Wednesday, 6 March 2013

I agree with the mayor (well this time anyway!)

Interesting story today about how Liverpool's elected Mayor, Joe Anderson, wants a review of democratic processes including a look at whether the number of Councillors should be reduced and whether elections should move to every four years instead of once a year (with a gap in the 4th one).

I'm agnostic about the timing of elections but I think it really is time we had a look at what elected councillors do, whether ward boundaries are right and whether the number of people we elect is correct.

The role of an elected councillor is really important... or it should be .  But I wonder if everyone who takes it on sees it in the same way.

I know from personal experience just how much work and effort it can take to do the job properly.  Don't get me wrong, people volunteer and compete for these posts so they are clearly volunteering for hard work. I didn't feel sorry for myself and I don't feel sorry for anyone with a huge workload now.

But effort and engagement varies hugely across the group of 90 Councillors and it's crazy to pretend otherwise.

I know of people who I have literally never heard speak in committee or council for a full four years.  I know of people who are unavailable to their constituents and who don't do the work I consider basic. I know people of people who turn up to vote on an issue and the first they see of the paperwork is as they open their envelope on the way in to the room.  These are all unacceptable.  Sure, speaking at a committee is not all a Councillor should be doing but shouldn't they be willing to at least open their own mouth when their area is under discussion.  Sure, we don't all have hours to pour over paperwork but a little reading before a meeting is not an excessive expectation.

I rather suspect that if the number of Councillors was reduced and there was a proper focus on what the role should be, performance would improve and it would not be in any party's interest to select someone to be a passenger.

It could also make the role more attractive to people who have not thought about it before.  The Council has, to be fair, made considerable efforts to encourage some people to think about putting themselves forward and the Operation Black Vote scheme has resulted in at least one new councillor who perhaps would not have thought about this in the past. But despite this and the Liverpool Commission, the understanding of a Councillor's role remains vague and on the whole people don't apply for jobs that are that vague. The vagueness can also lead to all sorts of misconceptions (some good some bad)

Looking at ward boundaries is also important.  Personally I think there should be smaller wards with one elected representative.  This may help remove problems caused by communities being stuck together in a large unit to justify the three reps.  It is much easier and more logical to represent a defined community but often ward boundaries split and combine communities in bizarre ways.  Speke Garston ward to me  would make much more sense as a smaller Speke ward and a separate Garston ward for example.  It may be that some wards make sense with two reps and some with one, and it would be nice to get away from the "one size fits all" thinking.

I imagine this review will also throw up the issue of whether or not a Councillor should be a full time job.  It is true it can be hard to combine a job with being an elected representative.  But I would be 100 percent against all Councillors being full time politicians.  Being a representative must include some element of being representative and there is a real risk of losing touch if all you do is Council stuff and politics.  That's not to say that some people shouldn't choose to be full time, just that most shouldn't be.

So it's good that a review looks likely to take place.  And I very much hope that as part of that the Council will make a real effort to consult people who have been Councillors in the past as well as those that sit there now!

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