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If localism is to be more than an idea it means a real change in the relationship between citizens and the national and local state.

This resource is for councillors who recognise that times are changing; national policies around localism are forging a new way of working for councillors, officers and communities. As the councillor role evolves and new councillors are elected, those who ignore these developments are likely to be left behind.

Two of the key questions that we all need to be addressing are:

  • how will communities be motivated and supported to take up the opportunities outlined in the Localism Act, Open Public Services Bill, emerging health reforms?
  • how will local initiatives interact with the formal governance and service delivery functions of local government?

These changing times suggest to some that we need a fundamental shift in the way we think about local service delivery and the relationship between people, places and power.

And who better to be at the forefront of this new politics than ‘the network of more than 20,000 local councillors who work in every ward in every community in the country?’

However this is a big ask!

‘For many councillors….realising this agenda will require rethinking their role…….(to increasingly become) community facilitators, who inspire action, hold the ring between competing interests and ensure inclusivity and accountability. Many elected members will welcome this evolution, others will resist it.’
Jonathan Carr-West

The changing role of councillor

In the light of this it might be useful to start by reflecting on the role of councillor, acknowledge that it can be pretty complex and, that it might be helpful to consider potential skills, knowledge and attributes that could help to carry out this role most effectively in the future.

Our research reflected much that has been highlighted over the last few years:

  • the aspirations of many councillors who feel distanced from key decision making and want to be more involved themselves
  • and, the recognition that they potentially have a pivotal role to play in terms of supporting local people to become more involved and influential on behalf of their own communities

Our respondents suggested that to play this pivotal role they need to be able to:

  • motivate & inspire communities
  • support groups and organisations to take up opportunities, express views, claim rights, challenge and influence
  • encourage and support communities to get involved and work together
  • work with neighbourhood governance arrangements
  • build networks between people and groups
  • balance community leadership while trying to be firm and impartial
  • act as a critical friend to communities
  • facilitate, network, negotiate and inform

One exploration identified six distinct dimensions of the ‘ideal’ ward councillor role, (reflected in our research), which emphasise the desire to act as ‘connectors’ between communities and the council:

Political representative: ability to connect with all parts of the community and represent everyone fairly, balancing local concerns with the political demands of the group manifesto

Community advocate: for people from different backgrounds, cultures and values, with the confidence to speak freely and challenge the executive

Community leader: support local projects and initiatives, encourage participation, explain ‘how things work’, be sensitive to difference and issues of diversity and equality, understand how to engage people and be a conflict broker

Service transformer: understand how local government works and have the ability to hold service providers to account, be able to work in partnership with a range of agencies and interests, understand the local area and use this knowledge strategically in local action planning and setting and monitoring service standards

Place shaper: able to identify priorities, work with officers and service providers to address local issues and manage delegated budgets

Knowledge champion: be a primary source of local intelligence flowing between community and council

Councillor Training and Support

While councillors are already involved in many aspects of these roles, it might be that additional skills, knowledge, awareness would be helpful, particularly for newly elected councillors.

In relation to the changing environment, one respondent commented:

It’s changed enormously and to do everything properly is difficult…people want to see you all the time…as this beds in and austerity kicks in there will be more and more to do….the Localism [Act] doesn’t make it more difficult but maybe more onerous because it is new. Councillors need to be skilled up … to talk eloquently to people about community rights

Others said:

even experienced councillors are finding it hard

got to build relationships and signpost people to where they can get help because you can’t do it all

And, another respondent wryly pointed out that (we):

…wouldn’t send out St John’s Ambulance or Mountain Rescue without training – they are also volunteers

Councillors and councillor support and training are only part of the story though and there are no easy answers to how this new agenda will pan out. Individual councillors may well have the desire and motivation to ‘do localism’ but, they are still individuals within a system that may or may not be pulling in the same direction.

A few questions to get you thinking

  • are there structures and processes in place that support engagement with communities and the voluntary and community sector? What is your involvement with these?
  • have officers and councillors in your area got an agreed vision of localism?
  • do you have the time, skills or resources to wholeheartedly support this new agenda?
  • do you have opportunities to talk to your colleagues about the changing role for councillors?

A short video

This Resource

There are two main sections to this resource:  councillor guide and research report

Councillor Guide – explores the role of councillors to support & develop communities, raising issues, posing questions, offering food for thought and ideas about working in ways that can inspire and empower local communities.

The Guide starts with a series of tasters which connect to each of the main sections, with some pointers to the types of things that you could do

Research Report – contains details on how councillors see their role, how others see their role and what they want from councillors, what localism could be and and some of the barriers facing councillors and communities in working with all this.

You can click through the different parts of the resource using the links on the right -> -> -> where you will also find a section on ‘recent posts’ and one on ‘categories’ – these relate to the publications and handy documents that have informed and contributed to the research

You can comment/reply – and you can follow. You will find this facility at the bottom of the pages.

Blogs are different from paper resources – you might find some repetition if you read it systematically from start to finish. The idea is to nip in and out and connect the dots between the sections. It is active reading.

The research was conducted between January – April 2012 by changes, funded by Locality through DCLG‘s (Department for Communities & Local Government) Empowerment Fund Inspiring Democracy programme. We aim to add further content in due course.

Have a look at a summary of the key points in the Councillor Guide


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