CROYDON COMMENTARY: How well do you know your local councillor? Are they actually up to the job? Do they even have a job?
SEBASTIAN TILLINGER has been checking through the public declarations
There are about 20,000 local councillors in Britain. On Croydon Council, there are 70 of these “democratically-elected local representatives” serving 28 wards. If you’re taking your role as a councillor seriously (not all do), it’s probably hard work. And for some, it’s the only work they do.
A good councillor is expected to balance the needs of his or her local area, residents and voters, community groups, local businesses, and their political party and the council itself.
The reality is often that many councillors put the interests of their political party or their personal interests first. That’s what tends to make a poor councillor. Local council elections routinely enjoy the very worst turnouts: often less than 1 in 3 people who could vote for a local councillor actually do so.
This voter apathy, a belief that nothing will change, and disillusionment with national and local politics, might be said to be reflected in the type of councillors who are drawn to serve us. I look at my local councillors and I feel despondent.
They don’t really represent what I think. They’re slow off the mark, they have no fire in their bellies. A case in point is the planning committee that I sat through the other evening. In these covid-19 times of “virtual” meetings, it was like watching an episode of Gogglebox, but with fewer laughs.
The First Past The Post electoral system fails winners and losers alike. We need proportional representation at local and national level now.
We need an electoral system that attracts high-calibre candidates – candidates that are fit for purpose, are active in and out of the council, and who can bring their professional experience from their day jobs to the role, a sharing of experience and knowledge.
When these councillors engage with private and public organisations outside the borough they should be participating with understanding on a level footing. Less of the bluff and bravado we see from the current council leader when he deals with outside development investors.
We need our councillors to be both local and actively engaged with our communities, while outside the council they should be professionally engaged with the real world – in business, commerce, culture, whatever.
All over Europe, it’s seen as an accolade and honour to serve on your council and it’s often only bestowed after you have established your credentials professionally. Barcelona’s councillors are made up of businessmen, academics, professionals, leaders of non-governmental organisations, and well-known and established community leaders – people who are at the top of their games in their own lives before they seek to serve their local communities.
Based on the declarations that have been made publicly available on the council’s website, in Croydon, half of the council cabinet is unemployed or not in paid work.
Most of the remainder of the cabinet work for other local authorities or Transport for London. This may explain why council leader Tony Newman’s allowances handouts are so sought after and how he maintains his grip on power. Between them, Croydon’s 70 councillors, red and blue, from 2018 to 2022 (the next local elections), will have shared £6million of public money in “special responsibility allowances”.
Of those 70 elected councillors, by far the largest number – 22 – are unemployed or not in paid work. Eleven councillors work for other local authorities or are civil servants, eight work for charities, five of them work for their political parties, four work for TfL, eight are retired and only 12 appear to hold down jobs outside the public sector, in the professions or commerce sector. Is this really representative of a cross-section of Croydon society?
Perhaps it is because the local councillor role attracts a certain type of individual?
I think the calibre of local councillors and the knowledge and experience they bring to this role plays a large part in the apathy we see at local government level in Croydon today.
Unless we can break this, and begin to learn from the Barcelona model, local government in Croydon is going to be even more disconnected, marginalising and failing to serve its communities or, importantly, unable to engage with the outside world on our behalf.
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