After I stepped down from being a local councillor, I wondered if the problems I'd faced was everywhere. So I wrote to the other Councillor John Hartsby / April 5, 2018 / Leave a comment
Who’d be a councillor?
It’s a question I asked myself with increasing regularity, until poverty and pointlessness convinced me to step down from local government at the age of 34—decades before most councillors step up.
Being a councillor is like having a second spouse: Some days you look at your ward and think “you’re so beautiful and perfect, I can’t believe you chose me.” Others, you look at it and think “Aaargh! Why did I shackle myself to this idiot?!”
Who counsels the councillors?
At its heart, being a councillor means doing four things:
1. Advocating: Representing local residents and groups in their dealings with the council and other public bodies (often very personal, sometimes extremely harrowing, disproportionally related to dog poo, wheelie bins, and people homicidally angry because the council has somehow been unable to clear every last bit of snow from 4000 miles of roads before they’ve had their breakfast).
2. Scrutinising: Probing policies or performance of the council or other public bodies.
3. Regulating: Ruling in a quasi-judicial capacity on planning applications and licensed premises, taxi driver and scrap metal licenses.
4. Responding: To caps lock demagogues on Facebook who swear blind that the council has eleventeen squillion pounds in the bank and is only making these cuts because the council leader (who gets his own Concorde by the way) has a perverse vendetta against one particular village.
Councillors are effectively volunteering to be the community piñata. People line up to hit you with sticks; one in a dozen might get something out of you.
You suffer from imposter syndrome from the gratitude of people you achieved nothing for, save for being the first person in authority to ever fight for them.
And even though you know you’re doing a thankless job—and don’t even want to be thanked—there are days when people’s ingratitude makes you wish you hadn’t bothered.
Why I walked away
I still believe passionately in the power of local government to transform lives and communities, and that the best decisions are either taken at the most local level possible, or inspired by the direct experience of it.
But I felt I had no choice but to walk away from it.
First of all, there were the practicalities. Being self-employed, my boss was very understanding when it came to my civic duties. As an employer, my entire workforce was often distracted, interrupted or absent altogether. I couldn’t afford to live on my allowances alone, but couldn’t be an effective councillor if I didn’t give the role the attention it demanded and deserved.
Then there’s the structure. Like most councils since the local government reorganisation of 2009, my council was headed by an executive cabinet, scrutinised by a series of committees.
As a result, power felt concentrated entirely in the hands of, well, a handful. The scrutiny process scarcely extended past officers delivering half-hearted PowerPoint presentations in front of members who stared back like Golden Retrievers being shown a magic trick. An Ofsted inspection of our children’s services criticised a lack of political oversight, and frankly we were bang to rights.
Then there’s the predicament local government finds itself in: I stood for council because I was sick of my community getting second best. It rapidly became ominously obvious that second best was, if anything, something to aspire towards.
The threat to local government
Local government in the UK faces a number of existential threats:
1. Funding cuts set to reach 77 per cent by the year after next, leaving councils unable to provide even statutory services—and in the case of Northamptonshire County Council, confronting effective bankruptcy.
2. A haemorrhaging of responsibilities and resources to elected mayors and devolution deals, stripping it of purpose and power.
3. An apparent willingness from national leadership—evidenced by Jeremy Corbyn’s recent intervention into housing regeneration plans in Haringey—to impose central policy on local councils.
It faces these challenges ill-equipped in both structure and personnel to resist, increasingly devoid of a niche in which to sustain or even justify itself and armed only with a shallow talent pool it is often impossible to swim to the top of. Imagine Dad’s Army if the Wehrmacht had actually turned up on the beaches of Walmington-on-Sea.
Harold Wilson once said that as Prime Minister “the levers of power are all here.” In local government’s case the levers of power are miles away, and up close they’re pretty rusty.
But that’s just my opinion. What about other councillors? And how do I get a representative sample of councillors without just interviewing people who I know will agree with me? The answer was looking at me in the mirror. Sort of.
There were three other Cllr John Harts. I set out to meet them.
Barnet John Hart
The average Cllr John Hart is male (obviously). There is a 75 per cent chance he is a Conservative (I’m the outlier). He is 66 years old (76, now I’m gone). And he receives a basic allowance of £8660 a year for his trouble—well below minimum wage.
Possessing the most luxurious moustache, not just in local government, but possibly on Earth itself, Barnet’s Cllr John Hart is a fascinating man: a Pakistan-born Conservative trade unionist who has written novels set in the ice-age.
Even though he’s been a councillor since 1982—the year I was born—he immediately endorsed my sense of futility.
“You try to do something for people and they are seldom grateful. Occasionally you do something good, or at least you’re there when it happens,” he sighed.
Barnet John Hart was particularly scornful of the executive member and scrutiny committee model—a system Barnet has gone so far as to abandon.
“Scrutiny committee were frankly a waste of time. People just pratted about at the public expense, offering no scrutiny at all. Actual decisions were taken elsewhere by a small group, a closed shop. It was just rubber-stamping.”
Barnet John also shared my concern that local government is being drained as much of power as it is of resources.
“Oh yes, I mean education has gone, academies can do what they goddamn like. Local government is just lumbered with things like children in care and looking after the elderly, things which are either expensive or difficult.”
He also agreed with me that “minuscule” allowances are an obstacle to recruiting and retaining high-quality councillors.
