Do we want fewer councillors, or should we make better use of those we have?

Andrew Coulson

“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.

andrew coulson blog

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.

In favour of the mundane: citizenship testing and participation

Katherine Tonkiss

This weekend saw the announcement that the Government has completed its revisions to the ‘Life in the UK’ citizenship test, refocusing the questions on British culture, history and sport.  According to the Government, there will be no more ‘mundane’ questions about water meters, job interviews, the internet and public transport.  Rather, as immigration minister Nick Harper described, ‘the new book rightly focuses on the values and principles at the heart of being British.  Instead of telling people how to claim benefits, it encourages participation in British life’.

This is just the latest in a series of announcements which have reinforced some notion of a British way of life as a criterion of both immigration and integration, as I have described elsewhere.  Nick Harper’s words draw us again into the vastly questionable argument that migrants are ‘benefits scroungers’, and so rather than telling them how to access those benefits we should instead be expecting them to assimilate to the British way of life.  It is this, we are being told, that holds the key to participation in community life.

The use of the word ‘participation’ is itself more than a little problematic.  Is participation really what is at stake in this debate?  Harper is also quoted as saying that the new citizenship test is ‘just part of our work to help ensure migrants are ready and able to integrate into British society’.  Integrate into.  This claim seems to denote the idea that integration is something that migrants ‘do’ when they come into a country in order to take on the national culture and history, rather than something that a society experiences collectively in order to build social inclusion and cohesion.

None of this sounds much like participation to me.  Casting an eye over the ten sample questions from the new test is similarly illuminating.  Does my knowing which admiral died in 1805 and has a monument in Trafalgar Square help to participate in my local community?  Does my knowing the name of the prehistoric landmark still standing in Wiltshire really help me to play an active role in society?

Actually, what it might do is to further define me as an outsider, whether or not I know the answers.  Much in the same way that Communities and Local Government Secretary Eric Pickles has suggested that Councils only publish documents in English because ‘translation undermines community cohesion’, the new citizenship test underpins the idea that it is up to migrants to integrate into ‘our’ culture, and that if migrants are unable to do that then they have no right to live in our country, to make use of our services or to participate in the lives of our communities.  It presents an ideal of Britishness which is unattainable beyond a simplistic test, when migrants bring with them their own rich cultural heritages – heritages which have, previously, been celebrated as central to the life of our communities.

And the very notion of ‘our culture’ is itself deeply problematic.  This suggests a one-size-fits-all notion of Britishness that will evade people who were themselves born in Britain.  Arguing that Britishness involves ‘the national love of gardening, the novels of Jane Austen and the musicals of Andrew Lloyd Webber’ is ignorant not just of diverse ethnicities and cultural heritages, but also of the diversity of genders, class backgrounds and life experiences present within Britain today.

I want to make an argument in favour of the mundane. If we have to have a citizenship test, then surely in a liberal society our citizenship test should be about helping people to access public services and to actually participate in their community through contact with their elected representatives and other important organisations in their area.  We live in a liberal democratic society – citizenship testing should not be about reinforcing a sense of Britishness that is alien even to the most ‘British’ amongst us.  Rather, it should be about making sure that everyone has equal access to services and the equal chance to participate, and that everyone is deserving of equal respect.

me

Katherine Tonkiss is a Research Fellow in INLOGOV.  She is currently working on a three year, ESRC funded project titled Shrinking the State, and is converting her PhD thesis, on the subject of migration and identity, into a book to be published later this year with Palgrave Macmillan.  Her research interests are focused on the changing nature of citizenship and democracy in a globalising world, and the local experience of global transformations.  Follow her Twitter feed here.

Councillors: Engage more and engage differently, but not at the expense of the basics

Karin Bottom, Catherine Mangan and Thom Oliver

This month saw the ‘Communities and Local Government Committee’ release its report on the role of the modern councillor. Focusing on  the impact of the Localism Act (and associated  developments in recent years),  Clive Betts MP,  Chair of the Committee,  suggested that local representatives are now spending less time in council and more in the community. As a result, they now shoulder the majority of responsibility for ensuring that  that their local communities have the tools to make the most of the localities in which they live. While the Report’s findings held few surprises, it did suggest that those we elect to be the local democratic voice of our communities must embrace this challenge and meet it head on. This position resonates with early findings from an INLOGOV project concerned with local engagement and the role of the local representative.

