Tag Archives: Councillors

How the Sunday Express turned £150 into £10

Or vice versa…

The Taxpayers’ (which ones?) Alliance  quote the Sunday Express, as follows:

The Local Government Association risked the coalition’s fury this month by recommending a 2.3 per cent rise in expenses while local services are slashed and employees’ pay is frozen. The association, which is exempt from the Freedom Of Information Act, has refused to publish details of councillors’ perks in “the current climate”…. A 2.3 per cent rise would bring the average daily allowance for councillors from £149.34 to £152.77.

A great story, with just two crucial flaws. The first is that it isn’t a recommendation, and the second that that isn’t the average daily allowance. Anyone in local government would immediately recognise that, since extrapolating to an annual sum would give a number which is earned by few Council leaders, let alone ordinary Councillors.

What the Sunday Express appear to have latched onto is the “day rate”.  In fairness to them, they seem to have cribbed it from a spectacularly disingenuous Government press release which fails to make clear that that “day rate” is simply a statistical measure of average pay in the country, from the Annual Survey of Hours and Earnings. It most certainly does not translate into “the average daily allowance”. 

Take for example this report (pdf) from Wellingborough Council.  Councillors’ allowances there are reached by taking the day rate referred to above, and applying it to a presumed 47 days a year (any Councillor who manages their job in so little time is almost certainly doing it wrong) and then dividing it in two again to account for local government being seen as “partly voluntary”. The result being that rather than the £150 a day quoted, being a Wellingborough Councillor in fact earns one, over the course of the year, the princely sum of £9.20 a day. A large unitary or county council would pay more, but not 16 times more.

Almost as impressive as the time here when the local newspaper reported that Councillors had voted to quadruple their allowances. It was gently pointed out to them that they had in fact compared two columns in a spreadsheet, one of which was a quarterly outturn, and one of which was an annual projection. Oh well, I guess they’ll have more time to check their facts when they don’t have a Council freesheet to outcompete. Not sure what will cure The Express, though. National politicians who aren’t pulling cheap stunts to distract attention from themselves, maybe. Some hope!

Topping the poll

Congratulations to Luke Akehurst for a second year as number one in the “Top Blogs by a Councillor” listings at totalpolitics.  Luke’s blog is undoubtedly a fascinating read if you want to hear about the latest in internal Labour Party fights, the thinking behind Government decisions, and why the Labour Left and the Tory Right are necessarily wrong about everything (the ontological argument for Blairism). Congratulations too to new entry at Number 2 and occasional LGO correspondent Paul of The Bickerstaffe Record.

It is perhaps telling, though, that the further you go up the top 30, the more they are blogs by Councillors, and the less they are blogs about being a Councillor. Perhaps that’s the nature of a poll for which everyone votes – local politics will only rarely be very interesting to people who don’t live in the local area in question. Anyway, well done all, well done as well to those very good blogs who opted out for their own reasons, but would clearly have done well had they participated. Some new reading for me, and maybe some new links to add…

The Councillor won’t see you now – a Whodunnit

Wandsworth Councillor James Cousins (whose blog I am allowed to recommend because he’s opted out of the Total Politics poll) is hosting an interesting little debate on surgeries. Broadly, he thinks nobody is coming to them and they’re therefore not much use. He sets out this case here, and provides an update based on both the discussion and e-mails he’s received here.

I used to work quite closely with a Conservative Councillor who was very forthright about not holding surgeries (in fairness he was very forthright about everything) and whose line was “I don’t need to hold a surgery, my constituents know which pub I drink in, and they can come and see me there if they need to”. I guess that’s one of the advantages of representing a large rural village. I know plenty of urban Labour Councillors who have given up holding surgeries too, and use that time to knock on doors in the area, asking if people have any problems they wish to raise, or deliver a leaflet the night before saying “Please put this in your window if you would like to talk to your Councillor tomorrow”.

