Local councillors are not representative of the communities they serve. The average councillor is white, male and more than 20 years older than the typical citizen. The median age of councillors is going up – it is now over 60 and fewer than 10% are under 40. In contrast, the median age of the general population is 39. It is not that the experience of such people is not valued – of course it is. It is rather a question of balance.
The Councillors Commission, which I chaired between 2007 and 2009, made a series of recommendations both to encourage more people generally to stand as councillors and to address the age, gender, socio-economic class and ethnic imbalance. But it seems that very little has changed. In fact, the 2014 councillor survey suggests that the situation has got worse.
So what, if anything, can be done?
Turkeys don’t vote for Christmas; it is naïve to expect large numbers of incumbents to make way for new blood. The local government associations are dominated by white, male politicians of a certain age who are, therefore, unlikely to put pressure on councils to address the problem. Local political parties and MPs are wary of alienating existing councillors. And the Secretary of State in England hasn’t shown the slightest interest in tackling the issue either.
Earlier this year, the Expert Group on Diversity in Local Government, chaired by Professor Laura McAllister, put forward 24 recommendations targeted at Welsh councils, political parties, the WLGA, Welsh Government and employers. Their report received strong backing from Lesley Griffiths AM, the then Minister for Local Government. But there are some deep-seated problems that can’t just be addressed by Ministers in Cardiff Bay.
There is a general lack of public awareness about how local government works; the role of councillors; and the difference between their work and that of AMs, MPs and MEPs. Some citizens don’t even understand the voting process (yes, this really is true) and many don’t know how to get involved in public service. Local authorities could do a great deal more – at little cost – to inform, to signpost and to join up the dots at local level about who is responsible for what, to whom and how. Why would people get involved in the first place if they feel local governance is so mysterious?
We will only get real change if political parties are willing to attract a wider range of candidates. The selection process for candidates is often complex and difficult, and many people would never think of putting themselves forward. It is striking how much difference it makes simply to ask someone if they would consider standing, and this is especially so for those people who may feel initially less confident. Council leaders can play an important role in recruiting local candidates who may be supporters but not consider themselves to be political activists.
It should be possible to work as well as being a councillor. We need to ensure that there is no financial disincentive to becoming a councillor, but equally we shouldn’t be in it for the money.
When I was the Leader in Camden, some of my most effective colleagues held down demanding outside jobs, including members of the cabinet. I simply do not believe that this is not possible with effective support from councils. Local authorities should organise their business to ensure that members’ time is used in the most efficient way, and they could make better use of technology to make it easier for councillors with jobs and / or family commitments. Why would any council, for example, inflexibly insist on having all its meetings in the day? No wonder then that swathes of people are precluded from standing. And all councillors should be offered, and make use of, opportunities for mentoring and support.
The Welsh Government could consider working with one or two local authority leaders to pilot measures to bring about change. Perhaps mergers provide an opportunity to create a different kind of culture which is not dominated by small, self-sustaining political elites and is more open to those who haven’t previously put themselves for election. There’s no doubt in my mind that it can be done. The question is whether there is the political will – particularly at local level – to make the change happen.
About the author: Dame Jane Roberts is a member of the Public Policy Institute for Wales’ Board of Governors and Chair of the New Local Government Network. She was Leader of Camden Council from 2000 to 2005 and chaired the independent Commission on the Role of Local Councillors.