Those of us following local government matters will know that Conservative councils are leading the way on a number of Government priorities. A number of them are delivering services in new ways to reduce costs without impacting on efficacy, involving increasing number of residents in local decisions and championing local community initiatives. Some are experimenting on solving the problems of vulnerable families, on community budgeting and shared services; and this is being done without relying on a “how-to” manual from Whitehall.
But is this enough? What more can local authorities do to make the most of the opportunities afforded by the Government’s policy of localism? Is the modern-day Conservative councillor ready to meet the challenge? What tools do our elected representatives need in their role? Are they capitalising on technology and other advances to make them more effective?
I am working with a team, led by Christina Dykes, that is exploring these questions for a forthcoming report written for the Leadership Centre for Local Government on the role of a Conservative councillor. In order to provide fair and balanced answers to these questions, we need your help.
Most reports, pamphlets, studies and commentaries looking at local government are policy and/or process based and only very seldom do they include the voices of councillors. We want to hear what you think. Why and how did you become a councillor? What help have you had along the way? Is it the responsibility of the Party either nationally and locally, or Councils and groups to improve the lot of elected representatives? And how can we attract people from a wide spectrum to stand for election?
If you are a Conservative councillor please do complete our survey on our website here. It is largely multiple choice to save your precious time but there are plenty of opportunities to flesh out your views if you prefer. If you are not a Conservative councillor but have a view, please do leave your comments here, below this article. They are just as valuable because it is of huge interest to compare the perceptions
of the role of a councillor from the councillor’s point of view with that of the electorate.
Before you rush to offer your views, let me introduce a couple of thoughts to mull over. In 2009, Eric Pickles told the CCA conference audience that “A Conservative Council must not be about administering a Socialist Municipal Empire in a more effective way”. Councillors should not simply tweak what policy options council officers put before them.
A number of Conservative flagship councils are looking to break the mould and provide local services in a different way. It is vital that councillors grab every opportunity that appears when the Government lets go of further control from the centre. In order to do this we need a good mix of councillors. Some may be more financially aware and are not fazed by a billion pound budget: others may more easily marble themselves into their local communities touching on voluntary groups, opinion-formers and hard-to-reach residents. These attributes are not always found in any one individual and neither need they be. A balanced slate of councillors can achieve this end, but how can we ensure that the bodies selecting candidates take such a strategic view, and not just a ‘Buggins turn’ attitude?
The Localism Act is one of the longest pieces of legislation in parliamentary history. It is ironic that the signal that central government is ready to start letting go has to be to be prescribed in considerable detail. Different parties and people view localism in different ways. It is important not to mistake localism with local politics.
The Liberal Democrats in my borough Sutton, for example, do local politics well but only at the level of tick-box consultation and by snuffing out any opposition that might arise from residents’ groups
by throwing them some bones. This is not the same as localism which demands a greater role from local residents and clear community leadership from councillors. In seeing themselves as the champions of
localism, Liberal Democrats seek to devolve power from Westminster, stopping with a juddering halt at local authority level.
True localism seeks to trust and empower people not simply another institution slightly closer to home. Fine words, but how do we get to that point without leaving an unholy mess in the meantime? Over to you…
The survey can be found via the link at the top right hand corner of the website that accompanies the report – www.tomorrowscouncillor.org.uk
Paul Scully is a former Leader of the Opposition in the London Borough of Sutton and currently acts as a CSR Consultant at Nudge Factory Ltd.
Christina Dykes is senior adviser to the Rt Hon Dominic Grieve QC MP and Senior Adviser (Conservative) to the Leadership Centre for Local Government.