A survey of local councillors has revealed sharp contrasts in attitudes between those in decision-making and 'backbench' roles.
The study, which involved surveying nearly 2,600 councillors, describes the existence of “two tribes” among local politicians.
Opinions on matters including an authority’s capacity to improve services and council structure was split according to roles rather than political persuasion.
Results of the survey, published by the Association for Public Service Excellence (APSE), were analysed by local government experts from De Montfort University's Department of Politics and Public Policy and Cardiff University.
The report compares latest findings with a survey posing the same questions shortly after the 2000 Local Government Act replaced the committee structure with separate executive and non-executive functions.
Researchers found 65 per cent of executive councillors thought local government modernisation measures had worked well, compared with 37 per cent of non-executive councillors.
While 58 per cent of executive members believed separating decision-making powers from scrutiny had increased transparency, less than 30 per cent of backbenchers agreed.
Significantly, two out of three non-executive members thought the modernisation agenda had marginalised their role.
The report, ‘Two Tribes? Exploring the future role of elected members’, suggests fiscal austerity has taken its toll on councillor confidence.
Belief in capacity to further improve services had fallen dramatically since the 2003 survey; and while 87 per cent of executive members believed they personally could contribute to improvements, only 43 per cent of backbenchers thought they could do so.
The survey looked at proportion of time councillors spend on different activities, including representing local communities, dealing with complaints, scrutinising services and partnership working. The authors raise accountability concerns because only a minority of elected members spend a high proportion of time representing their authority on public-private and public-public partnerships, despite believing them necessary as a funding source.
The study also echoes recognised concerns that the average age of the councillors was 60, only 29 per cent were women and only 4 per cent from an ethnic minority.
Having highlighted a need to reconnect all elected members with decision-making, the report suggests how the 'Ensuring Council' ethos, developed by APSE and its research partners and outlined in the report, could help underpin democratic accountability.
Paul O'Brien, chief executive of APSE, said: “Any dialogue on the future of local government needs to be grounded in a set of principles that genuinely advances local political leadership and democratic accountability. The Ensuring Council ethos offers a way of triggering that constructive dialogue.”
Professor Steven Griggs, one of the authors of the report said: "From the results of this survey, local government appears increasingly structured by a polarisation akin to a tribal affiliation whereby executive and non-executive members hold different viewpoints and undertake different tasks. This cleavage is a cause for concern.”
Mr O’Brien added: “This study shows there is a need to find a way to better recognise the contribution of councillors who may be focused on serving their communities but feel disconnected from decision-making.”
Posted on Wednesday 7th January 2015