The Voice of the Councillor: Final Report 2017

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De Montfort University’s Local Governance Research unit and the Municipal journal have published the final report of the Councillor Commission. The year long-research project, which was supported by the Chair of the Communities and Local Government Committee, Clive Betts MP, heard from councillors across England about their work and about the pressures they face in governing their communities.  The Commission did not work to a set of pre-designed questions it wanted to explore; rather, the commission heard evidence from councillors about the issues that were of concern to them and what it was that councillors wanted policymakers in central government, the public and media to know about the work they undertake. The intention of the report is to inform national and local policy debate and local practice so as to strengthen the office of councillor.

The commissioners, who supported the project, were drawn from a wide range of local government backgrounds and their experience and understanding of the work of the councillor was invaluable in conducting the research, drafting the final report and developing a set of recommendations.  The recommendations within the report are for policymakers, councils and other agencies and bodies to consider how best to employ, but what we are suggesting reflects what councillors told us they need to improve the office they hold and its effectiveness.

A total 31 round table events were conducted with over 300 councillors to explore with them different aspects of their work and roles, the things they find most rewarding and they challenges they contend with during their time in office. The commission also received 128 written submissions from councillors and conducted a Twitter chat using #CllrCommission. In addition, the National Association of Local Councils conducted a survey of its members to explore a number of issues with parish and town councillors.

The report has been organised under six headings to reflect the themes that emerged from discussions where councillors spoke to us about specific aspects of their work, as follows: The Council,beyond the Council, in response to central policy change, about perceptions, about the Job and when they spoke as a parish or town councillor.

We found that there are few party political differences or differences between councillors sitting on different types of council (county, district, unitary or parish) when it comes to the expectations and challenges they face and the pressures and tensions to which they must respond. Moreover, the solutions councillors suggest to the challenges they face also cut across the party (and non-party) divide and across types of councils.

Councillors need their councils to provide adequate research, administrative, technical and policy support to them in all facets of their work and for councils to be organised so as to ensure they can make the greatest contribution to the council and to representing and governing their communities. Councillors want information from both their councils and from other agencies so they can develop the strategies and policies to shape their areas so as to best reflect the needs of their communities. Access to adequate support and information – from within and outside the council – is also vital to public accountability, not just of the ruling group’s stewardship of the council but for the accountability of a host of external organisations with whom councillors interact. Indeed, seeking to influence and shape the policies and decisions of a range of public agencies which spend public money and develop public policy, but without an elected mandate, is a vital part of the work of the councillor.

We ask much of our councillors but often seem reluctant to balance that with supporting them or developing a clear understanding of what they do and of the limitations on their office they must overcome. It was the aim of the commission and of the final report to redress that balance.

The report is also called ‘The Voice of the Councillor’ because one of our councillors attending a roundtable commented: ‘this is marvellous because no one has ever bothered to ask us before about what it is like to be a councillor and now I can say my piece’. It is to her that the title is dedicated.

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