Who do councillors represent?

by Stephen Tall on June 12, 2007

It’s a no-brainer question, isn’t it? Our residents, our voters, our punters – call them what you will, they are our bosses, we answer to them. So why ask the question?

Well, I was flicking through a publication last night called ‘councillor’, produced by the I&DeA, and there was an article by Cllr Paul Bettison, Tory leader of Bracknell Forest Borough Council. He was looking at how councillors deal with the media, and this sentence pulled me up sharp:

“When you sign up for public office you’re not just representing local people – you’re representing your authority [ie, the council].”

This is a concept I’ve often mentally wrestled with as a councillor. Because in one sense he’s right, especially if – as Cllr Bettison is – you’re the leader of the council.

And yet, it seems to me a dangerous path to tread down – to start making the division (if only in your mind) between those times when you’re representing the people, and those times when you’re representing the council.

During my year responsible for Oxford city’s finances, the media would sometimes refer to me as the Council’s ‘finance boss’, a title I regarded as way above my pay-grade. It was the Council’s director of finance who was in charge of the money: call me old-fashioned, but it seemed better to leave that side of things to a qualified accountant.

So what did I think was my role as an executive member for finance?

In my mind, it was to represent my residents, and those of the rest of the city; to ask the kinds of direct, intelligent questions I hope the public would ask if they were in my shoes. Why is my Council Tax so high? And why does it always go up while the Council is always cutting services making savings. And once I had the answers to those questions to devise policies with my colleagues which would keep local taxes low while maintaining and improving key front-line services.

Yet it’s difficult to ‘keep it real’ once you have a job with some responsibility. Two small ways in which I try to:

* It’s all too easy to develop ‘personal plural pronoun syndrome’ when you’re a councillor, to start referring to ‘we’ when talking about the council. The only ‘we’ there should ever be is when you’re referring to the residents in your area.

* I refuse to have a public council e-mail address – in my case it would be cllrstall(at)oxford.gov.uk, and I was none-too-keen on the word ‘stall’ being associated with my time on the Council. More importantly, I don’t work for the council: I work in the council for the public. It’s a crucial distinction which, to my mind, is blurred if you become institutionalised. A council e-mail address inevitably means the public identifies you with the council. Far more important that the council identifies you with the public!

There is a tendency within the Lib Dems to regard ‘local government’ as the answer to any question asking, ‘How do we give more power back to local communities?’ Local government is only a means to an end: the empowerment of the individual, which we believe will happen best within a strong, dynamic and cohesive society.

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What about people who work, learn or have fun in your area but who live a few miles away outside the council’s boundary? Councillors should think about the wider community, not just the “residents” or “voters”.

by Martin Howes on June 12, 2007 at 10:24 am. Reply #

I agree, Martin – I was using the terms in the wider contexts you mention. (Though of course it is the city council tax-payers who are paying for city council services in Oxford – which is also something we have to think about.)

by Stephen Tall on June 12, 2007 at 10:56 am. Reply #

This may sound dangerously like communist talk, but surely all that the council is, does, and owns belongs to the people of the district. In moral terms the council and councillors are just there to manage things.

That leads to a sort of moral feedback loop, which does make the boundaries between us and them blurred.

You are therfore absolutely right to be suspicious of making distinctions between us and them, and careful about your use of pronouns.

by Simon Jerram on June 12, 2007 at 11:49 am. Reply #

Bettison has fallen into the trap of thousands of daft/lazy councillors.

He is of course entirely wrong and Stephen entirely right. Why is Bettison claiming a salary if all that’s to be done is to tick boxes on officers’ reports?

by Daniel Bowen on June 12, 2007 at 1:11 pm. Reply #

As a minority backbencher on Tory controlled Worcs County Council I am sick and tired of being told how proud “we” i.e all Councillors are that we have a 4 star authority. 4 stars for ticking the right government boxes but with awful road surfaces, staff morale in Social care at rock bottom and arrogant idiots in charge. I am always getting rude comments for my refusal to go along with the “praise us” game. Sadly the Labour Group all fall in line behind the Tories. I’m there to represent the electorate and service users and try to get value for money and decent services. I am NOT a cheerleader for the authority!!

by Fran Oborski on June 12, 2007 at 5:16 pm. Reply #

Worth remembering those sentiments when people suggest IDeA is the body to encourage Lib Dem councillors to promote a strong liberal ideology in their councils.

by Hywel Morgan on June 12, 2007 at 5:59 pm. Reply #

Fran is spot-on. My authority is ‘excellent’ apparently but with £1000+ debt per citizen, staff morale at rock bottom after job cuts across all departments and a Labour administration in disarray after democracy has stopped them from getting their way by their usual techniques of lying, fiddling and bullying.

by Daniel Bowen on June 13, 2007 at 10:02 am. Reply #

I found when working for ALDC that it was a good indicator of why we lost control when people were still referring to “our officers” months after losing control.

It’s up there with referring to local residents as customers 🙂

by Hywel Morgan on June 13, 2007 at 7:32 pm. Reply #

Many of the structures and processes don’t help though. I always felt somehow that the public, and our constituents, do often feel that they are battling against the council, as represented by the councillors! Especially in meetings.

by jockox3 on June 14, 2007 at 6:15 am. Reply #

LDs as the largest group on my city’s council have been running it for a couple of years or so, and too many of the Executive Members became very insular. I know that one of my ward’s councillors (LD) was getting nowhere when he asked questions, yet we could see money being wasted, engineering mistakes in highway changes, deterioration in the local environment, badly handled planning decisions (one big one now being the subject of a large complaint to the Local Govt Ombudsman), and absolutely lousy handling of the local media. Yes, there was a potential huge deficit in social services to be dealt with, and inherited problems with capital projects for which there wasn’t proper funding for operations, but overall exactly what I predicted would happen: LDs when attaining power do not know how to manage. You failed to make it clear to the officers that their duties are to run their depts to the highest standard, so as a result the Executive was overwhelmed with problems. Well, in this city you have lost it this year, and it has been your own fault.

by Peter on June 14, 2007 at 7:33 am. Reply #

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