Friday, July 25, 2008

How Good or Bad Are Local Councillors?

Those of you who are interested in local government might like to check out an interview on the Total Politics Local Government Blog with Dr Phyllis Starkey, Labour chairman of the Communities and Local Government Select Committee. She says...
The councils themselves need to change their mindset, and start doing things instead of always using the excuse that they're not permitted to, or that central government doesn't want to, or that they don't have the finance. Councils need to think much more imaginatively themselves.
I had to re-read that when I first read it. It's a strange definition of localism. She also talks about the quality of local councillors.
Clearly the quality is variable, just as the quality of Members of Parliament is. There’s no evidence that the quality of councillors has got worse or better. It’s interesting that even in the 18th century you found commentators railing against the poor quality of local councillors so I think this is a theme - a bit like people complaining that young people are badly behaved. There are some extremely impressive councillors in many different sorts of councils who are operating in innovative ways for their local communities. And there are some very unimpressive councillors. I suppose it’s fair to say you tend to get more of the unimpressive ones in areas where one political party has more or less an uninterrupted hold on the control of the local council.
I totally agree with that analysis. One party fiefdoms seldom result in good government. Anyway, read the rest of the interview HERE.

18 comments:

Anonymous said...

I have to agree with you. We have a couple here in Herefordshire - they're Tories as it happens - who just get re-elected time and time again, yet are a waste of space. Can't be bothered to turn up to important public local meetings concerning their wards, etc, etc (yet good at turning up to expense claiming council meetings).

I think the reason is that most people perceive local government councillors as just being Whitehall's lackeys - and therefore not worth the effort of going out on a wet night to vote.

Richard Nabavi said...

This whole question of how councils are run is worth a close look. In my experience, admittedly based only on my local (Conservative) District and County Councils, there is some very poor decision-making. However, I don’t think the Councillors in general are incompetent, nor do I think the Officers as a whole are the lazy good-for-nothings as they sometimes portrayed (although their morale is low).

It is the way the institution is set up which is the problem. In particular, Labour’s introduction of the Cabinet system was done badly. I can understand why they did it – the old Committee system was cumbersome – but the net effect has been to reduce scrutiny and politicise decision-making unnecessarily, and to give too much power to officers. In particular, you have the ludicrous system of ‘Lead Member’ meetings, where the Councillor in charge of a particular portfolio has a meeting with himself or herself and gets presented with officers’ recommendations – effectively fait-accomplis. Other councillors have only limited capacity to influence the decision. It is very hard in these circumstances for the recommendations to be properly examined.

My number 1 suggestion is that the Council cabinets should ask officers where possible to present the arguments for and against different courses of action, rather than (as now) saying “we recommend you do this and here’s why.” My second suggestion is that Lead Members should appoint a group of other (non-cabinet) councillors to scrutinise the officers’ recommendations before a decision is taken. And this group should include members who are not in the dominant political group.

There are a whole lot of other changes which I think should be considered, but it would take too much space to describe them here.

Neil Reddin said...

Interesting how "localism" for the Government only starts after they've dumped various problems on local government without adequate resourcing.

OK, so I suppose I'm just another councillor complaining that we don't have the finance - but since our borough's finance settlement for some years now has been less than the rate of inlfation, it's patently true.

True localism would mean the Met commissioner, or even our borough commander, being able to take decisions on the ground without having reference to the Home Office (who set the real priorities), or that our own Council's planning colleagues taking decisions that can fundamentally affect our environment, quality of life, and economic fortunes without being overruled by the Secretary of State.

I could go on, but I'm clearly not living in Dr Starkey's world, so will promise in future to think more imaginatively. Just as I suppose our residents have to when their pay packet isn't increasing in line with Dr Starkey's.

Pardon the rant. I'll go and have a lie down in a darkened room now.

superg said...

the utter arrogance. Councils are like battered wives, they are so used to receiving orders from Westminster, that even if you gave them freedom, they wouldnt know what to do with it and ask the Government for guidance.

Councils are little more then doormats for the Government, they intimidate, they manipulate, they control.
No wonder councils are universally disliked and considered mediocre.

Guthrum said...

One party fiefdoms seldom result in good government.

Amen to that ! Just off to a public meeting to try to overturn some of our Councillours more insane measures, no opposition from Lab/Lib/Green/UKIP/LPUK to acting the local Cons like something out of a 1950's Masonic Hall

ToryAndProud said...

There are good councillors. You can tell them by the word next to their name on the council's website - 'Conservative'.

curly15 said...

One party fiefdoms tend to survive because the opposition to them is so piss poor! Just look here at long standing Labour councils on Tyneside happily getting on as normal with a multi faceted, fractious, divided group of opposition parties ranged against them.

It is only since the Tories on North Tyneside and the Lib-Dems in Newcastle organised themselves a little better that things began to change.

Here in South Tyneside the Labour Party has decided to give the Freedom of the Borough to it's former Leader who was chucked out on his ear by voters in May, and this is how we opposed the move!

I hope you get the drift about quality of opposition.

inamicus said...

Was on a bus trip with a lot of Tory councillors on Wednesday.

Would Tory and Proud like to comment on the Tory council leader (Swindon)'s remark that "there is no point in making social housing nice", or the Stafford councillor on being told that we would not be getting out as previously planned to look at a regeneration scheme in the middle of a black and asian community who shouted out "Probably because we'd get stabbed"?

John said...

This is the same Phyllis Starkey who was a long-time councillor in the Labour fiefdom of Oxford? Was she criticising herself, or just former colleagues?

Anonymous said...

Richard Nabavi said... "My number 1 suggestion is that the Council cabinets should ask officers where possible to present the arguments for and against different courses of action, rather than (as now) saying “we recommend you do this and here’s why.”"