“You have to pay people if you want them to stay on. I couldn’t live on my allowances alone, not in Barnet.”
Finally, I asked him whether our current system leaves us with councillors who have the ability to dispatch the responsibilities of the role effectively?
“No of course not! Nor do I, for that matter!”
Wyre Forest John Hart
For such a cheerful man, Wyre Forest Cllr John Hart was equally deprecating about both the impact of councillors and himself.
“I’ve achieved nothing significant. I’m a makeweight, that’s all,” he chuckles.
“It’s absolutely thankless. I don’t want accolades and I know I can’t please everyone, but I just want to help. I’m not speaking for other councillors… well, I probably am speaking for other councillors!”
He was, at least, more positive about scrutiny committees, albeit in his own gently critical manner.
“Scrutiny committees seem to work well. It’s like a jury system. Sometimes you might look at a jury and think ‘this lot don’t have a brain cell between them, I don’t have a hope’ but it still seems to work. There are occasions when things go over people’s heads. I’m sure things go over my head!”
Although retired himself, Wyre Forest John Hart’s unique position as father of the council leader, Marcus Hart, gives him firsthand experience of the financial struggle working-age councillors can have.
“Allowances are a pittance, especially for leaders, given what the job entails. My son is a solicitor, but he has to sacrifice two days a week of work.”
Devon John Hart
Finally, there’s Devon Councillor John Hart. The daddy of Councillor John Harts. As leader of the council, he was the most elusive of John Harts, albeit one who does at least receive a special responsibility allowance raising his income—but there are other costs to consider.
“I have to have a second home in Exeter, as its 80 miles between County Hall and my house,” he tells me.
“I’m out of pocket, but it suits me. Commuting wasn’t a good way to run a family or a council, to be honest.”
He’s also been on the frontline when it comes to cuts, although he remains stoical and sanguine in the face of the challenge.
“I’ve shed half my officers. When George Osborne made his emergency budget in the summer of 2010 we were hit with £40m of savings to find mid-year alone. Fortunately, we were ahead of the curve, had realised we were going to get stuffed, frankly, and had taken steps to absorb the impact in advance. But it hasn’t endeared me to anyone.”
“Historically councils only provided statutory services and in a way we’ve come full circle.”
While admitting that Scrutiny Committees don’t keep him awake at night (“nothing keeps me awake at night, though”) as council leader he admits to worrying about bringing through the next generation of council leaders.
“I run my own business, and when I became leader I was fortunate that my sons were willing to take over the day-to-day running of it. If that hadn’t been the case I might not have been able to accept the job.
“Cabinet members have to be fulltime. Some of them have budgets of £400m. We have a very strong cabinet but we’re all getting older. It’s not just money we need, its brains.
“We may have to increase allowances. I haven’t done so for 9 years, and they’ll be hell on. But it’s something we have to consider.”
So, what now?
The general agreement among the John Harts seems to be that councils need to do more to attract and retain talented members, that the scrutiny committee model is imperfect, and that that there are huge challenges ahead in a time of seemingly unending austerity.
So what is to be done? This John Hart for one has a number of suggestions.
Remodel scrutiny committees
The current scrutiny model is unfit for purpose – mainly as a result of its structurally-enforced passivity. Local government would be much better served by an inquisitorial model, where chairs are empowered to conduct more focused and in-depth analysis of policy proposals through seeking external expert evidence from professional bodies and other local authorities, rather than hearing purely from their own officers.
Committees could then draw up detailed reports featuring suggestions for modifying policy – with proposed changes going before full council for acceptance or rejection.
Develop talent through junior cabinet roles
Although some councils provide a modest special responsibility allowance for sub-cabinet positions or have unpaid cabinet support roles, provision is in my experience patchy, badly-defined and poorly-remunerated. As a result, there is scant opportunity for cabinet members of the future to cut their teeth by taking on additional responsibilities, either financially or in terms of opportunity. This is easily addressed by ensuring that all councils have such a system, with post-holders given specified roles and even a degree of autonomy.
Pay the above accordingly
No-one wants professional councillors, not least when the current system can work. I was fortunate to serve alongside Councillors Bob Glass (30 years experience as a policeman) and Olwyn Gunn (retired head teacher). Ultimately they were much better placed to comment on community safety and education than me. However, there needs to be additional capacity within local government to attract and retain high-quality leaders.
Therefore, there is a case for reducing the overall number of councillors in many authorities, and reinvesting the savings in better-remunerated committee chairs and executive members, reflecting the increased responsibilities outlined above.
As a level of quality control, all appointments should be subject to confirmation hearings followed by free vote at full council or politically balanced sub-committee, forcing the ambitious to justify to their peers that they have the ability, experience and vision to take on these roles.
Abolish whipping (some of the time)
Ok, so if you’ve got a majority of one, and you need to pass a budget you’ve got to whip people to vote a certain way. But much of the time a whipping process encourages a needlessly adversarial approach where governing groups damage the credibility of local government with ovine block voting, and opposition parties damage the credibility of local government with unconstructive and disproportionately hostile block voting.
By removing whipping wherever appropriate to the smooth execution of local government, you may encourage a system where governing group backbenches are freer to make suggestions which improve the reputation and delivery of the council as a whole, and where opposition groups do not feel the need to adopt antagonising positions purely for publicity.