Simon Cooke was a councillor for 24 years and served as a leader of the Conservative Group and Deputy Leader of Bradford Council. He is an activist with the Shipley Conservatives.
Local councillors, huh! What are they for, running around getting grand ideas about their importance, inventing new committees to sit on and then, every few years, expecting folk to run around delivering leaflets and knocking on doors to get them elected again! Way too many of them, especially now they all get paid loads of money for doing the job. Let’s get rid of most of them, save some money, and have fewer people looking down their noses at ordinary folk and saying, “it’s Councillor Smith y’know”. This site has reported that in several places the number of councillors has been cut.
Having a pop at councillors is easy for campaign groups like the Taxpayers Alliance – lots of stuff about allowances and expenses to go at, despite the cost of those councillors being a minuscule part of the typical council budget. Then MPs pile in calling for massive cuts in councillor numbers, while sometimes getting shirty when a councillor suggests that there might just be far too many MPs.
But far from us needing fewer politicians, we need more. Rather than taking the decision-making further away from ordinary residents with unitary councils, regional mayors, and combined authorities, we should, as Conservatives, be wanting to get more decisions made right down in the communities where those ordinary residents live, by people they know and can speak with. Right now, our system of local democracy doesn’t function well, and the lack of real accountability is a big reason for this.
In the late 1990s, Blair piled further reforms on top of the reforms rammed through by Michael Heseltine in 1990 to try and fix the poll tax debacle. The result of these changes was that local government lost any effective control of its revenue and most councillors were relegated to toothless and largely pointless scrutiny committees. This, not the number of councillors, is the real problem and if we want to have effective and accountable local government, we need to sort out how it’s financed and how local public services are held to account.
The real reason for the move to unitary councils is financial – people see that some expensive senior officers can go, a few expensive office blocks can be flogged off, and there’ll be less to give out in expenses for councillors. Nobody asks whether this is a better system of local government or if taking decisions further away from residents will improve their relationship with government and the decisions it makes. Having been a councillor on a large city authority for 24 years, I concluded a while ago that Bradford Council is too big.
Some things local councils might do are better at a bigger scale, but most of the day-to-day delivery of public services don’t fit that description. Reducing the numbers of councillors because it stops the TPA or the Daily Mail shouting at us isn’t the right way to frame our policies on local government. We should instead be asking why our systems of local government are so confused, how we can get a better link between policy and finance at this local level, and whether this needs something more than Heseltine’s city mayors to put right.
But even without clear policies on local governance we can do some things that will strengthen the role of local councillors and make use of their skills, knowledge, and local connection. This means that councillors need more resources to do their job, not less – just look at the imbalance in Bradford where support for the chief executive consists of a multi-million-pound policy department while ninety councillors make do with three (brilliant and hardworking) women. Contrast political support for policy (two and a half people across three political groups) with the scale of that corporate policy development operation. Similarly, they have cut the numbers of scrutiny committees, and the support for the work they do is pared to the bone making it harder for councillors to do the (limited) job that these committees supposedly exist to undertake.
If we resourced councillors better, we could begin to make use of them as a way of holding the legion of unelected boards and committees – especially in the health service – to better account. And, to make it work better, they should have the power to require attendance and the support to ask hard questions of public officials responsible for spending millions. We could also widen this scrutiny role to cover the DWP, Home Office, and other central government departments with a local delivery role. There are thousands of local councillors and, with the right support, we could see them as a brilliant cadre of locally-connected people able – given the right support – to hold the real government decision-makers, currently unaccountable bureaucrats, to better account.
Instead of seeing local councillors as a potential saving maybe we should see them as an asset.