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Too many councillors leaving leaves councils too homogeneous

February 2, 2012 at 2:20 pm / by

I co-wrote this article with Peter Allen which was originally published on Left Foot Forward:

Councillor turnover is an under-researched and under-addressed problem facing councils across the country today. It is best defined as a councillor leaving their council duties for any reason other than electoral loss.

The 2010 Census of Local Authority Councillors shows that only 67.5 per cent of councillors were certain that they would stand for re-election, with the remaining 32.5 per cent being either unsure or definitely not standing again. This is even worse in London, with just over half (51.3 per cent) of councillors signalling their intention not to stand again.

Camden-Council-meetingExplanations of councillor turnover are not straightforward and it is possible to highlight several factors that are in play.

What is clear is that it is a phenomenon that affects male and female councillors differently, with existing research has consistently finding that women councillors are more likely to drop out after a single term, a finding replicated across the 1990s and into the new millennium.

The 2010 Census of Local Authority Councillors finds 69.1 per cent of men definitely standing for re-election compared to 63.5 per cent of women.

Political scientists Colin Rallings and Michael Thrasher have noted that this leads to a ‘double-whammy’ for councils, whereby younger, more diverse councillors are standing down at the same time as older, more traditional councillors are remaining in their positions.

This is not a positive step in terms of increasing the number of individuals from traditionally under-represented groups like women and ethnic minority councillors.

However, another potential line of questioning is whether councillor turnover is a bad thing in itself?

It is possible to argue that it is not, and that having new faces in our council chambers on a fairly regular basis is good for our politics, and in turn the electorate. The catch here, though, is that if it is the same people staying for longer, and the same people dropping out quickly, the theoretically anticipated regular overhaul of practice and personnel simply doesn’t happen and instead facilitates the proliferation of the status quo.

Existing research has shown non-political factors to be the most instrumental in a councillor’s decision to drop out of their elected duties. The two key areas of note here are the impact of being a councillor on both their working and family lives.

Are there solutions to address these concerns which will in turn encourage councillors, especially women councillors, to remain in their elected positions for longer than they currently do?

Currently, the average basic salary for councillors is around £6,000, rising to an average of just under £10,000 in London. Therefore, most councillors will have another ‘day job’ in order to supplement their income.

This creates a vicious cycle whereby councillors work in a non-council job during the day and then perform their council duties in the evening. Unfortunately, council officers who are meant to support councillors work during the day which means there is often a time lag between cases being taken up and policies being implemented.

One possible solution is to create some sort of legal protection for councillors, whereby they could claim a day or two a week from their employers to work as a councillor, and that this would be seen as a prestigious thing (in time) for the company.

The main point is that it is not just a case of councillors putting in ‘face time’ at these meetings.

Hours have to be dedicated to doing casework for constituents especially in poverty-stricken areas. Time has to be spent preparing for meetings where councillors might be contributing to council policy or strategy. Days are spent researching and writing speeches for full council meetings especially if there are deputations from your ward.

As noted above, one explanation put forward for the high turnover of women councillors is that having two jobs leaves no time for family and children. The introduction of some sort of legal protection might mean that councillors could afford to solely concentrate on their council duties and perhaps, be in a better position to retain their status.

A second option is the introduction of term-limits for local councillors.

The introduction of term-limits to local elected service would ensure that the turnover of councillors discussed above was enforced as opposed to something that would be left to occur organically.

Existing evidence is mixed as to whether term-limits benefit women, although it should be noted that much of the existing evidence is taken from the United States, and as such, is not directly applicable here.

Having said that, it should be pointed out that term-limits would only achieve this desired aim of a more diverse set of local councillors if implemented in conjunction with the improved terms of both pay and working arrangements outlined above.

This is a two-strand approach which makes being a councillor both a desirable and possible activity for all kinds of people but at the same time prevents prolonged over-use of this new system by introducing legal limits on how long someone can be a part of it. As such, these ideas tackle issues of both recruitment and incumbency, traditionally gendered problems.

An obvious term-limit would lie around the current average length of service (more or less two four-year terms), although there are arguments in favour of both curtailing or extending this.

The ideas discussed above are simply that; ideas. There lie clear barriers between theoretical concerns and policy implementation, not least in the form of decreased levels of central government funding for local councils. Such barriers should not be transformed into methods of gaining tacit support for the status quo.

If anything, a time such as this is an ideal one to formulate new ideas and to get serious about the improvement of local government in this country.

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