Copied from Local Government Chronicle online
Time to rethink attitudes to councillors
19 June, 2014 | By Nick Golding
The case for localism is undermined if council chambers fail to reflect the diversity of the communities they represent. It is therefore worrying that the LGA councillor census shows councillors are becoming ever older while women and minority ethnic groups are still hugely under-represented.
Life as a councillor simply doesn’t have the appeal it once had. Local government has been starved of power and, above all, status. The holders of the role have been abused as snout-in-trough allowance chompers. And they have been demeaned by ministers, who put them on a par with volunteer scout leaders (who don’t control multi-million pound budgets or have responsibility for the welfare of vulnerable people).
Little wonder then that people are shunning local candidacy. Why try to make a difference when – shorn of money due to local budgets being cut more than central ones – your role amounts to little more than a figurehead for the decline of local public services? You hardly feel like Joseph Chamberlain.
Why work hard in your job all day and then return to work in the evening, especially when you’re not being paid? You’re now losing your ability to claim a local government pension; your travel expenses have been cut back. Councillors take little or no financial award from long hours, many of them antisocial, with onerous responsibilities. Ironically, they’re often criticised for personal claiming allowances by people with far better paid roles.
For these reasons, it is often only the retired who have the time and the financial platform to devote to local politics. The LGA National Census of Local Authority Councillors 2013 shows their average age exceeds 60 for the first time. The benefits experience brings to a council chamber should not be denigrated but to have a local body politic on average more than 20 years older than the general population means youth is under-represented. Councillors, remember, are responsible for children’s services, youth provision and sexual health facilities – a decent proportion of them need recent first-hand experience of these.
There are huge barriers for mothers contemplating becoming councillors. Few can afford not to work so that leaves them attempting to balance work, motherhood and local politics. Understandably, it’s the politics that often gives. One may speculate how more generous allowances could redress this balance and, for instance, pay dividends in better use of children’s services expenditure, which would no longer largely be determined by relatively elderly men.
It’s time to launch a fightback. Either councillors get proper allowances that reflect the long hours or local democracy remains the preserve of an aged elite. There is much that can be done by councils themselves – moving meetings to evenings to ensure those with jobs can attend, for instance. Many are bringing back the committee system in the hope of revitalising debates and potentially giving more councillors important roles. However, there is an onus on the whole of society to rethink its attitude to those performing civic duty – respect, not abuse, should be the norm.
I think most councillors would seek a simple acknowledgement for making the effort , not even respect, that’s probably too much to expect today’s, ‘I have my rights’ society.
If somebody was to ask me about becoming a councillor nowadays, I’m not sure what I would tell them were the benefits of doing so and I don’t mean to the councillor. Government funding cuts and more and more centralisation of power, hidden behind the facade of Localism, means that getting elected is more likely to become a exercise in frustration and disappointment, than a fulfilling experience in serving the community.