Firmly grounded in the belief that councillors’ responsibilities and remits vary, the current climate suggests they require a more nuanced and responsive skill set than ever.  In this sense, elected representatives must be outward looking, open to new ideas and welcoming of new approaches, but they must take care not to throw out the baby with the bath water.  Instead, our research suggests that what councillors need to do is integrate new learning into their existing repertoire of behaviours, while at the same time being more dynamic and responsive in their increasingly frontline role.[i]

For respondents, one of the main challenges they felt they faced was engagement. Whereas it is natural for all councillors to ‘do engagement’, a variety of approaches were evident in our research and for those who had moved into executive positions, the role shift was accompanied by community activities having to be curtailed. Respondents were very clear that the Localism Act was beginning to have an impact, for example in the mediating role that  has now been allocated to councillors: this meant developing skills as a community organiser and ultimately being on top of a great volume of information while managing a number of resources and contacts. This form of community engagement, though hard, was thought to have clear  rewards: a number saw the benefits of having shared aims and  a deeper understanding of the people they represented,  which in turn provided greater insight into the experience of being on the receiving end of council services; in contrast others thought wider community engagement created opportunities to lead opinion and ultimately change behaviour, for example one councillor worked with environmental groups to shape the ward’s attitude towards refuse collections and recycling.

Our interviews also surfaced information suggesting that that the majority of traditional communication methods continue alongside a slow evolution to greater online engagement and use of social media. While one councillor referred to sending regular email shots and creating a web page to articulate local information, activities and updates,  another described  how Facebook had enabled him to engage with people – often young people – who  generally chose not to participate in politics and local policy conversations. Finally, a number of councillors explained that twitter enabled them to aggregate opinions en mass, engage in debates and learn information they would otherwise be unaware of,  while some with cabinet responsibilities stated that this particular medium was unique in that it enabled them to keep on top of their portfolio while also providing opportunities to build and consolidate relationships they would otherwise not have had time to address..

One factor that was evident in almost every interview was that councillors always needed to be aware of the bigger picture: different methods worked in different situations and knowing a ward’s story or the history behind a particular community group could make the difference between successful and unsuccessful engagement. Just because a particular approach might work in one instance, there is no assurance it will work in another, despite apparent similarities. So, while councillors may see their responsibilities increasing and their community role broadening, it is vital that they maintain depth in their representative activities: if they don’t, potentially successful initiatives run the risk of failing.  

The authors are grateful to the School of Government and Society, University of Birmingham, for providing funds to assist in this research. With thanks also to NLGN for their contribution to this work.  For further information about the research project, contact Karin A. Bottom: k.a.bottom@bham.ac.uk

bottom-karin

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.

Portrait of OPM staff member

Catherine Mangan is a Senior Fellow at INLOGOV.  Her interests include public sector re-design, outcomes based commissioning and behaviour change.  Prior to joining INLOGOV she managed the organisational development and change work for a not-for-profit consultancy, specialising in supporting local government; and has also worked for the Local Government Association, and as Deputy Director of the County Councils Network.  She specialises in adult social care, children’s services and partnerships.

thom

Thom Oliver is a Postdoctoral Research Fellow at Oxford Brookes Business School.  He completed his PhD, exploring the representative role of councillors on appointed bodies, at INLOGOV in 2011. He currently lives in Bristol and has recently rejoined INLOGOV as an Associate.  Follow his Twitter account here, and read his own blog here.


[i] Research to date provides initial findings from interviews in three councils (one London Borough and two Metropolitan).  Interviews comprised a broad mix of age, seniority, roles and experience. Approximately equivalent numbers of men and women were interviewed.

City deals: A missed opportunity?

Martin Stott

Today is the deadline for the submission of the second round of ‘City Deals’.  Twenty cities and city regions are putting proposals to DCLG based around four ambitious objectives to:

    • Boost local economic growth
    • Rebalance the economy spatially and sectorally
    • Decentralise the powers and levers cities need to drive local economic growth and
    • Strengthen their governance and leadership

When they were originally announced by Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg in a speech in Leeds in December 2011, City Deals were part of the carrot to encourage large cities to opt for elected mayors. Devolution of major new powers and budgets to new city leaders were promised. Unfortunately with the exception of Bristol, the electorates didn’t play ball. But DCLG pressed on and the deals were announced in July 2012, with Birmingham, Bristol, Leeds, Liverpool, Manchester, Newcastle, Nottingham and Sheffield – thereby ironically, cutting the new mayor in Bristol, George Ferguson (who wasn’t elected until November 2012), out of the process. At the time of the DPM’s announcement, there was a sense that this might be a real and significant constitutional change, in tandem with the arrival of the new city mayors. But between the launch speech and the reality of policy on the ground, things became a lot more prosaic, as the agreements struck in 2012 lay bare.

As ever with central-local government relations, the reality has in no way matched the original hype and  in a time of retrenchment generally and ever smaller budgets for local government in particular, DCLG have been in no position to  provide anything very much in the way of new resources. Staff in Councils and Local Enterprise Partnerships (who are key players in the proposed new ‘city deals’ because of their focus on private sector led economic growth) comment that ‘there is no real money in it’, and that the process and likely outcome is similar to that seen in the negotiation of Local Public Service Agreements (LPSA) and the abortive ‘Total Place’ initiatives under the last Government.

