Very recently someone said to me “the problem with local government is that it is not very local and it is not government”. This somewhat trite comment may actually point to the root of the problem. When the coalition Government refers to local government it means “the Council” when it should mean “local Councillors”.
With the forced introduction of the Executive/Scrutiny split 10 years ago, many councillors, particularly those in opposition ceased to have any decision-taking role apart from planning and licensing. One of the reasons they became Councillors was taken away from them under the pretext that they would be free to spend more time in their ward and less in the Town Hall. This has failed.
Now, Councillors need to reposition themselves in the middle of their communities and cease to be ‘from the Council’ which is (or will be) but one of a range of service commissioning/delivery structures in an area. I believe it is time to pass to them the leadership of their ward in the fullest sense:
- Where decisions relate to very local matters, let them work with individuals and representative resident associations to reach decisions reflecting local opinion. “Gold Standard” (accountable, active) RAs could be trusted and asked to run consultations, feeding conclusions to ward councillors and being part of decision-taking.
- Let Ward Councillors act as accountable brokers as appropriate services and funding are passed down to community groups.
- Where consensual broking fails, let Ward Councillors take decisions. Only they have democratic accountability and a right to speak for others.
- Let them work with local people and groups to bid for delegated budgets to set and achieve local priorities.
- And where decisions are not micro local but strategic, let them act together with other Councillors and take collective decisions. You could call this grouping “a Council” but as separate from services as Parliament is from Government.
With a redefined role for ward councillors (maybe even applying it as their title: City Mayor, Borough Leader, Ward Councillor) at the epicentre of their area we have the people to encourage, initiate, support and, yes, accountably lead the Big Society.
Many Ward Councillors have ended up in an elected role having initially campaigned or worked at a local level often on a single issue. A new role and recognition for Ward Councillors may well attract a wider range of people to stand for election and with decision taking being more local and clearer to track, more likely to increase democratic involvement and election turnout.