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.