There is one striking difference between city deals and LPSA’s, picked up by the Green Alliance in their report Green Cities; using city deals to drive low carbon growth. Whereas LPSAs all had a climate change/green economy strand in them, the city deals struck with the ‘big eight’ cities have this dimension largely as an add-on, if that. The Green Alliance found that only Leeds framed its approach to growth with a low carbon vision for the city and that apart from Newcastle, few deals acknowledged the role of tackling climate change in securing resilient economic growth. Bristol, a city whose image has been predicated on an at least vaguely greenish tinge, has a City Deal that makes no mention of the subject.

Now the programme is being extended to a ‘second wave’ of twenty localities from ‘Sunderland and the North East’ to Plymouth. The group is made up of the 14 next largest English cities (after the ‘big eight’) plus a further six – such as Greater Cambridge and Milton Keynes – which recorded the highest population growth between 2001 and 2010.  One of the striking aspects of this group of cities – the smaller and fast growing ones – is that they in many cases already have a significant ‘green economy’ dimension, or are cities whose location  brings opportunities waiting to be exploited, such as Hull and Teeside. But if the poor record of the first round of City Deals is any kind of baseline – and with the second round of city deals focussing on a single initiative rather than a range of measures – the prognosis for more than a handful ending up taking advantage of this crucial part of the ‘rebalancing’ of the UK economy looks pretty bleak.

stott

Martin Stott was Head of Environment and Resources at Warwickshire County Council until the autumn of 2011, when he concluded a 25 year career in local government.  He has recently become an INLOGOV Associate.

Council Tax Benefits: A Case of Seriously Muscular Localism

Chris Game

I noticed recently that, among the links on the right-hand side of this page, we still listed the We Love Local Government blog – which, despite its having been wound up, in characteristic style, several months ago, rather pleased me. It deserves to live on, and, should its belatedly unveiled authors, Glen Ocsko and Gareth Young, happen to see this blog, they may take it as a small personal tribute to them and their … I was going to type ‘baby’, but that would make them filicidists … creation.

WLLG was written by local government officers – often critical of aspects of the world in which they worked, but who managed at the same time to love it – or at least sizable chunks of it, for quite a bit of the time. This, of course, is what made it and them different – from so many of their fellow citizens who achieve only the harshly critical bit. This blog is addressed to these gripers, in the hope that, if ever there were a sequence of events that might arouse in them a tad of sympathy for local councils, it could well be the latest episodes of the Government’s council tax benefit changes, summarised below and using as an illustration Birmingham City Council.

These benefit changes are a pivotal and controversial Coalition policy, revealing what critics claim is the true nature of its welfare philosophy, its commitment to genuine localisation, and its sheer managerial ineptitude. Details are on Birmingham City Council’s website under ‘Council Tax Support’ – so what follows is a brief summary for the late arrivals at the Taxpayers’ Ball.

From next April, the Government is abolishing Council Tax Benefit (CTB), a means-tested benefit currently paid by the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP), but administered by local government – in Birmingham’s case, £100 million to approximately 137,000 council tax payers. Replacing it will be Council Tax Support – financial support schemes determined and operated by local authorities themselves.

This ‘localisation’ of welfare sounds a commendable transfer of responsibilities from Whitehall to town hall – until you examine the attached strings. First, the policy forms a key part of the Coalition’s deficit reduction programme, aimed at reducing the current CTB bill by 10% by strengthening councils’ incentives to get people into work, and cutting the fraud and error that the DWP was unable to control. And councils will need to achieve all this immediately, apparently, as the Government would pay them 10% less for their new schemes than for CTB, creating for Birmingham a funding gap of £10.9 million.

Second, the Government decreed that pensioners receiving CTB must be protected against any reduction in support. In Birmingham this means 54,000 pensioners are protected, while 83,000 working-age recipients (those born after October 1951) shoulder potentially the whole savings burden.

So far, so centralist, for it is only here that the localist part begins, with councils able to devise their own schemes to achieve these savings, provided they do so by January 2013.

In practice, this discretion amounts to three unenviable choices: spreading the funding cut equally across virtually all CTB recipients apart from pensioners; giving the rebate to certain groups only; or continuing with the full rebate, and filling the gap either through raising council tax or finding savings elsewhere, on top of those already being demanded by the Government – for Birmingham, a possible £600 million over the next five years.

