Judy Terry is a marketing professional who stood down as a councillor in May
I was born a Conservative, and I shall die a Conservative, because I believe in Conservative values: fiscal management, helping those who need support, education, aspiration, fairness. But this doesn’t mean that I have always supported them.
At the height of the US involvement in the Vietnam war, I gritted my teeth and voted Labour because the Conservatives seemed likely to send British troops to join this disastrous campaign, which I strongly opposed – as I did the Iraq war. There was also an occasion when I didn’t vote in the local elections because I disagreed with my party on an important local issue.
In pursuit of votes, the opposition took a different view, which they quickly reversed when elected…
Such opportunism is what people increasingly dislike about politics and politicians; where is the idealism which truly reflects what people actually think and want? How can we trust those we elect?
Local councillors are supposed to be at the heart of their communities, listening to their concerns, advising and supporting them, keeping an open mind even when they have formed a view; there is always something fresh to learn which can influence a decision. Councillors should never make promises which cannot be kept, nor misrepresent what other councillors or organisations say.
The public deserve honesty and they also dislike very personal campaigns which vilify those individuals with the courage to speak out about issues which others ignore.
It’s evident that some councils – of whatever hue – become unaccountable if in overall control for long periods; they adopt what a colleague calls ‘Stalinist’ tendencies, losing sight of their responsibility to the people who elected them and often failing to acknowledge changing demographic , social and economic priorities. This is especially true of those authorities with large numbers of older councillors who have held office for 20, 30 or even 40 years – whilst some adapt, bringing valuable experience, others are in a timewarp, refusing to support new initiatives for jobs, housing, infrastructure improvements, or new management structures for greater efficiency. Just because something has always been done one way, it doesn’t mean that it can’t be improved!
Do we need so many councillors? Parish, town, district, borough, county – there is a lot of unnecessary duplication, which makes lines of communication difficult to navigate, not least for the public, who think in terms of ‘the council’ and have no idea which is responsible for what.
In Ipswich,for example, about £200,000 could be saved annually by reducing from 3 to 2 councillors per ward, which also have a county councillor, and moving from annual to 4-yearly elections. Unfortunately, the current Labour administration won’t countenance such a change, yet the taxpayers would undoubtedly welcome it – not least because the council couldn’t justify yet another council tax rise, and it would hopefully encourage longer term strategic planning.
It’s essential to have a good cross-section of men and women councillors, bringing different experiences, but it’s also important to have people with the commitment to make time to read committee documents, challenge recommendations, and speak up. I can’t be alone in noticing that some people never even open their papers, and sit silently throughout Planning, Full Council, Scrutiny, and other meetings.
Others don’t even bother to turn up, nor are they active on behalf of residents in their wards. Yet, with the exception of Parish and Town councillors, they take their monthly payments – and charge expenses for the shortest of journeys or a cup of coffee.
Eric Pickles has requested authorities publish attendance records for good reason; each councillor should also publish a monthly diary of what they have been doing – the events they attend, as well as the meetings, and the number of residents’ problems they have dealt with. They should also record how they have worked with their local Safer Neighbourhood Teams, sports clubs, businesses, charitable organisations and schools.
I’d also recommend that every councillor should spend a day in their local Crown or Magistrates Court. I was invited by a judge to join him on the bench in Ipswich Crown Court for a sentencing session, and it was a revelation, as he explained the background to each case, and set out his judgment. It reminded me why British justice is so highly regarded around the world.
Some employers actively encourage their staff to become school governors, and otherwise involve themselves in their communities because it adds value; perhaps it’s time to have a positive campaign to recruit more councillors from the business sector. From my experience, their fresh thinking, objectivity and financial insight is hugely beneficial. If there is to be more ‘devolution’, these skills will be desperately needed and are currently in short supply in most areas.