The constancy of change in local government, more often than not resulting from central government policy, shapes councillors’ experiences.
Government oversight, constraints and regulations – none more frustrating than the wait for government regulations to be able to hold virtual meetings – means councillors’ main task is carving out as much policy and political discretion as possible in governing their area.
Devolution could be presumed to strengthen the councillor as a politician and community governor. But the focus on combined authorities and the ever-present threat of reorganisation upheaval has seen councillors become the forgotten part of devolution. Overlooking councillors is a major flaw in devolution, especially as the work of the councillor is changing.
It is our councillors who are confronted with demographic change and shifting populations, austerity, the pressures of urbanisation or declining rural populations, increasing service demands at a time of diminishing resources, growing demand for public participation within local representative democracy, and the continued territorial upheaval in the public sector landscape. Then there is COVID-19!
Recent research among councillors has revealed how much their work is changing. While the council remains an important arena as the body to which councillors are elected, they are confronted with a fragmented landscape of public service provision and an often chaotic environment involving a vast array of public, private and third-sector bodies that they must navigate.
Myriad competing and interacting organisations, and a complex network of agencies and bodies, demand councillors’ attention and – compared to the council – those bodies will have different purposes, goals, resources, policies, structures, ambitions and powers.
Many operate beyond councils’ boundaries and have little or no accountability to the public or any concern for place or community; yet they will spend public money, make policy decisions and take action that will affect the wellbeing of communities for decades to come. They do this with little or no democratic link to the communities that their actions affect.
Councillors are spending more of their time engaging with, negotiating, pressurising, building alliances and coalitions, influencing, informing and shaping the polices and decisions of these other bodies. Councillors are investing considerable time and effort in joining together fragmented networks and holding to account public and private organisations.
Such work by councillors has two dimensions: the strategic and long-term, which is about developing an overview of how the local area will develop over time; and the pragmatic and day-to-day, often focused on a ward or a division, to create solutions to practical local problems.
It is not just councillors who are members of health trusts, police and crime panels, local enterprise partnerships, drainage boards, areas of outstanding natural beauty partnership committees, national parks committees, flood defence committees and public transport consortium (to name a few) that have these tasks.
All councillors are engaging with the police, the health service (in all its manifestations), transport bodies (bus and rail companies), private developers, probation services, telecommunication companies, public utilities and government departments.
Securing democratic public accountability and governing through other organisations is a vital role for all councillors and councils need to ensure that work is recognised and our councillors supported in a new dimension of local government.