Anyone who knows me knows I’ve got a lot of time for the tens of thousands of people up and down the country who get involved and make a difference in their community as local councillors. That’s a lot of people, in a lot of places, doing a whole lot of stuff. I for one salute them.
There are around 9,000 local (parish and town) councils in England and most have elections this year on May 5, giving more and more people the chance to step up and become a councillor.
We’ve plenty of information on our website at www.nalc.gov.uk about local councils and councillors with a whole bunch of new stuff being launched in the next couple of weeks. But back in December, at the launch of our new training and skills strategy in London, our senior elected members called for widespread promotion and action:
NALC Chairman, Councillor Michael Chater said: “Up and down the country there are already 80,000 brilliant local councillors doing brilliant things for their local area. But I totally agree with the Minister as I know there are more brilliant people out there with energy, passion, who know what needs doing and go out and do it. Many of these people have never thought about being a councillor and I urge them to make a small step to becoming a councillor which will make such a big difference to their local area.”
Councillor Hazel Williams MBE, NALC’s Vice Chairman added: “We are calling upon all tiers of local government – especially our own local councils – to do all they can to promote democracy and encourage more people to become councillors, particularly in the run up to local elections in May next year. I am urging local people of all colours, shapes and sizes to stand up, to be counted, to get involved, and to help make a difference.”
This week I received an update from my colleague Danny Moody, Chief Executive of our county association in Northamptonshire on their efforts to promote local democracy in the county.
Do you want to do something positive for your community?
Can you think, listen and act locally?
Do you want to do spend your time productively?
These were the powerful and inspiring messages scrolling across the homepage of the brilliant new website – www.stand-and-deliver.com – they’ve developed to spearhead their aptly titled Stand and Deliver campaign.
So I thought it timely to invite Danny to write a guest post on my blog about local councillors and share some of his thoughts on holding public office at a very local level:
Unpaid – yes. Volunteers – no
Big Society demands that individuals contribute a bigger share – but that doesn’t have to mean in a voluntary capacity, nor should it mean that those individuals that are not strictly speaking volunteers are excluded from the opportunities that Big Society presents. I often hear local councillors referred to as volunteers. Sadly I hear this from both outside and within our tier of local government, sometimes even from councillors themselves. I’m particularly agitated when I hear it used in a derogatory way – “parish councils can’t do much, they’re just volunteers”, or from within as an excuse – “how can we be expected to know what the law says, we’re only volunteers”.
For my money a local councillor is an elected public figure, not a volunteer. After all, you wouldn’t describe your local MP as a volunteer would you? I am aware of various official definitions of ‘volunteering’ and can see that it is a grey area and open to interpretation. Interestingly, one source I read suggests that the definition should be based on the viewpoint of the individual – in other words you are a volunteer if you feel like you are volunteering. I would suggest that if a councillor feels like a volunteer they haven’t properly grasped the concept of councillorship.
Choosing not to be paid is not the same as volunteering, so here we have the first bit of evidence that councillors are not volunteers. Under the Local Authorities (Members’ Allowances) (England) Regulations 2003 all local councils may pay to councillors a Parish Basic Allowance, subject to certain conditions. For the most part local councils do not avail themselves of this facility and even for those councils that do operate a scheme it is not uncommon for individual councillors to waive their allowance or arrange for it to be donated elsewhere. However the fact that councillors may legally receive remuneration if they chose to takes them out of most common definitions of the term ‘volunteer’.
There are further factors that help to draw a distinction between formal volunteers and elected local councillors as outlined in the table below:
|Method of joining organisation||May normally join at any time. Normally no restriction on numbers. No formal process although some organisations have a selection/approval process.||Statutory process for elections. Fixed number of seats on council. Can only join at election time or when a casual vacancy arises.|
|Tenure||No fixed term. Individuals free to come and go. Some organisations may fix a term of office for particular roles (such as chairman or treasurer).||Fixed term (4 years) but may seek re-election. Councillors may resign or be disqualified but are otherwise not obliged to relinquish office before the end of their term.|
|Remuneration||Unpaid, but travel and out-of-pocket expenses may be met by the organisation.||Access to Parish Basic Allowance if the council chooses it. Travel expenses met by the council.|
|Attendance at meetings||Discretionary, although the nature of volunteering results in high levels of engagement.||Councillors receive a statutory summons to a meeting so have a legal obligation to attend if they are able to.|
|Sanctions||Organisations may develop rules that individuals are requested to observe. Failure to do so may result in the individual being barred from the organisation||Councillors operate within a statutory framework and to a Code of Conduct. Breaches of the Code may result in a councillor being investigated and held to account for their actions.|
|Powers||Depends on the organisation and the individual’s role within it. Some volunteer roles can have high influence and importance.||A councillor has no individual power beyond that of the corporate body but is engaged in decision making that incurs expenditure from the public purse.|
So the mantra should be ‘councillors may give freely of their time but are not volunteers’. Principal authorities and other key partners must see our local councillors as equals in local government and do away once and for all with the ‘Dibley’ image. Local councils though, for their part, must rise to the challenge and strive to achieve ever higher levels of professionalism and knowledge. As a councillor you didn’t volunteer, you subjected yourself to the scrutiny of public election, you were elected and now you serve those that elected you. You hold public office and shoulder the responsibility that goes along with that. You have statutory duties and obligations and, like all public officials, are accountable to those that elected you. And for local councillors, unlike Members of Parliament, those that elected you may often be your friends, neighbours and close associates within your community. So I can’t think of any role in public life that has greater accountability or, indeed, responsibility.
The opportunities for councillors, in all tiers of local government, to contribute to Big Society are clear. But local councils can be the spider at the centre of the Big Society web, spinning together the public, private and third sector strands. After all, it’s what good local councils have already been doing for more than a hundred years.
Danny Moody is Chief Executive of the Northamptonshire County Association of Local Councils