Public Services Management: More work and low pay for amalgamated councillors

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'IT'S TAKEN UP more time than I thought it would. The financial rewards are abysmal. You spend half your life in the car. But I enjoy the challenge,' said David Green, a selfemployed crofter, guesthouse keeper and part-time business counsellor. But the work he was referring to was that of being an independent councillor and vice-chairman of finance for Highland Regional Council.

His Loch Broom and Conon Valley constituency is bigger than Nottinghamshire and, at 216,919 hectares, is the largest council ward in the UK.

Over in Strathclyde, the Mount Vernon & Baillieston division on the eastern edge of Glasgow has 22,924 electors. The ward's population is probably the highest in the UK, exceeding that of many district councils. But Labour councillor Douglas Hay, a trade union official, said that 'by and large, I can manage and cope with it quite well', assisted by the 'back-up and breadth of service' offered by the regional council.

The Cornhill ward of the Corporation of London is the smallest in the country: it has four resident electors and 52 business voters. Its area is so limited that the council has not seen the need to measure it.

But Cornhill ward has five representatives: an alderman, deputy alderman and three councillors. Deputy alderman Wilfred Archibald sees his council duties, not surprisingly, as 'management' rather than constituency work.

On the Scilly island of Bryher, two councillors represent just 56 electors. In Kensington and Chelsea, three councillors share a ward of 38 hectares.

Unlike parliamentary constituencies, there are no national standards for the size of local government wards or even for the number of councillors per authority. Council electorates range from 1,716 in the Scilly Isles to 1,745,000 in Strathclyde. Council sizes range from 157 in the City of London to 10 in four Scottish districts, and areas from 274 hectares in the City to 2,539,000 in Highland Region. Resident electors range from 25 per councillor in the City to nearly 17,000 in Strathclyde, and areas from two hectares per member in the City to 48,800 in Highland Region.

It is against this chequered and confusing background that the Government has set in train changes that will, over the next few years, make drastic cuts in the total number of councillors in England, Scotland and Wales.

The first move came on Monday when the Local Government Commission published draft recommendations for a 'unitary' authority on the Isle of Wight. The island currently has 103 councillors, including 43 county members, 36 for Medina borough and 24 for South Wight.

The commission recommended their amalgamation in 1994 into a single-tier authority of about 48 councillors, reducing the number of council seats by more than half.

The Isle of Wight, England's smallest county with only two districts, is by no means typical, and the commission says it will be treating each case on its merits. But, whether the change is viewed as a decrease in district seats or an increase in county seats, reductions on this scale would threaten between 6,000 and 13,000 council seats in the English shire areas.

In Wales, the Government has already declared its intention of replacing the eight county and 37 district councils with 23 unitary authorities in 1995. David Hunt, Secretary of State for Wales, is considering a range of options that would reduce the principality's 1,979 council seats by between 34 and 56 per cent. Authorities would be grouped according to population density, with extra members in the sparsely peopled areas.

In Scotland, which has 65 authorities (nine regions, 53 districts, and three islands councils), the Government is still consulting on the number of new mainland authorities to be created in 1996. The consultants Touche Ross, in a financial analysis for the Scottish Office in October, sketched out the possible effects on councillors. The present 1,603 mainland councillors (445 regional and 1,158 district) might be reduced to 1,270 in the first option or to as low as 728 in the fourth option.

Anna Capaldi, a Touche Ross partner, said district seats had been taken as the starting point, with adjustments made where new council sizes had looked 'unrealistically high or low'. She declined to disclose the precise methodology, and stressed: 'None of this carries any official weight in terms of what will actually happen.'

The overall impression - from Scotland, Wales, and the Isle of Wight - is of a reduction of between one third and three quarters of the 20,046 council seats in the non-metropolitan areas of mainland Britain.

Quite apart from the political effects, what are the implications of such cuts for the quality of council service and representation?

Nirmala Rao and Ken Young, of London University's Queen Mary and Westfield College, believe the cuts will at the very least defeat the Government's stated objective of improving the 'calibre' of local councillors.

In a summary report for the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, to be published in full in February, they argue that an increased constituency workload will deter people with management and business experience from standing for election. They warn, too, of yet further politicisation of local government, with independent councillors squeezed out.

Their projections are based on interviews this year with 250 councillors in 30 authorities and a re-analysis of data from the 1985 Widdicombe study, which had involved 2,606 councillors from 146 authorities.

They found that the average councillor is spending 97 hours a month on council duties, compared with 74 in the 1985 study. The rise has been due almost exclusively to the demands of committee work, but the study also found a broad correlation, particularly within shire districts, between elector numbers and time spent in dealing with constituents' problems. They warned that a reduction in councillor numbers will reduce accountability and impose an 'excessive workload' on the remaining members.

Prof Young, a former member of the Local Government Boundary Commission and an adviser to the Widdicombe Committee, said that most councillors saw their prime role as elected representatives rather than as board members.

Ms Rao said the increased workload, coupled with Government proposals to experiment with 'cabinet-style' local government, will prompt many back-benchers to stand down.

The counter-argument, put by Michael Heseltine as Secretary of State for the Environment last year, is that 'too many councillors spend too much time achieving too little'.

The Boundary Commission, in its final report, concluded there were too many, rather than too few councillors. And the Audit Commission criticised members in 1990 for getting too involved in councils' day-to-day operational management.

The Government argues that recent changes, which have reduced council housing stocks and delegated many areas of service provision to contractors and self-governing schools, require a less interventionist approach.

Ministers are confident that unitary councils, responsible for all local services, will attract high-calibre candidates, particularly if 'cumbersome' committee work is reduced. And they are reluctantly prepared, if necessary, to consider introducing salaries for leading councillors. At present the maximum any councillor can earn is little more than pounds 8,000 a year, and regulations restrict the national average to pounds 2,135. This compares with a basic salary of pounds 30,854 for an MP.

On the Isle of Wight, the county council leader, Morris Barton, 51, is taking a relaxed view of the recommended cuts. Mr Barton, head proof- reader for a newspaper, is one of 18 county members on the island who also serve as district councillors. Far from adding to their burden, creation of a unitary authority will lighten their load.

(Photograph omitted)