Report tackles ways to attract councillors

12 Dec 07
A voting age of 16 and a three-term maximum for council leaders could revive interest in local democracy, a long-awaited report says.

13 December 2007

A voting age of 16 and a three-term maximum for council leaders could revive interest in local democracy, a long-awaited report says.

The suggestions form two of the 61 proposals from the Councillors Commission, which has spent nine months examining ways to make the councillor profile more diverse and reflective of communities.

The former leader of the London Borough of Camden, Dame Jane Roberts, chaired the commission, which reported on December 10. She said: 'Our democracy faces a major problem of disenchantment and disengagement – at times, even mutual incomprehension between citizen and the state.

'The commission's key message is that building effective and vibrant local democracy is a vital part of the solution to this wider malaise. We have a real opportunity to strengthen democracy in the country – we cannot afford to ignore it.'

Among the commission's other recommendations are an explicit duty to be placed on local authorities to distribute clear information about how they work and promote the role of councillors, including raising interest in how to stand for election.

Legislation should also be amended to include councillor targets in race, gender and disability equality schemes. The commission wants the Equality and Human Rights Commission to work with councils that least reflect their communities. They called on political parties to rethink how local activists can recruit potential candidates.

Roberts argued that the public often saw councillors as out-of-touch and self-interested. 'We cannot ignore some real problems in the culture of local government and local political parties, which means that in a number of areas there can be a reluctance to attract new blood,' she said.

Local Government Association chair Sir Simon Milton said the best way to revive interest in local elections would be to give councils greater powers. 'More people would vote in a council election if local authorities had powers to raise and retain more money locally,' he suggested.

He added that a mature debate on council democracy was needed. 'The commission has put forward a raft of innovative and challenging proposals and have taken an incredibly broad view of the sector. The LGA will be debating the issues with councils, making a detailed response in the New Year, and wants to give all the recommendations the consideration they deserve.'

However, the government gave short shrift to the commission's proposals to allow councillors access to the Local Government Pension Scheme and award 'parachute payments', equivalent to statutory redundancy, to executive councillors who lose their seats.

Communities Secretary Hazel Blears said: 'I believe we can give better support and get better local representation from councillors without imposing major new financial burdens on local taxpayers.

'Many of the best councillors tell me that serving the public is an honour rather than a profession. For that reason, I am not convinced by recommendations which cover the use of parachute payments or extended benefits and pension schemes.'


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