fixing local democracy

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local democracy is broken:

  • there is a deficit of trust between the public, councillors and council officers, owing to poor communication and, in some cases, poor performance.
  • the deficit of trust extends to central government’s view of local government, leading to a reluctance to devolve more power.
  • councillor allowances are so low that few people can afford to be a councillor, severely constraining the pool of potential candidates.
  • councillors who have to earn a wage find themselves working an unhealthy number of hours, leading to burnout and strain on their family life.
  • the quality of committee debate, decision making and policy is often unsatisfactory, partly because councillors rarely have time to read, yet alone digest, meeting agenda packs, which can run to hundreds of pages.
  • constituents have a poor understanding of which councillor to contact about what issue.

but it needn’t be this way: a radical reorganisation of local democracy could lead to better representation and governance at no greater cost.

allowances for councillors representing the 14 wards of Cambridge city in 2014-15

Cambridge allowances
councillors basic average leader annual cost*
Cambridgeshire 14 £7,700 £11,747 £22,700 †£164,464
Cambridge City 42 £2,782 £5,756 £13,632 £241,737
total 56 n/a £7,254 n/a £406,201

*not including travel and subsistence expenses (which are not income).
†pro-rata from total cost of £810,577 for 69 county councillors.

fewer, full-time city councillors

imagine that, instead of electing three City and one County councillor per ward, you elected just one, full-time councillor to represent you on both councils. if the £406,201 of allowances paid out in 2014-15 to local councillors had been paid to just fourteen, their average remuneration would have been £29,014. that could equate to a pay scale ranging from around £25,000 to around £50,000 for the leader – livable (though not generous) salaries: £25,000 equates to £12/hour (based on 260 8-hour working days).

by comparison, Cambridge’s MP represents thirteen wards (Queen Ediths is in South Cambridgeshire constituency), with the assistance usually of a part-time researcher/administrator, and receives a salary of £74,000 (as of 8 May 2015). therefore it is not unreasonable to think that local matters could be well-represented by a team of fourteen full-time councillors.

by further comparison in 2014-15, the chief executive of the County Council received remuneration (salary plus pension contributions) of £228,177; and the chief executive of the City Council received £138,820.

benefits

this arrangement would have many benefits:

  • councillors would be committed full-time to representing their constituents, and guiding and scrutinising the work of council officers.
  • having all councillors involved in both city and county councils would ensure more joined-up thinking, and facilitate collaboration leading to cost savings.
  • fewer councillor positions and more people feeling able to be councillors would create greater competition for the best talent, commitment and performance, ensuring consistently high calibre elected councillors.
  • constituents would have a single point of contact for local issues.
  • councillors could be reasonably expected to correspond in a timely manner, to hold weekly surgeries, and to communicate regularly (e.g. via a website) with their constituents.
  • more effective local democracy would argue strongly for more powers to be devolved from central government.

part-time councillors

being a councillor part-time works well for some people, especially those who have caring responsibilities or have their own business. job-sharing could be the answer. in a sense that is what happens now, because each ward or district is typically represented by between two and four councillors, but there is no formal job-sharing arrangement; in fact quite the reverse when councillors are from different political parties.

if each ward or district is to be represented by one full-time councillor, then anyone who wants to do the job part-time would need to arrange a job-share with someone else, and stand together with that person for election on the same ticket. the terms of the job-share should be made public at the time of standing for election so that it is clear who would be responsible for what; how they would split the allowance; and how they would be contactable (ideally offering a single point of contact).

political party organisers should be able to arrange suitable matches, but independents would need to use their initiative. once the principal is established, there should be no reason to stop three or more people standing together for a single councillor position.

beyond the city

outside the city, each district would elect a single councillor to represent them on the relevant district and county council. (in reality many already stand for election to both councils.) since many rural wards have small populations (as low as 1,200 – compared with around 6,000 per ward in the city), there would need to be a radical redrawing of ward boundaries to enable a 75% reduction in the number of councillors across the whole county.

further information

contributors

Edward Leigh

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