18 Feb 2011

County plan to cull 10 councillors

I reworked a previous blog to send to the Local Government Boundary Commission for England (LGBCE) - see blog here and details here of proposals. The consultation closes on Monday but it looks like they have already decided to cut councillor numbers and are now just looking at how to draw the boundaries of the larger wards. I hope my email might make them think again but I suspect that might be pie in the sky!!!! Anyhow here is my email:

Pic: map of councils after last years elections

I disagree with the reduction of the number of councillors by 10 to 53.

In the past 40 years numbers of councillors 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 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.

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 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. 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.

Why reduce numbers? There are 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.

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

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