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We need more councillors, not less

The MJ reports on Buckinghamshire County Council’s successful bid to reduce the number of members elected to it, from 57 to 49, in the name of cost cutting.

County deputy leader Bill Chapple said: ‘I’m delighted the commission is taking our proposals forward. We are living in a time of austerity when tough decisions have to be taken, and in making these proposals members are supporting the cost saving process.’

Drawing up new divisional boundaries will take account of an average 7,750 voters to each member, 1,050 below the national average. Mr Chapple said the revised ratio would maintain a ‘good democratic representation for the electorate, and save £100,000 a year.

Not commenting specifically on this example, but I think that, in general, we need more councillors, not less.

I mentioned my reasons in an earlier post. Basically, we have too few people doing too much, and a rethink about the role of the elected member is needed if we are to attract more people to get involved.

Cllr James Cousins argued persuasively on Twitter that if councillors took a more strategic view on issues, rather than getting bogged down in operational stuff, they would then be able to do better with fewer numbers.

It’s certainly a view I have sympathy with. Having been a member services officer in a previous life, I have far too many memories of trying to coax from councillors their views on a strategic report, rather than just having typos pointed out to me.

However, I think the thought of spending hour upon hour in town hall meetings and reading countless numbers of reports is still going to put off a large number of people getting involved.

As well as more councillors, we need better councillors. People with drive and ambition, people passionate about issues with fresh perspectives and different attitudes and cultures. Not only will this make council chambers more representative but it ought to make them better at what they do.

But these people – dynamic types with ideas and enthusiasm – are generally pretty busy being successful at other things. They don’t have a lot of time. Being a councillor right now – even if you take the strategic outlook Cllr Cousins encourages – takes up a lot of time, especially if you want to do it properly.

So rather than just having one or two representatives per ward, let’s have have a few more. Many as many as five or even ten for the bigger ones. These councillors split the work between them, taking on as much as they have time for and preferably the bits they are good at, or at least knowledgeable about.

They work together collaboratively – which would bring in the most culture change, especially where more than one political party is represented. Elections would certainly be very different affairs – but then I would argue that local elections are dominated by either local personality or national politics and policy – rather than specific local policy. In fact it might be that the party system loses its relevance in the local context.

This is, as always from me, half baked thinking. I’ve no doubt that there are stacks of reasons why this is a dumb idea. But I’ve never one been tempted to stand as a councillor, having seen the stresses and workloads it brings. Given the option to be involved, but sharing the effort with others, I might change my mind.

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