So let’s assume for now that traditional surgeries are on the way out. What killed them, and is it an adequate replacement for them? My initial list of suspects runs as follows;

  • E-mail. Going and seeing your Councillor can be a good way of outlining a problem with which you need help, particularly if the alternative is writing a letter, waiting for a reply, then explaining in more detail, and so on. On the other hand dropping an e-mail to someone is quicker, both in delivery and the likely speed of reply, than a letter, and (I think) less intimidating than a phone call. As people lead busy lives and may not be able to make it to a surgery at a fixed time, e-mail is likely to prove an attractive alternative. The growing social trend towards instant gratification means that with a problem arising on a Tuesday, many people may not be willing to wait until Saturday to talk it over.
  • The internet more generally. Increasingly Councils are moving towards electronic systems which put individuals in direct contact with officers working on an issue – this can be seen particularly in the case of potholes, broken road signs, faulty street lights, and so on. Systems like Clarence, or websites like FixMyStreet, mean there is no need for Councillors to be involved. This may be less true of problems with, say, meals on wheels, but even there the drive towards choice and personalisation may mean negotiation is more frequently done with Council officers directly, rather than via an intermediary. The reformation coming to local government, 500 years after Martin Luther? Sorry, I just compared myself with God there didn’t I, must be more careful.
  • Councillor Disempowerment. In line with the above, there is perhaps less to be gained now from seeing your Councillor for many problems. Certainly the day when befriending your local Councillor was a good way to move yourself up the council house waiting list are (rightly, I would suggest) gone – although Councillors increasingly have devolved budgets to spend on small projects in their local area, so a surgery may be a good way to raise the profile of your proposed project in advance of that decision.
  • Social Working MPs. The late Tony Banks complained that the job of an MP was often to act as “a high-powered social worker”, and while many MPs might sympathise with his view that “It’s 22 years of the same cases, but just the faces and the people changing. I found it intellectually numbing, tedious in the extreme”, they will continue to do the work, as it’s a good way of gaining favour with their constituents who are helped. While it may be tedious, it’s also a good way of keeping MPs in touch with the problems faced by ordinary people. It would still be good, though, if Councillors were able to solve more problems, and MPs able to devote more time to debating and amending laws, and holding the Government to account. As matters stand (and I have been on both sides of this) Councils are undoubtedly more ‘scared’ of MPs, and a letter on behalf of a constituent from an MP will almost always carry more weight than one from a Councillor. I have no recent evidence, but I bet most MPs get people at their surgeries.

You can probably add reasons of your own, but I think the more important question is “Does this new scenario deliver the level of support in dealing with the authorities that people feel they need?”. I suspect there may be an excluded middle going on, and that problems are either simple enough that people feel they don’t need a Councillor’s help (broken street lights) or so complicated that even a very experienced Councillor may not be able to help very much – child protection may often be in this class.

Over to you.

Local Government is a lot like cricket…

…Everything happens within a specified boundary, according to a set of rules largely made in Westminster, and to the unitiated it often looks like one load of balls after another. All of which is merely by way of introduction to a tortuous analogy I have been mulling since Councillor Kevin Lynes (Kent, so I hope the cricket analogy isn’t a sore point) challenged me on my links over there —> listing “Councillors” separately from “Politicians”.

Of course, Councillors are clearly politicians  – they achieve their position through a combination of selection and election. Even those elected without a party label are engaged in electoral and administrative politics. Nonetheless I suspect that across much of the country someone who became a Councillor primarily because they enjoyed the cut and thrust of party politics, and wished to advance a strong ideological position would find the frustrations of office very keenly; the central government prescription, the practical limitations of ‘the art of the possible’, and the sheer hard work of dealing with small decisions of limited political controversy,  and helping constituents through their problems. A school admissions appeal may well result from mistaken national education policy, but the parents and child will come to their local Councillor seeking specific help now, rather than proposals for long-term reform under another Government.

