoral referenda,  some will find it quite remarkable as to how quickly the events have become old news.  Rose Garden 2 has come and gone and even the Queen’s Speech outlining the forthcoming legislative agenda has quickly gravitated to the inside pages; yet, for many of the newly elected councillors – over 500 in total –  the real work has just started.  Most will now be  sworn in, horse trading for positions of prominence will be at fever pitch and senior officers and managers will be thinking of ways to develop new working relationships with fresh councillors and new administrations.

128 councils went to the polls last week and the current climate demands that the councillors which were elected must hit the ground running; however, let’s think for one moment about  the position these new councillors have been put in.  Indeed, they, like their more seasoned contemporaries are adamant in their desire to do something about improving living standards as they seek to establish local mechanisms that will facilitate greater economic and life chances; however, a quick reality check is in order: to many, Westminster has well and truly tied local government down in recent years; jacking up council tax to increase spending is no longer a possibility and  many service delivery systems are part of complex and long-duration contracted arrangements with highly expensive termination clauses.  Furthermore,  partnership working practices are so well and truly embedded as mechanisms for  the delivery of local services, no one can hope to disassemble them and start again.

This means that options for responsive, innovative and creative policy making will be limited in the months to come.  It also means that citizens who have hitherto felt able to exert a level of democratic influence on local decision making may now find themselves disappointed. Yet, this is also a point in time when councillors have an opportunity to really ‘come into their own’.  Of course, times are tough and much like the rest of the population, councillors do not have access to magic wands, but they do have time to listen and sometimes this is what  matters.  As research across a range of disciplines demonstrates, people are more fearful, angry, resentful and closed to change if they perceive themselves to be ignored and marginalized; yet when they are educated and informed, deliberated and consulted with they are more likely to accept decisions that mitigate against them.  Of course this is not always the case and nor should it be, however, one would be pushed to find many – indeed any – examples of when less engagement has been preferable to more engagement in local politics.

The next few weeks will  present a number of interesting challenges to newly elected councillors; whilst they are forging new relationships and shaping new decision making mechanisms, they will be returning to those who elected them in order to offer explanations for  what they are going to do and how they are going to do it. They will also come up against sitting councillors who are finding life increasingly uncomfortable – now that they have learned that many of the greater freedoms promised in the Localism Act come only to those who ‘fit’ within the general intentions of Westminster and the coalition government.  One option is to bunker down and close the hatches, another is to use these difficult times as opportunities to re-connect with the electorate: clearly, the councillors of 2012 have their work cut out for them but if they focus on inclusion and engagement as well as interest aggregation and information sharing, they may find  that their task is slightly easier.

Ian Briggs is a Senior Fellow at the Institute of Local Government Studies.  He has research interests in the development and assessment of leadership, performance coaching, organisational development and change, and the establishment of shared service provision.

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Karin Bottom is Lecturer in British Politics and Research Methods at INLOGOV, University of Birmingham.  Her core research areas comprise parties (particularly small and the BNP), party systems and party theory.  She is particularly interested in concepts of relevance and how national level theories can be utilised at the sub-national level.

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