The Council’s selected option – essentially a version of the spread-the-pain-equally model – was revealed in early September in two documents: one setting out the proposed tax support scheme, the other asking for residents’ views by 2 December. Almost all working-age people could expect to pay at least 24% of their council tax – which this year would be £178 or £3.43 a week on a Band A property. Main exceptions would be those with a dependent child under six, and those receiving a disability or disabled child premium or war-related pension. A modest contribution to the scheme’s cost should come through removing council tax discounts on second homes, as permitted when the Local Government Finance Bill eventually completes its unhurried progress through Parliament.

Now here, I thought, is where the sympathy might come in – for the contemptuous treatment councils regularly receive, even from Community and Local Government ministers who are supposed to be vaguely on their side.

First, there’s the constitutional arrogance of requiring councils to prepare and consult on detailed schemes before the authorising legislation is even passed. Yes, it’s equally contemptuous of the Queen’s Royal Assent, but it seems almost standard procedure nowadays.

Then there’s the Government’s brand of centralist localism – ‘muscular localism’, as Secretary of State Eric Pickles calls it – which involves both setting all the main rules, then changing them in what ministers must know is the middle of councils’ consultations, but that to them presumably is merely a game.

In late October, weeks after most councils had formulated their support schemes and gone out to consultation, DCLG ministers announced that they’d had a quick whip-round and found an extra £100 million ‘transition grant’ for councils whose schemes were ‘well-designed’ and maintained positive incentives to work.

As they say in professional cycling, if it sounds too good to be true, then it probably is. Ministers’ idea of ‘well-designed’ turns out mainly to mean that those currently receiving full council tax support should pay no more than 8.5% of their council tax liability, or barely a third of Birmingham’s proposed 24%.

So, back to the drawing board – or perhaps not, who knows.  An unpredictable share of the £100 million would represent a fraction of councils’ 10% funding cut and complicate budget-making. Besides which, collecting costs will cancel out much of the arbitrary 8.5% tax payments: £1.21 per week on a Birmingham Band A property. The smart money is on most councils sticking with their intended schemes.

Clearly, though, ministers have been spooked by the savage impact on the poorest households of their own inflexible funding restrictions – of which they were repeatedly warned, and which might have been largely avoided, had they allowed councils not just to remove tax discounts from empty properties, but, as proposed by the LGA, to reduce even slightly the 25% single person’s discount.

But no, that was another ministerial rule: “the Government has no intention of introducing a ‘stealth tax’ on eight million people” – a benefit cut on even more, even poorer people being apparently something other than a stealth tax, or anyway one for which councils would take the blame. Now, no doubt, they’ll get additionally blamed, whether they change their proposed schemes or not – and if that lot doesn’t earn them a scintilla of sympathy, I’m at a loss to think what might.

Chris is a Visiting Lecturer at INLOGOV interested in the politics of local government; local elections, electoral reform and other electoral behaviour; party politics; political  leadership and management; member-officer relations; central-local relations; use of consumer and opinion research in local government; the modernisation agenda and the implementation of executive local government.

Can I Vote, Please? Councillors, Budgets and Illegality

Philip Whiteman

This week, there is plenty of news about granting 16 and 17 year olds the right to vote.  You may therefore be surprised to learn that another group may have their right to vote withdrawn.  Okay, I am being slightly flippant here, but there is a potentially serious oversight on whether councillors should be allowed to vote at the full council budget setting meeting.

On a number of occasions I have criticised the Localism Act as a poorly drafted piece of legislation that leaks like the proverbial legislative sieve. From the inability of standards committees to sanction their own members, to questions on whether standing councillors are required to sign a declaration of interest, there are plenty of examples to choose from. So here is another to wet your palate.

Councillors are naturally bound to vote on their annual budgets and also on their allowance packages at Full Council.  Nothing too complex about that, you would think.  However, the new Declaration of Pecuniary Interest could result in a breach, should councillors vote at their annual budget meeting or on their allowances.   As both tax-payers and recipients of allowances, this leaves councillors vulnerable to members of the public lodging official complaints.  In all probability, a police investigation would not be pursued but it is a risky situation.

Monitoring Officers with a sharp-eye should be able to circumvent this problem through a motion to Full Council granting dispensations to the council en-bloc.  Whether the dispensation lasts for a full four years or for the remainder of council’s term until the election, care is required to ensure that dispensations are kept up to date for all named councillors.

Ensuring the right of councillors to vote at budget setting meetings is an essential component of representative democracy.  To forbid that right would be counter to the whole belief in local government.  The idea that they could face prosecution for breaching pecuniary interest would be quite ridiculous.

Philip Whiteman is a Lecturer at the Institute of Local Government Studies.  He has research interests in the impact of central government and regulators on the role, service delivery and performance of local government and other local bodies.  He is also Editor of the journal Local Government Studies.