We need to invest to ensure we have good quality councillors

Recent revelations about a significant overspend at Gainsborough Town Council, and the announcement of an increase in allowances for Lincolnshire County Councillors, have raised understandable concerns about value for money in local government. However, the solution may be more investment in local government, and local councillors in particular, rather than less.

Local councils are responsible for the delivery of a wide range of the services we all use on a daily basis. As such they are also responsible for managing significant budgets. Yet the 20,000 local councillors across the UK, who are responsible for allocating the resources to provide these services, are almost without exception amateurs, who carry out their role, in most cases, out of a sense of civic duty and for little reward. A sense of civic duty may not, however, be enough to equip one to handle budgets of hundreds of thousands if not millions of pounds. Although all councils are supported in this by a cadre of professional local government officers, there is also need for councillors themselves to be trained in order for them to effectively carry out their role.

Training for local councillors is provided by a range of bodies including the Local Government Association, political parties and by councils themselves. However, the quality of training is mixed. A report by the Select Committee on Communities and Local Government published last year found that in general training by the Local Government Association was good, thorough and well received, but that training provided by political parties was much more mixed with some councillors complaining that the parties take the money and the seats, but offer little in return, or that training ends the minute councillors are elected. It is also worth bearing in mind that there are a diverse range of smaller parties represented in local government which are not able to draw on the resources available to the main parties, and around one in ten councillors are independent.

There is also a question about what impact spending cuts have had on the training and personal development budgets of councils themselves, which may impact both on training for councillors and local government officers. Local government has borne the brunt of public spending cuts since 2010. While some councils have ring-fenced training budgets, cuts to council spending may be having an impact on training and development in some areas. Spending on training may not seem like a priority when significant cuts are being made to essential services such as social care. However, proper training for local government officers and councillors is of increasing importance at a time when councils are being asked to make difficult budgetary decisions in highly constrained financial circumstances.

A related point is whether councillors should be more generously rewarded for their work. Local councillors in general are not paid for what they do, but do receive allowances. While these can vary depending on the size of the council and the particular responsibilities of individual councillors, they are generally around £8000 pa. It is difficult to make the case for increased allowances, or salaries for councillors, in the face of cases of mismanagement in local government. However, there is an argument that more generous allowances might attract more people into local government, and allow those with other work commitments, and perhaps a wider skill set, to become local councillors. The pool of individuals prepared to stand as local councillors in the UK is relatively small. At present the average age of local councillors is 60, and many of them are retired. While there are a great many highly experienced and effective local councillors, greater financial support particularly to allow individuals to take more time off work to carry out council duties, might open up local government to a much wider range of people, with benefits to us all.

The current government has, perhaps not surprisingly, been dismissive of the idea of more generous allowances for local councillors, insisting that councillors should be volunteers. Such suggestions also tend to be unpopular with the public who object to paying people for carrying out their civic duty. However, Members of Parliament have been paid since 1911, and the payment of members was an important step towards opening Parliament up to a more diverse range of members and particularly the working class. MPs are generously rewarded for their work with an annual salary of around £66,000 p.a. Yet most backbench MPs do not carry the responsibilities of many local councillors and few have any kind of budgetary responsibility aside from the running their own office. Ministers who run government departments are even more generously rewarded. It is also worth bearing in mind that those individuals who sit in the House of Commons are also amateurs and may be no more well qualified for their role than the many more individuals who sit in council chambers across the country.

There is also a link between the quality of our councillors and politics at a national level. A large number of MPs, around two thirds of Labour and Liberal Democrat MPs, previously served as local councillors at some level. Local government therefore provides an important training ground for our MPs. While not all councillors aspire to a seat in Parliament, and many would quite rightly consider that they have more power to affect real change at a local level, undermining the training and development of local councillors will have a knock-on effect at Westminster.

Local government is vital to the health of our democracy. It is desirable, and often more cost effective, that decisions about the allocation of resources in a local area are taken at a local level. However, if our local councillors are to manage large budgets and make important decisions which affect our everyday lives, we should perhaps be prepared to invest more in ensuring that they are well equipped to do so.

This post first appeared in the latest edition of The Lincolnshire Echo, Thursday, March 27 – Wednesday, April 2, 2014.

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