West Wales News Review — analysis with a sustainability slant

Who wants to volunteer for a kicking? Re-imagining local government

Local government. Yawns?

How to interest you, me, everyone, in  taking back democratic decision-making from the institutions to which we have allowed it to be delegated?

All sorts of plans are afoot to reorganise local government in Wales. The proposals of the Williams Commission have been well aired, and there are other plans in the ether too. The current 22 local authorities, which are expensive, have a beady eye on self-preservation. (How many organisations accept disbandment without a fight?) Lots of people — council officers, councillors — are doing very nicely thank you. Hefty salaries and expenses (compared with the minimum wage), support comfortable lifestyles even when local communities are going to pot.

Suppose the numbers of county councillors were drastically cut, from over 1,250 at present to 500 to 800, which could happen if there were a switch from 22 authorities to between seven and twelve regional authorities, responsible for, say, strategic planning, education, social services, co-working with the NHS, highways and waste collection, disposal and recycling. Several hundred formerly well-remunerated councillors would find themselves redundant.

Could they be candidates for revitalised, restructured community councils, with more powers than now — powers approaching those of the old district councils, perhaps? A larger role for community councils is one of the ideas percolating. Those for whom an income is irrelevant might be pleased at the prospect, but how representative would community councils be if their members were unpaid and yet carried significant responsibilities? Lots of people would not be able to stand for election if winning meant they could no longer afford to live. Once elected, councillors have to take a lot of kicks when their authorities take unpopular decisions, but rarely receive praise however diligently they work.

There’s a lot of talk about grass-roots democracy, but if it is to work well, the public needs to believe that personal participation is more important than their leisure time, more important than their career prospects (in these days of zero-hours and short-term contracts, annoying the boss is a short-cut to the sack). And what about carers? How could women — and men — with responsibilities for looking after children, or disabled and elderly relatives,  fulfil statutory local government responsibilities without any recompense?

Rubbish, I hear, community councillors are not paid now. No, but although motivated by a wish to support their communities, many have light workloads. Approaching half of all community councils in Wales serve populations of under 1,000 people. By and large community councillors do not have to make decisions which will greatly affect their localities. That would change under some of the new local government structures being discussed.

In the county councils, most councillors are over 60. Men with businesses and/or comfortable pensions are over-represented. Councillors who stand up for their communities — especially female councillors, I have noticed — are regarded as ‘difficult’. Council officers are used to being in charge, determining which information councillors can access, which policy options are put forward, which questions can be asked.

A reduction in the number of local authorities in Wales, whether to the ten or twelve proposed by the Williams Commission, or even fewer, would upset the career plans of hundreds of officials and spur a spate of early retirements accompanied by, in some cases, eye-watering redundancy payments. New councils created on this field of pain will struggle to achieve more than their predecessors unless there are many more candidates to become councillors, candidates who are willing to make public service a high priority in their lives.  The example of school governors, unpaid, is not encouraging. One governor post is ten is vacant, one in four in districts where comfortably-off professionals are sparse.

There are too few candidates even for the county councils, where the basic allowance in Wales is £13,828 a year and councillors who chair committees, or sit on executive boards, can receive a great deal more. The remuneration of Carmarthenshire County Council’s leader, Labour’s Kevin Madge, was nudging £48,000 in 2013-14, and the average over all 74 of the authority’s councillors was over £17,260. Even so, in the 2012 elections, across Wales one seat in every 12 was uncontested.

Unless more of us come to see local government as an important, absorbing enterprise, and are willing — and able — to be candidates, it won’t matter how cleverly the structure is reorganised, because the outcomes will be much the same as they are now.

How to make it possible for more people to be candidates? If we increase costs, we could offer childcare, relief help for carers, compensation for employers of councillors. But no one wants the costs of local government to rise.

Creative thinking urgently required!

Pat Dodd Racher





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