South of the River – Bringing It All Back Home

Compass-SouthComment logo 2Since those mysterious posters went up in Beeston and Hunslet there’s been quite a few comments saying councillors should live in the ward they represent. On the face of it this is absolutely right, but I do think there are a few things to consider.

Councillors have several jobs to do. They have to represent their constituents, they have to make decisions about city-wide policies and services, senior councillors need to understand the department they are in charge of. Interestingly, Cllr Adam Ogilvie recently told South Leeds Life that he thought councillors have an important community development role, supporting local groups.

There are other considerations too. Do we want 99 brand new councillors who don’t know their way around the Civic Hall and can be bamboozled by officers? Or do we want to try and ensure some longevity so they can gain some experience and then make sensible change? And where does the party system fit into this?

The first issue is representing the interests of your constituents. In my view you don’t have to live in the ward to understand those interests, but it certainly helps. I’ve worked in other parts of this city and indeed in other cities. I think I did a good job, but it’s harder work when you don’t know all the local organisations, the geography and the connections.

One commenter on this blog, Mark, put it very well, he said it’s “about truly knowing, understanding and needing change in the issues that face residents in our community.”

“Needing change” what a great phrase. You can be appalled at the amount of dog poo on the pavements as an outsider, but it’s different if you have to walk through it everyday with your kids on the way to school. Sorry if that’s a trivial example, maybe I should have said the quality of the school, although most of our schools are very good.

The next issue is about city-wide decision making. Much of the work of councillors on committees and panels involves decisions that affect the whole city – budgets for bin collections, or fostering policies, for example. We want the best people making those decisions, but they might not live in a ward that will elect them.

This sort of raises the chicken and egg issue of do you move to the ward that will elect you or that your party selects for you; or do you tell councillors they can’t leave the ward they represent if their family circumstances change? Is that chicken and egg or two sides of the same coin? Oh choose your own metaphor.

Which in turn raises the party question. Parties exist because by clubbing together with other people who think in a similar way you can be more effective. It applies across the political spectrum from trade unions to chambers of commerce, Labour, Tory, etc. Genuinely independent councillors or MPs have a tough time, both at elections and in office.

If you accept parties, then the ‘whip’ (you must vote the way we tell you to) is the natural consequence, it’s part of the deal. Apparently the ruling Green Party on Brighton Council don’t have a whip. It means the leader has to ring round each councillor to check whether he can win the vote on any given policy. It may be democratic, but I’m not sure it adds to good governance, especially when quick decisions are needed.

You could ban parties from local government, but I’m not sure that would be an improvement. If you stick with parties then they will want their best, most able, candidates to be representing their safest seats (for continuity if nothing else). And that is why we have councillors representing us that don’t live in the area. And, by the way, why we have councillors who live in the area but represent other parts of the city. Because, of course, there are plenty of talented people in South Leeds who would make excellent councillors.

So back to the question, should councillors live in the ward they represent. Sorry folks, I’m going to be wishy-washy and say “Yes, but …”. I don’t think you can have a rigid rule about this because of personal circumstances, but I know I find it much easier to vote for someone who does live in my neighbourhood and gets their hands dirty with local groups and activities.

I’ll be back next week with more of my views from South of the River. If you’re on Twitter, you can follow me: @BeestonJeremy.

3 Replies to “South of the River – Bringing It All Back Home”

  1. Interesting piece.

    Whilst it’s not always possible for a councillor to live within the ward boundaries, and indeed someone living on (for example) Tempest Road, is more than capable of being a councillor for Beeston, I think that councillors should live there where possible, or at least have some connection with the area.

    After all, why would someone want to be a councillor for an area that they have no connection with? Plus – if you’re debating issues that could affect either your residents that you represent, or the area in which you live…. which way do you vote? Or do you vote as the party whip tells you?

    Looking at Labour, and their candidates from the last elections, candidates for these wards don’t live in the immediate vicinity of where they represent…

    Ardsley &amp Robin Hood
    Chapel Allerton
    City &amp Hunslet
    Cross Gates
    Farnley &amp Wortley
    Killingbeck &amp Seacroft

    Indeed, the candidate for Farnley &amp Wortley lives in Beeston, yet the Beeston candidate lives in LS13 – so one could represent their own ward, and the other could have represented a neighbouring one (if they’d not been beaten into 3rd by the Greens &amp UKIP)

    I feel I’ve been quite generous here, in terms of localities.

    Middleton has councillors ‘representing them’ who live in Guiseley &amp Otley – I’d love to know why they feel they are suitable to represent residents of that particular area, other than the cynical ‘this is a safe seat and I don’t want to give it up’ attitude.

  2. I understand your point about having the best and brightest representing the council Jeremy, but if they really are the best then they should persuade the people in the ward that they live in to vote for them. If they can’t then they probably don’t deserve a seat.
    I know that a councillor who I know told me that Labour actually prefer their councillors not to live in the ward boundaries as it reduces the locals contact with them, thus limiting the amount of work they are expected to do. It also makes councillors more likely to vote for something that will have a negative impact in the ward they represent, because they don’t have to face the wrath of a disappointed public on a daily basis.
    Being active with community groups and making financial decisions are not the only considerations that should matter to a councillor, they should see the things that people in the community really need and that would make their lives better or easier in the little ways. They should listen to parents talking in the school playground while waiting for their kids, sports clubs and actually in the community. Community groups are great to an extent but the same people tend to be involved with them all so that they don’t fully represent the local community, just a relatively small cross section.
    We do need change and to my mind that change has to start with localism. If your councillors live in your ward then they are much more likely to fight for the amenities and people within it!
    As for the “party whips” well, a major factor in me repesenting UKIP is the promise of no party whip in local government. The party actually goes as far as to say that a councillor would never be directed to vote for something that is in direct opposition to the good of their constituents, and actively discourage councillors from doing so!
    At least with truly local councillors there is an appearance of accountability.
    Just a quick point about the Green Brighton council – I have friends that live and work there and they tell me that the council has ignored everything that the locals have told the council with regards to parking, roadworks, refuse collection and business rates. As a result, the business along the seafront have seen massive drops in revenue and footfall. They have seen rodent infestations from the disruption to refuse collections, and all because they refuse to listen – not because they don’t have a party whip to tell them how they should vote.

  3. It’s all about credibility at the end of the day.

    I couldn’t put myself in a position where I am standing for elected office, with a view to representing an area that I don’t know particularly well (if at all) on behalf of a political party.

    But because voting is so tribal, the ‘stick a red rosette on a donkey and it will get elected’ line really does run true in some areas.

    How else can you explain Bill Birch not being elected in Beeston despite being a popular guy and someone who won’t be constrained by anyone and insists on saying his piece?

    Or looking further afield, in the Heywood &amp Middleton by-election Labour stood Liz McInnes, who was a shocking candidate. The Tories have Grant Shapps…. what’s going on?!

    As for Brighton, it’s interesting that the lack of popularity for the abominable Green controlled council hasn’t spread to their MP, who is widely expected to increase her majority at the upcoming election… a diligent constituency MP representing her electorate, there’s a lot to be said for it.

    In South Leeds we’ve had Labour for years and they’ve done nothing for the area at all. Unwanted developments go ahead, important service close…. it’s time they were booted out and some people who really care about the area installed.

    Be it Tories, UKIP, Greens, or independents. Look at the service Morley get from their councillors – excellent, and they keep getting elected despite Labour’s quite shocking attempts to cause them problems.

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