Ruth Kelly has announced she is looking at giving ward councillors a £10k budget "to spend on their local area as part of a drive to improve the quality and diversity of councillors".
A worthy objective, but I'm not convinced a nugatory budget like that will impact on councillor recruitment. And what happens where the BNP have councillors? Are they really going to each be given £10k to spend on "local projects" without full council approval?
There are some more fundamental issues that need to be looked at to recruit a more diverse range of councillors:
- Recognition that most councillors are elected on party political tickets so actually this is as much a problem for the political parties as the DCLG. If local political parties aren't themselves representative of the wider communities they are part of, then your pool of potential councillors won't be representative. Labour is already insisting 1 candidate in every Labour-held 3 member ward has to be a woman - will the other parties follow? Is best practice being disseminated from authorities like Lambeth and Hackney where the ethnic diversity of the Labour Groups has been dramatically improved by proactive recruitment of BME candidates? If the shrinkage in political party membership can be reversed then inevitably there will be more young members available to run as council candidates.
- Scrap the ridiculous concept of "daytime authorities". In London almost all council meetings are in the evenings, after work. In most county councils and metropolitan authorities they meet during the day. Hence no one with a private sector employer can realistically manage to be a councillor, and the profile of the councillors is dominated by the retired, the self-employed, the unemployed and people with public sector employers who will give them time off for public duties.
- Revise the "Widdecombe" rules which restrict which local government employees can be councillors/political activists. We don't want a return to the days when in theory the leader of a district council could be chief exec of the relevant county council and there is an obvious conflict between being a member and employee of the same authority. But currently the rules cut in at too low a level and exclude a whole bunch of people who actually understand and care about local government from playing a voluntary role in civic life outside work. If you are a middle-ranking council officer in say, Camden, but live in Islington, surely you should be encouraged to be an Islington councillor in your spare time, not banned from doing it?
- Unfortunately the only real driver that has made it easier in recent years to recruit council candidates is that the "pay" - or rather allowances - are now at a sensible level. This is not because councillors are venal - it's because they - particularly the younger people who are currently "missing" from most local authorities - have mortgages to pay the same as anyone else and if you want to be a Cabinet/Executive member you need to either stop doing your day job or go part time, and even if you are a backbencher and only doing evening meetings then you are likely to forego some promotion opportunities by being the person in the office that always leaves dead on 5.30 to go to a committee meeting. The DCLG shouldn't shy away from measuring the direct correlation between councillor recruitment/retention and allowance levels.