England has among the fewest councillors sitting on the largest councils and representing more people compared with our European counterparts.
Yet more important for local democracy is the role councillors have in linking citizens to local government and effectively representing and working with constituents and communities.
The possible creation of new big unitaries could lead to the loss of a large number of hardworking, dedicated councillors. Thus, the workload and time demands for those remaining will increase.
Moreover, it is not just the council that is the focus of councillors’ attention, as the public will approach them about a range of organisations and services – the NHS, police and public utilities, for example – making extra demands on hard-pressed elected members.
Exploring the support councillors receive from councils shows a wide range of practices. Some barely recognise that councillors outside the executive require any support, apart from training.
Even at the other end of the scale, where secretarial, administrative and technology support is provided, the balance is often heavily focused on leading members.
“All councillors, including opposition groups, and not just leaders, need parity of esteem and provision”
If English local government is to get bigger with fewer councillors, however, it is not unreasonable to look at the support provided to backbench MPs as a basis for underpinning the work of councillors.
A few steps are needed to rebalance the situation and provide all councillors with effective support. For a start, all councillors, including opposition groups – and not just leaders – need parity of esteem and provision. There is a challenge here for officers to refocus their work on meeting the needs of all councillors.
There is a general set of demands councillors across the country present, which forms the minimum basis for support provided and would make their working life on any council more effective. These include:
- Dedicated and focused secretarial and administrative support, along with IT equipment (the latter already common)
- Research and policy development facilities, with officers dedicated to providing research material on any subject
- A link officer to navigate complex council organisational structures
- Officers dedicated to supporting councillors in interacting with complex networks of external organisations
- A case-work centre to coordinate and respond to councillors’ ward and divisional work.
While some of the above is provided by some councils, many members are left with inadequate support for their complex, multifaceted work.
Like the opening scene of the 1960s TV programme The Prisoner, when asked what they want, councillors often reply ‘information’.
The steps above, alongside a House of Commons-style library research service in each council, would go some way to meeting that demand. Principal authorities should make the support above open to parish councillors as well.
Finally, stop the cheese-paring, self-denying ordinance on members’ allowances. Yes, increases get bad press, but not adequately reflecting the results of independent reviews of members’ allowances to assuage the local media – which you will never do – unfairly penalises councillors for the financial sacrifice often made.
A question yet to be raised and often avoided is: do we now need all councillors to be full-time and salaried? Let that debate commence.