Local Councillors
14 October, 2005

Dick Sorabji, Head of Policy, NLGN
Local Government Chronicle

As Whitehall’s joining up agenda gathers pace there is a need for sharper executive leadership. Direct elections to the executive will help, but this has been seen as a threat to the backbench, or local councillor.

In fact separate elections for local councillors, representing a specific neighbourhood, but excluded from the executive could achieve three goals: attract more diverse talent to elected office, create a constituency that will drive through government plans for empowered neighbourhoods and reverse recent problems with the role of non-executive elected office.

Separate election supports the diverse motives of those seeking office. Some councillors like the challenge of building an effective organisation. Others operate like a pressure group for their area, too often feeling blocked by their duty to select an executive.

Freed from the constraint of needing to deliver a viable executive, elections could deliver other goals. More councillors could be elected to smaller wards, possibly with a single member, more closely aligned to neighbourhoods.

Smaller wards mean fewer votes needed to win and so active community groups could challenge the main political parties wherever those parties were moribund. Smaller wards create incentives both for new people to seek office and for old parties to raise their game.

A side effect of strengthening local councillors’ role is to resolve the dilemma at the heart of Whitehall’s neighbourhood policy. On the one hand the benefits of neighbourhood power only flow when communities are inclusive, representative and reduce inequality. But these judgements simply cannot be made from Whitehall: to drive change champions are needed at the front line.

Local councillors can be those champions. Council executives would publish their plans for devolution of powers. Inevitably many aspects of devolution will be dependent on evidence that community decision-making is inclusive and representative.

In the interim these powers should be devolved to the local councillor until community forums can meet these tests. Police, PCTs and other nationally run local services should also be required to publish such plans and transfer powers to councillors where community forums were not ready. Wielding real power over issues like parking, policing and public space councillors’ role will become the crucible of neighbourhood decision-making.

The best councillors will thrive. With power to adjudicate on local issues that matter, all councillors will come under far greater pressure from their community. They will have the strongest incentive to raise their game, hasten full devolution to communities, or leave office.

By creating local councillors independent of executive responsibility and wielding real power at neighbourhood level, we can create an environment in which local communities at last have power inside the local state that cannot be compromised by the local state. Combined with directly elected executives this reinvigoration of democracy could mean that thousands of councillors act as champions for joining up services and driving down power to the most local level.