Ward Councillors and Community Leadership: A Future Perspective

This 2007 study looked at how the role of ward councillor was likely to change as neighbourhood working, legislative and policy changes impact on the role of local government.

  • Key findings include:
  • Many non-executive councillors feel distanced from council decision making
  • Councillors had clear ideas about the ‘ideal’ ward councillor
  • Members and officers identified new skills and support councillors will need
  • Councillors and officers acknowledged that developing an empowered role for ward councillors will require major changes to the way local authorities, political parties and communities work with elected members. These are long-term issues, many of which are dependent on changes to the culture of local authorities and local political groups.

The researchers’ primary policy recommendation was for the development of a Ward Councillor Compact, a voluntary two-way agreement between the council and elected members that would help to define the future role, and address issues about support, development, and performance standard, setting out the council’s commitment to provide minimum levels of support and training for members and expectations of the councillor role, encouraging basic minimum standards of activity and performance in each of the dimensions and functions of the job.

Aspects of the councillor role highlighted by the research:

Community engagement: councillors need to be more actively engaged with all parts of the community, empowered and supported to engage with residents and community groups using a range of different tools.

Advocacy: councillors need to be able to speak freely and openly challenge the executive.

The political role: councils need to acknowledge and value the political dimension of the role and not see this as a barrier to improving local services.

Local action: councillors and community organisations want elected members to be able to tackle local issues directly, especially persistent problems concerning local public spaces such as fly-tipping, graffiti or unkempt parks and green spaces.

Influence: councillors must have real opportunities to influence strategic budget decisions at a point where local priorities and intelligence can be fully reflected in how services are planned and delivered.

Local intelligence and information: members need more and better quality intelligence about local issues in order to make informed decisions and more effectively influence strategic decision making.

To fulfil this connecting role, councillors recognised the need for change in two directions: they need to be more proactive and community-focused, and at the same time have much stronger links to strategic service planning, particularly over decisions taken ‘beyond’ the ward that have a local impact.

Defining the future ward councillor role

Councillors identified six distinct dimensions of the ‘ideal’ future ward councillor role, which represent their aspirations for the role and the skills and attributes future members would need. These are:

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

Community advocate: be a skilled advocate for people from different backgrounds, cultures, and values; have the confidence to speak freely and challenge the executive.

Community leader: exercise community development skills – support local projects and initiatives, encourage local participation; be a good communicator – explain what political decisions and structures mean to constituents and community organisations; be sensitive to difference and issues of diversity and equality; have knowledge and skills to engage people in a variety of ways (not just meetings); be a conflict broker.

Service transformer: understand the complex business of local government and services provided both by the council and others; have the confidence and ability to hold service providers to account; be able to work in partnership with a range of agencies and interests; ability to understand local problems and use this knowledge locally and strategically in local action planning; setting and monitoring service standards.

Place shaper: being a local figurehead/role-model that people feel they can turn to; be able to shape the very local environment – ability to identify priorities, work with officers and service providers to address public realm problems, manage delegated locality budgets.

Knowledge champion: be the primary source of local intelligence flowing between the community and the council; have the skills to collect and analyse local information and use it to benefit the community.