Since 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.