Councillors who aspire to higher elected office can still be a good thing, of course, and I am certain that Parliament would be a better place, or would at least make more sensible legislation on local government, if it contained more MPs who had served at a more local level, as is common in many other countries. My experience of Councillors is that they fulfil three key roles, each to differing degrees – some are very strongly focused on one, others spread their energies more evenly. 

As an officer, it can be very useful to know what sort of Councillor you are dealing with.  The balance can, and usually will, change through a Councillor’s time in office as their experiences, ambitions, and offices held shift. A Councillor I know well once described Councillor training to me as “The ultimate experiment in mixed ability teaching”. While that is a good line, very few people become Councillors without well-developed skills in one area and competence in several more – the key is identifying what those skills are, and helping them to use them in the most effective way.

The functions of a local authority have been described as “service delivery, community leadership, and democratic engagement”. Less intellectually, I would like to describe Councillors as Batsmen, Bowlers, and Fielders.

The batsman has a vision for change in their area, and is out to deliver it. They might believe that fundamental change is needed in how the commercial centre is made viable for local business, or that serious investment in infrastructure needs to be made to improve local economic vibrancy and quality of life, or that their Council can only deliver for local people if it radically rethinks its service delivery methods, or the nature of its partnerships with other parts of the public sector. From the start, a batsman is likely to aspire to a senior Cabinet position, and champion the Council’s cause in Westminster and Whitehall.  Prominent batsmen would in my view include Merrick Cockell, Lord Hanningfield, and Sir Albert Bore.

The bowler thinks some of this hasn’t been fully thought through, or will have unintended side effects, or simply that, while they are fully supportive of the big picture, they are strongly placed to help make sure the detail is right by taking a ‘second look’ at proposals. They may have become Councillors because of the particular impact a Council policy was having, or could have if enacted, on their community. The Liberal Democrats have been particularly skilled at finding local community activists and recruiting them as Council candidates, regardless of their prior political involvement. Bowlers will find themselves as opposition spokespeople (“spin bowlers”) or as Chairs and active members of council Scrutiny Committees (“pace bowlers”). A bowler may aspire to be a batsman in the future, or have been one in the past, or may have too demanding a career outside the Council to commit to the full-time Cabinet role at this time.  Bowlers, even very talented ones, will have less famous names – Albert Atkinson, Saxon Spence, and others. It is no handicap to future leadership ambitions to acquire these skills, however – for example I would argue that the late Sandy Bruce-Lockhart was a bowler first, and a batsman later.

The fielder deals with individuals who need help, advice, or to let off steam. Every Councillor will receive a significant amount of casework, and all deal with it in slightly different ways. The most effective will have strong empathy and lateral thinking, understanding why their constituent has a problem, and how they might set about identifying the root cause of the problem. They will build a good working relationship with officers across the authority, so that they have someone to advise them whether the problem is a persistent pothole, an incorrect social care bill, an inadequate bin collection service, or a controversial planning application. Good fielding is vital for Councillors and local government – if they drop the ball regularly, they will suffer at the hands of their electorate, and the repuation of local government will suffer as constituents go directly to the local MP.  However a Councillor is also required to have a strong knowledge of the limits of intervention, and to know when helping someone solve a problem risks crossing the boundary into helping someone queue-jump – I think overwhelmingly local Councillors know where this line is, and stay on the right side of it.

This is obviously caricature at best, and frivolous at worst – the job of a Councillor will take in aspects of all of these – I have come across people involved in local politics in London who hold to the fantasy that a system of having three Councillors for each area means you can have one in a Leadership role, one in a Scrutiny role, and a sweeper (mixing my metaphors here, maybe wicket-keeper?) to do the casework. I regard this as nonsense of the worst kind, as any Councillor who isn’t capable of at least competent performance in all three roles is unlikely to excel in any of them. 

There is of course no doubt that Councillor Lynes is a consummate all-rounder – his blog demonstrates a mix of strong political opinion, ambition for Kent, leadership for Tunbridge Wells, and action on behalf of frustrated constituents who come to him for help. (See, link to me and I say nice things, there’s a lesson for you all in that).