“What are councillors for?” was the question asked at a recent INLOGOV event.
“To take the rap for cuts” was one of the responses.
“We should have fewer councillors, in large single-member wards” was another response. To which the reply came back, sharply, that this would lead to lower quality of councillors, as those who were entrenched in safe seats refused to move on. Young people, women, and people from minorities would find it even harder to get selected. If what we need is a high quality of councillors then the only reliable way of achieving this is to have a large pool of councillors, from which the best can be chosen for office.
The county council elections also provide food for thought on these matters. In six of the counties where there have been boundary changes these will result in fewer councillors (in most of these cases the Boundary Commission was responding to proposals from the councils concerned): Bucks -8, Glos -10, Northants -16, Oxon -11, Somerset -3. This is is a situation where we already have by far the highest ratio of residents to councillors anywhere in Europe – and the more residents a councillor is supposed to represent, and the more distinct communities, the harder it becomes to properly represent local feelings and interests.
So what are councillors for? OK, they are a channel for local residents with grievances in their wards, opposing planning applications (on rare occasions supporting them), and, when opportunities arise, working with local activists in their communities, or taking a lead themselves, to create new initiatives, new responses to situations and needs, or to openings created by new legislation. But, if they are to go beyond this and engage directly with senior officers and act strategically, then a certain level of knowledge is needed and plenty of confidence as well. And the way local government works at present does little to encourage this – hence, perhaps, the complaints that most councillors are redundant and that we should have fewer of them.
The Local Government Act 2000 gave almost all the strategic decision making to small cabinets or individual mayors or cabinet members, or, increasingly, to paid officials (“officers” – does not the military language say it all?) It removed most of the powers of the Full Council, and with that most of the opportunities for councillors who are not members of the cabinet to contribute to strategic decision-making. With decisions taken elsewhere, full council meetings degenerated, often into slanging matches between the main political parties structured (if that is the word) around resolutions which reflect national priorities or party campaigns.
Yet a council should be a Parliament for its area. It is the demonstration of the benefits which can come from the right, expressed in the European Charter of Local Self-Government, for a town or village to elect its own representatives to run its own affairs, to the greatest extent that this is possible, and with sufficient resources to make real choices. That means debates on local issues, discretion over budgets, and votes when appropriate, giving councillors the power to give their local leaderships a bloody nose when they deserve it.
Scrutiny should be a facility to assist the full council in its role of holding the executive to account (and other agencies active in the local area also). This corresponds to the role of select committees in the Westminster or Cardiff parliaments. These are best known for their set-piece occasions when they hold bankers, the chief executives of multinational companies, senior civil servants, or ministers, to account. It is often forgotten that their bread and butter work is the collection of evidence on matters of policy or public administration, which is enshrined in detailed reports – more consultancy or research than ritual humiliation for the TV cameras or a court of law. It is that kind of detailed investigation that scrutiny committees in local government do best, working across party allegiances to discover the truth and offer recommendations on the best way forward.
The Local Government Act 2000 put scrutiny in hoc to cabinets, with no mention of the full council. This weak position is further entrenched when scrutiny officers double as policy officers supporting the Cabinet (it is no secret that scrutiny, like the select committees, depends profoundly on able and independent-minded officers or clerks who can turn the often rambling questionings of politicians into sharp, focussed and often critical reports and recommendations).
That is why a small but increasing number of councils are returning to decision-making by all-party committees. Not because decisions are made more quickly that way (though councils can make quick decision when they have the will to). Not because it makes a single person responsible for a decision (though the chairs of strong committees are often at least as powerful as cabinet members). Not because it allows decisions to be made in public (any more than do cabinets, where the real decisions are made in private before the public meetings, making the public meetings almost redundant). But because it involves all the elected councillors in decision-making, enables those newly elected to participate from Day 1, keeps officers and committee members on their toes, and properly respects the expertise of Opposition councillors and their rights to ask questions and to probe the logic of officers.
Where you have government by committees, no-one any longer questions what councillors are for.
Dr. Andrew Coulson is Lead Consultant on Overview and Scrutiny at INLOGOV, University of Birmingham, with wide experience of Overview and Scrutiny. He has recently launched one of the first assessed qualifications on the subject. His further research interests include partnerships and governance, economic and environmental strategies, and local government in Central and Eastern Europe.
On 27 June INLOGOV will be holding its third day-workshop on Governance by Committees. Many of the councils who changed their governance arrangements in April 2012 will be present, along with other councils who will by then have changed. This is a unique opportunity to consider the merits of the change. For further information see the advert and booking form.