In the county council in which I worked the normal practice was for officers to produce a report examining all aspects of the particular problem, considering the pros and cons of alternative courses of action and only then making a recommendation.

Of course, sometimes the members had already made up their minds, without serious consideration, and were looking for a report which would support their decision.

John M Ward said...

Mention in these comments of the Cabinet-plus-Scrutiny model is interesting.

That wholesale change has (predictably enough) created a "them and us" situation for all non-Cabinet councillors, and has been a failure to deal with deficiencies in the old system: it was simply scrapped, throwing out the baby along with the bathwater.

Some of us have tried very hard indeed to make the new system work, especially in our endeavours to make it as non-party political as we could. It has, though, been the opposition members here in Medway who have worked almost exclusively in a party political manner, so that idea hasn't worked.

My own view remains that all decisions should be made by representatives of those affected. Well over 90% of the time this will be at the local level, occasionally in collaboration with neighbouring local authorities.

It is no business of any outsider whatsoever what happens in any locality. With Holyrood, Cardiff, Stormont and now Brussels holding most of the power between them, there isn't even any possible justification for a UK Parliament, so I don't know what they think they are doing trying to tell communities their business or passing judgment on them.

I'd suggestr to Starkey et al that they just butt out and stay out of communities' affairs, and stop dictating how they will run those affairs. It's our business, within the communities themselves.

Tony Sharp said...

I have not read the article yet, but based on Iain's comments I would say that as a Councillor there is nothing I would like more than to "start doing things".

Maybe Dr Starkey would care to sit in on some council committees and explain why, when Officers say "that is not something we are allowed to do" why they are mistaken.

Maybe she could explain why councils have been forced to spin off their housing stock to housing associations, rather than allow councils to borrow money to make improvements.

Perhaps Dr Starkey can illuminate me as to why some councils are focusing time and resource of ticking boxes in comprehensive assessments - on subjects such as diversity and how swimming pools are addressing health inequalities - when we should be using that time and resource on improving service delivery and trying to reduce the tax burden on hard pressed residents.

Yes there are some very poor councillors. There are some very good councillors. But permission to do things, central government dictat, interference by unaccountable quangos and underfunding are not elements of a "mindset" in council chambers, they are a reality.

Mike Law said...

I was a councillor in the London Borough of Newham from 2002 to 2006. Newham has an elected mayor, in 2005 I crossed the floor from Labour to the Conservatives because of the way the Labour Mayor (Sir Robin Wales) had developed the mayoral system.

Without going into too much detail a taste of what has gone in Newham can be found here (Newham e-democracy forum): http://forums.e-democracy.org/r/topic/3BgSY7x0zZhyaqCxyRkx6v

I also submitted a comment to Hazel Blears empowerment blog, this is the response I got today:

Dear Mike,

Thank you for taking part in Hazel Blears' Empowerment Blog. Unfortunately we have been unable to publish your contribution due to certain allegations made about Newham council.

' Before you get too carried away, you really need to take a good hard look at how the mayoral system can be abused and I suggest no better place to look than Newham.

There is no scrutiny of mayoral decisions; the mayor has appointed a large coterie of "Advisors" from members of his own political party (far larger in number than any other authority with an elected mayor - I've done the research) and thereby has control of the Council chamber via patronage - his party hold 54 of the 60 seats on the Council; virtually all Council generated newsletters have become nothing more than a propaganda sheets for the glorification of the current elected mayor... and I'll not venture to start on the fiasco that is Newham's Parks Constabulary (a pet project of the Mayor).

I would be more than willing to discuss all of the above (and provide copious evidence) should you be interested.'
I would suggest that you may wish to take up this matter with the Mayor's office at the London Borough of Newham at this email address: xxxxxxx@newham,gov.uk.

Kind regards
Anne Wilkins
Communications Team
Community Empowerment

Interestingly, the person I was referred to on Newham council is the same one I have been in communication with re the content on the e-forum.

I'm in the process of getting a localised blog going (newhamdoublethink.blogspot.com) to cover what is going on in island Newham.

Anyway, long story short: if you want to examine a fucked up council look no further than Newham.

Anonymous said...

If the government were to stop telling Cambridgeshire it must introduce congestion charging in Cambridge or they can't bid for funding from the Transport innovation fund, then I might start to believe central government doesn't try to exert direct control over local Councils through a system of regulation and blackmail, until then I'm going to take a lot of convincing to accept that Councillors really are free to make the key decisions affecting the local area.

Anonymous said...

councillors seem to reflect and put into action what the government of the day demands instead of doing as local opinion demands. ie. sitting on un elected regional assemblies.
Prescott's guided democracy does not help either. Councillors are not allowed pre conceived opinions on anything even if they were elected on account of their personal stance on an issue. They are often reported to the standards board of England for having pre formed ideas.
unless they can stop this nonsense there is not much point in having them.

Anonymous said...

I totally agree with that analysis.

You call that an analysis?

Alex Swanson said...

I live in Dr Starkey's constituency, and was a parish councillor here for several years. We had a standing invitation to her to come to our meetings. In the time I was there, she visited precisely once.

Mrs H, TW said...

There's a lot in this article.

For the first time in my life I'm seriously considering voting Conservative at the next general election. I'm disillusioned with the Labour Government and feel that David Cameron is talking a lot of sense.

However there is one thing holding me back from saying I will vote Conservative and that is the dismal performance of my local council, Tunbridge Wells. There is such a wide gulf between what the Conservatives say and do at national level compared to locally - it's difficult to believe they're the same party.

The town itself is becoming ever scruffier; the former cinema has been derelict for at least 6 years; roads and pavements in a state of disrepair; roadside verges left uncut and choked with weeds etc. The town really doesn't deserve its "Royal" tag these days.