I have just spent four years as a local councillor, and I know that ordinary people do not want more powerby Jonathan Myerson / May 26, 2007 / Leave a comment
Turnout at local elections hovers at around 35 per cent, dropping to 25 per cent in London: a shockingly low figure. Whitehall, think tanks and commissions are full of ideas about how to reinvigorate local democracy. But after four years as a councillor in Lambeth, it is clear to me that the protagonists in this debate remain frighteningly ignorant about the reality of local politics, and about what people want from their “local governors.”
All the parties and think tanks want to hand power back to citizens. Labour believes “local communities are just better at dealing with their own problems. They have the networks.” The Tories “advocate devolving power directly to the citizen,” and the Lib Dems want “local communities… to have more influence and say over the issues affecting them.” But my time as a councillor has told me one thing: citizens don’t want more power; they want someone to do it for them.
One of my polling districts comprised 99 per cent local authority housing, meaning its voters were heavy users of council services. These are the people who should be most eager to use the ballot box. But turnout here struggled to reach double figures. Yet the “new localism” continues to find ears in Whitehall. New tiers of committees and “urban parish councils” will, say ministers, reinvigorate local involvement. Much of the thinking in the department for communities and local government’s recent white paper, “Strong and Prosperous Communities,” is informed by such ideas.
On the other side are the proponents of the “1 per cent solution” (see the Demos/Rowntree report “Community Participation: Who Benefits?” and Paul Skidmore in Prospect, December 2006). They concede that very few people will ever get involved in local governance, and argue that the important thing is that those that do want to get involved are able to, and that there are clear paths of accountability between them and voters.
I admire the realism of the “1 per centers,” and the idealism of the new localists, but both plans fail to take account of local councillors. The Demos report mentions them in only one of its seven illustrative schemes. The government white paper, despite proclaiming that “councillors should be champions for their local community,” actually creates structures for people to prompt, provoke or even sidestep their local councillor.
After years on the front line, it seems to me that people want more councillor involvement. They don’t want to run services themselves. They want local councillors to do local democracy for them.
So how should we reform the system? Money lies at the heart of it. In Lambeth, we were granted £8,000 a year to cover expenses. This sort of stipend is never going to enable someone to give up work to become a councillor—it remains a hobby for part-timers. And this means that you get a bizarrely off-kilter cross-section of individuals on your council. Far too many of Lambeth’s 63 councillors were employed in the public sector, often as consultants, and far too few (five at my last count) had school-age children. There were fewer retirees than in many councils (the national average age for a councillor is late fifties), but too many single young men—who else has the time?
So my first proposed reform is to pay our councillors a proper wage: say £45,000 per year pro rata. That’s about what we pay primary school deputy heads, and it is comfortably less than the assistant directors and strategy managers with whom councillors spend their days.
How will we pay for this? My second reform: by employing fewer councillors. Most urban wards have three. Once he or she is paid full-time, we’ll need only one. Imagine what it would be like to have one focused representative speaking for the ward, knowing that his or her future depends on serving the electorate well.
Reform number three: there will be a councillor’s office open during the day and some evenings/weekends—no more queuing for the one-hour weekly surgery. Even if the councillor isn’t there, we’re going to give him secretarial support. The sooner we remove local government from its amateur morass, the sooner we will start to demand real action from our councillors. And when we don’t get it, we will go back to the ballot box.
Reform number four: abolish 90 per cent of public consultation. The white paper wants to “consult service users more,” and Demos wants a “local right of initiative,” but I have lost my faith in consultation. I chaired an inquiry into the Brixton Triangle controlled parking zone. The plan for the zone had been sent out for residents’ consultation no fewer than three times. And every time it drew an increasingly healthy vote in favour of introducing the zone. But by the time each consultation was completed, there was no money left actually to implement the zone. There literally wasn’t enough for the signs and paint—even for an enterprise which would bring money back into the council.
Contrast this with a local traffic-calming scheme—one of the most contentious issues of my time in office. The result of the scheme in one ward was traffic jams leaking back across two other wards. The nine relevant councillors met to discuss the options. In about 40 minutes, we came to a consensus. We swapped 30mph zones for diversion signposting; we traded speed cushions for filter lights. No ward entirely gained and none entirely lost. Work started the following Monday. The cost of this consultation? Nine coffees and one packet of biscuits.
What about those residents who do want to get involved? At surgery one Saturday, a local resident gave me a hard time about street crime. I responded by advertising a public meeting—the local pub was happy to lend a room—and over 100 people turned up. I’m not sure how much useful work was done, but voices were heard, a few policing basics explained, and ideas suggested. And best of all, the community—a handful of streets with a particular problem—came together. Only one thing stopped it driving through to a result: my lack of time.
None of those who had called me to action wanted to become regularly involved. They wanted to make their views known on things that affected them directly—and leave me to get on with it.
The only time I ever saw genuinely unknown faces turn up to join a committee was when we established the Clapham common management advisory committee. There were anglers and joggers and landscapists. But when they come up for re-election next year, I doubt we will see such a turnout. Because they have discovered that they are just that: an advisory committee. And when their advice was at odds with that of executive officers, as it usually was, it was ignored.
So how do you get more people to join committees? Give them money—it’s the only way. If those Clapham common committee members came home saying, “We decided to plant a wild flower meadow beyond the bandstand—I signed the cheque tonight,” they would look forward to the next meeting. At the moment, the best they can hope for is, “We recommended to the executive that they seek funding for a feasibility study into a nature conservancy grant in 2012.”
My fifth proposed reform is to reform full council meetings. In Lambeth, these have degenerated into sub-sixth form, point-scoring rants. Like the House of Commons at its worst, without the stakes or wit, these four-hour marathons achieve less than nothing. But imagine a full council meeting that spent three minutes voting through the necessary motions to keep the majority group ruling, and then devoted the remaining three hours, 57 minutes to delegations from the borough who would be given serious time to make their case.
Having got this far, why not do the obvious and give the majority group a little longer to get something done? Reform number six: increase council terms to seven years. Town halls move with glacial slowness; four years gets almost nothing done. So let’s give councillors a good run and then, when you go to the ballot box, you’ll really have something to judge them by. It may even encourage a few more punters to vote.