Debates about whether councillors are sufficiently representative of the communities they serve go back a long way. In 2007, Dame Jane Roberts who is a member of our board of governors, led the Councillor’s Commission, which made a series of major recommendations for change in English local government.
Professor Laura McAllister, who is a member of the Executive Group of the Public Policy Institute for Wales, has chaired the Expert Group on Local Government Diversity established by the Welsh Minister for Local Government and Government Business. The Group’s report, which was published earlier this week, makes a number of important recommendations. We asked Laura to outline her hopes for the future.
Over the last eight months, I have been chairing the Expert Group on Local Government Diversity, a group which also included Naomi Alleyne of the WLGA, Joy Kent from Chwarae Teg and local governance expert, Dr Declan Hall. Given the importance of local government services, at the request of the Local Government and Government Business Minister, Lesley Griffiths AM, we have been looking at ways in which our local councils better reflect the communities they serve.
The report makes recommendations on increasing the number of young people, women, people from ethnic minorities, people with disabilties and gay, lesbian and bisexual people standing for election to councils in Wales.
Let me be clear: this is not just about being ‘politically correct’ or ticking boxes. Local government provides front-line services to the public which are vital for their everyday lives. Whether it is the schools our children attend, the social care on which our elderly relatives rely, the roads and pavements on which we drive, cycle or walk, the parks, leisure centres or libraries which we frequent, or the collection of our domestic waste and recycling, we are all dependent to a greater or lesser extent on our local councils.
This makes it vital that the people who make decisions on our behalf about all of these matters are in tune with and representative of their local communities and understand their needs. Unfortunately, when taken as a whole, this is clearly not the case currently for local government in Wales.
There is no County or County Borough Council in Wales in which both sexes are anywhere near fairly represented. More often, women make up between 20 and 30%, and sometimes far less. The average age of councillors in Wales is around 60 and has remained stubbornly around that range for many years. A staggering 99.4% of Councillors are white and the number of non-white councillors is miniscule even in areas of Wales with relatively large numbers of BME citizens. Only 2% of Councillors identify themselves as lesbian, gay or bisexual and 14% of elected Councillors consider themselves to be disabled.
On top of this, we have far too many councillors elected without a contest, and more generally, the number of people who vote at local elections is disappointingly low.
These matters are all worrying for a number of reasons. The proportion of the workforce which is female and the slowly increasing number of women achieving positions of seniority in public and private institutions is not reflected in local government in Wales. Neither, outside of some excellent examples in a few local authorities, has there been a reflection of the younger age profile of Members of the National Assembly for Wales and the UK Parliament, and Ministers in the Welsh and UK Governments.
However, perhaps most importantly, if people perceive that local government is dominated by older white males (as it is in many areas), this can serve to further alienate voters who are already difficult to enthuse, as is reflected in voter turnout and, indeed, low levels of political activity across the board. It can also act as a break to drawing in fresh blood as there are insufficient role models currently.
This is not simply a matter of equality principles – important though these are– but the critical need for council chambers to be filled with representatives who have a range of diverse life experiences and different aspirations. Decisions affect citizens in different ways depending on their personal realities.
We have made several recommendations which we hope will improve the situation. These include actions for the Welsh Government, Political Parties, the WLGA, Local Authorities, Town and Community Councils, Councillors themselves and even employers. Unless all of these organisations take this issue more seriously, we will not make progress on fairer representation in our town halls.
This is, of course, already a time of significant change for Local Government in Wales. The work of the Expert Group has run in parallel with that of the Commission on Public Service and Delivery, chaired by Sir Paul Williams. It appears likely that its recommendations will lead to a reduction in the number of councillors and councils in Wales. This will make it even more crucial that our proposals are put into effect to ensure that improving diversity is a major factor influencing the selection of candidates to new councils.
At the report’s launch, the Minister for Local Government and the Leader of the WLGA gave their commitment and support to the report and its recommendations. Already, a number of councillors have agreed to act as local champions to take forward the campaign for greater diversity. More champions are needed, but I am encouraged by the initial start and commitment.
I want our report, and its recommendations, to serve as a springboard to bring about significant change in the types of people putting themselves forward for election at the next local elections, both at county and community level. We also need to ensure that different candidates are elected because diverse councillors will revitalise our local councils and drive their future direction as a vital tier of governance for our small nation.
Professor Laura McAllister
Chair, Expert Group on Local Government Diversity