Section one – How councillors see their role

Why we have included this section

The clear message from councillors is: ‘how you see your role, shapes how you carry it out’ and everything included below comes from those who were involvd in the research.

Over the past few years there have been several major explorations of councillor roles and responsibilities including: Representing the future – The report of the Councillors Commission – December 2007, The Role of Councillors Report of an Inquiry LGIU June 2007 All Party Local Government Group

One of the big messages to emerge from the research is the need for clarity of councillors’ role(s) which takes into account the support, training and development required. One Local Authority [not part of the research] was proud of having spent no budget on councillor training the previous year!

What it is about

Three main aspects of the councillor role emerged early in the research and seemed to resonate with most of those we spoke to :

Historically, advocacy and accountability are central to the role of a councillor; the middle aspect above is a relatively recent and certainly increasingly crucial role for which many feel they are under-prepared.

This is borne out by other research and commentary on the ’emerging’ role of councillors, both pre and post the Localism Act, and there are implications in terms of how this transition might take place, with both councillors and officers acknowledging 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.

What we have is:

  • A load of individuals – who need to know how to talk to each other, how to consider each other, who want things to change and who believe that they can play a role in that change – stick their own necks out – some of them, not all of them
  • Then we have voluntary sector organisations – and community groups – who need to know how to talk to each other and how to talk to their own staff and volunteers, who understand that when they take certain actions things change for other people, who need to represent people properly, know who their members are and think about who is left out and the implications of that
  • Then we have the Council (or it might be the police, the local traders association …. any ‘BODY’ which makes decisions) – who need to know what is going on, who needs what, how that will impact on others, how to communicate with their own staff and how staff communicate with each other, that staff can take decisions and respond to needs, they need to know what other people are doing and where their bit fits in

3 different sets of people – who connect with each other:

  • Individuals are ‘variably active’ – some are ‘good citizens’ – do recycling, vote, are neighbourly; others get involved on various committees, on a community forum or as school governors or setting things up locally
  • Community groups and voluntary sector organisations are in various states of organisation – some are better than others at welcoming members or at talking to the Council or other agencies
  • Some ‘agencies’ are better at listening to communities (and/or individuals) than others

AND – we are all a bit muddled up – so that the people who work in agencies are also individuals – and they live in communities and take part in different activities

ALL of this is going on so we need to make sense of it, recognise the relationships between these parties and think about how we can make sure that they can all play their part.

If localism truly means decentralisation of power, it makes sense that real culture change is only likely to happen when local citizens and communities are feeling confident, empowered and empowering of each other, and agencies are at their most open and responsive to community influence  and are also empowered in and of themselves and empowering to others.

The diagram below illustrates the interconnections between local authorities, local communities and elected members and helps to explain why the role of councillor is sometimes so complex – often stuck in the middle but also pulled in all directions – often at the same time!

Now have a look at Councillors and constituents