28 Jul 2010

Should we cull councillors some District to save money?

At Full Council last week consideration was given on how the overall costs of democracy through Members could be reduced - ie a cut in the cost of allowances. It has not been the approach as yet to cut salaries in the public sector, but is has been the approach to cut the number of public servants. There has also been some Government discussion about a reduction in the number of MPs.

Apparently The Electoral Commission said there is approximately one District councillor per every 2,000 head of population. The question posed on the Stroud District councillors email list is whether this is too generous? Views were requested on whether you think it would be appropriate for the Council to make a representation to the Government about legislative change on electoral reform, for the reduction in numbers of Councillors across the whole of local government.

Here is my rather hurried personal response with some additional comments following it:

It is right that we consider the appropriate ratio of councillors to electors - but I have some concerns about cuts.

The loss of councillors already has led some to suggest we might qualify for the so-called endanger species Red List! In the past 40 years numbers have dropped by 77% to under 20,000 in 2007. The arrival of the larger unitary authorities has in my view led to the disappearance of local government altogether in some areas. The five county-wide unitaries have populations of up to 500,000 and are bigger than a quarter of the countries in the world. Northumberland now has only 67 councillors to cover an area twice the size of Luxembourg. This is clearly not local and not I suspect what many would argue for locally.

In Gloucestershire I note we do better than most areas in terms of the numbers of councillors per head - and we have Parish and Town councillors. I haven't got figures per population. The LGA note that already the UK has the lowest number of councillors per 100,000 electors in the whole of Europe. The second worst is Denmark with twice as many councillors per 100,000 as the UK.

A LGA Magazine, a while back, noted the average in the UK is about one councillor per 2,605. This compares with France where it is 116, in Germany 250, in Spain 597, in Italy 580, in Sweden 667, in Belgium 800, in Netherlands 1,700 and in Denmark 1,084. Also the average population size of the European councils are far smaller than ours by a factor of between three and 20.

I understand that there have been many attempts to assess the relationship between local authority size and aspects of performance but few have produced definitive conclusions. There are too many variables at work. However European studies (that excluded Britain) suggest the optimum size for a local authority is between 30,000 and 40,000.

Democracy at the district and parish levels is an important element of linking citizens with central government. The danger of fewer councillors is that local politicians will be distanced further from the people they represent. Reports suggest councillors do an average 22 hours per week - cost effective community work in many cases. Interestingly reviews by the Councillor Commission note that councillors are all short of time. To reduce the number of councillors we potentially reduce the amount of work achieved locally and also make a councillors role less attractive to younger members with jobs and families. If we can't attract representatives as diverse as our populations we represent, then it is argued that this is likely to "reduce the quality and variety of the debate and to reduce the legitimacy in the eyes of the constituents." Already the move to unitary authorities has led to a significant drop in women councillors.

The recent Total Place pilot areas found that an average of £7,000 per person is spent on services like health, education and care of the elderly yet only £350 is controlled by local elected politicians. Councils are the most efficient part of the public sector: it is surely right that they are given a greater say over how the money is spent. This would appear to be the direction the Government says it wants to move in. The recession means there is an opportunity to revolutionise local services to improve those services that matter most to local people. In an LGA poll two-thirds of people think that councillors should make local decisions, only one in ten say MPs and less than 3% would leave it to Quangos.

So where does that leave us? Well I didn't mean to write so much - congrats to anyone who has got this far.

I think a case could be made for reducing the number of councillors by a small number but I am really not sure what this would gain. There would be costs attached to the ward boundary changes etc and more work expected from those remaining councillors for limited financial gain? If the Government delivers on returning powers to local councils then there will also be more work for those remaining councillors. In addition to this there is a predicted population growth in the area. Any significant reduction in the number of councillors would be undemocratic.

How about taking localism a step further and devolving all powers from the county to the district and enhancing the role of Parish and Town Councils and introducing proportional representation to better reflect the wishes of the electorate?

I do not see this as the right time to be making a move to reduce councillors.

All the best - Philip

Cllr Philip Booth, Stroud District councillor for Randwick, Whiteshill and Ruscombe ward

Basically local government has never recovered from the loss of powers under Thatcher. Blair continued that process. No other national government exerts such central control over local services nor has such large units of local government. The disadvantages of our over-centralised government and oversized local councils are widely understood. Research shows the greater the devolution, the more dynamic the economy. Government works best when government is closest to the governed.

In France for example power used to be very centralised with the Education Minister even knowing what was being taught in each school at what time of day. In 1982 a dramatic change occured leading to Parish size-areas running public services, raising taxes etc. In Italy, Scandinavia and Spain the changes were even greater.

Local government cannot become more competent and legitimate without greater devolution. Who wants to join local Councils, which in the past 30 years have seen their ability to raise revenue slashed and billions of services transferred to unelected quangos, while its other services micromanaged from the centre? In the UK every opinion poll on public services puts us at the bottom in Europe, but we don't have the worst services. What we do have is no local control and that can lead to little pride and less involvement from the community.

Greens want local governments that people can identify with, and which can respond to local needs and circumstances. Local authorities need power to take real decisions that affect the local area and to be held to account by the electors if they get it wrong. That also means reform of our unjust electoral system. As I've said before in this blog our present system creates greatly exaggerated majorities and parties winning control with less than half the votes, and occasionally fewer than their opponents. The system also means many believe their vote is wasted and will not make a difference. This discourages participation in democracy and many crucial issues like climate change just don't get discussed at election times.

We urgently need a proportional representation system, that will help re-engage people in politics and the running of our local services and communities - without such a change, moves to unitary authorities or anything else will miss huge potential benefits. Sadly what Lib Dems are proposing is not the right system - see my previous comments here.


(i) Green party policy on local government "PA300 Our preference will be to abolish the County Councils after the transfer of their present functions to District Councils and to confederations of Districts. However, the option of retaining a County Council will be open to the electorate through referenda. Where there is public dissatisfaction with boundaries, consultation and (where necessary) referenda will establish the most popular arrangement. This process will be overseen by the Constitutional Commission."

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