Kirklees Council has recently launched a Democracy Commission to ‘take a health check’ on local democracy through research, public inquiries and inviting local residents to join the debate.
One of their themes involves looking at how to support councillors to be strong representatives of their community, and a recent evidence session highlighted the need for councillors to ‘show their shared humanity with citizens – not hide behind a role and a desk’.
I was a councillor for seven years in a London borough, and spent a lot of time reflecting on what the role meant and how to do it well. I don’t disagree with Dr Catherine Needham's point. There are over 21,000 councillors in the UK, and many different ways of approaching and interpreting that responsibility. It's an incredibly challenging position at times, and councillors lack regular access to constructive feedback on how to improve, or do things differently - apart from at the ballot box. I stood down as a councillor when I felt I could no longer give the role the energy it needed whilst juggling a full time job alongside. My reflections are:
1) Effective councillors should know what is going on in their patch – from the tricky issues and campaigns, to the hopes and dreams that residents have for their area. This includes being out and about – attending local resident groups, setting up new forums to bring people together to gather ideas and identify common goals and actions, and being available in person, by email and over the phone for problems that need individual attention. I never had a desk in the Town Hall, and would argue that there is no need for any backbench councillor to have one!
2) Hopefully, most councillors stand for office because they want to make a difference, and they want to help people. Of course, that does not guarantee humanity and a warm touch. At times, I needed that sense of humour and thick skin, but when I look back on my time as a councillor, it’s not the endlessly dull Full Council meetings at the Town Hall that stand out – it’s the connections and relationships that I remember. The people I met locally in my ward, got to know, had often challenging conversations with, but was inspired by their energy and passion for the neighbourhood we shared. Councillors are closer to the ground than MPs, representing a smaller number of people – that is a massive opportunity in itself to be more accessible and open.
3) Councillors play a role in being the bridge between the Town Hall and the community. The relationships between residents and the Town Hall tend to be transactional (buying a parking voucher, paying council tax), or one based on a particular need (social care, housing), and most will not see the faces working behind the scenes. I had my fair share of frustrations over trying to navigate through the system to get things done. But I also learnt a lot from the council officers who were willing to walk up and down a street with me at 7am looking at discarded kebab wrappers, or come and face an angry room of residents on a planning issue. Ultimately, it meant we understood each other’s roles better, officers could hear and see the problem directly, and we could work together to try and find a solution – balancing honesty, and realism with the need to act quickly. Residents hopefully saw that the Town Hall didn’t exist ‘over there’, but was part of those very local level connections.
There have been a lot of attempts over the years to understand the role of councillors, including previous commissions, and the Councillors on the frontline inquiry by the CLG Select Committee. Local government has changed considerably since 2010, and there’s a lot still to discuss about local leadership. Initiatives like the Kirklees Commission, Not Westminster, the 21st Century Public Servant research, and DMU’s Councillor Commission are all bringing new perspectives. Although I'm enjoying my free evenings and weekends a lot at the moment – it’s time to get involved!
If more councillors and officers are going to connect honestly and warmly with citizens, then managers (and party leaders) will need to have a sense of humour and a thick skin. Let’s look for those things when recruiting leaders, and help develop a culture of humanity in local government.