Public Services Management: Many are called but few stick it out - Council members say the job should be rewarding but more are leaving in frustration. Liza Donaldson says training could help

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The Independent Online
EVEN in this time of high unemployment, there is a job that is increasingly hard to fill. Its goal is high-minded: making the world, especially the world on your doorstep, a better place. It is part of an organisation responsible for a multi-million-pound budget. For working an average 34 hours a week, there is no pay. (There is an expense allowance of less than pounds 2 an hour.) And you answer to just about everyone in the community.

But in the judgement of those who know, being a local councillor is still a life-enriching experience. One former council member recalls: 'If one really likes people and enjoys helping them, the job is most satisfying.'

Another said: 'I enjoyed every minute, from the dogfights across the council chamber to the reconciliation afterwards. In particular the opportunity to help people.'

But these comments are taken from a report that makes grim reading - Councillor Recruitment and Turnover: An Approaching Precipice? The study released recently by the Local Government Management Board warns of a looming crisis among the UK's 25,000 councillors, and suggests that recruiting councillors is a bit like running a bath with the plug out. At every set of elections, four out of 10 councillors decide not to stand again.

In marginal district councils and in London, which has elections next year, the figure is nearer five out of 10. At the same time, the pool of potential candidates to replace them is steadily narrowing, and becoming more politicised.

Most who stand down cite personal reasons and the demand that council work places on their time. One council member revealed: 'I was told I would be promoted at work if I left the council - and I was, that same week.'

Another reason given by those who leave, the researchers said, has been the Government's 'derisory attitude' to local government. The report said many of the remedies to the town hall drain lie with the Government, but local councils and political parties can also act to make a difference.

In particular it cited another study by a joint working group of civil servants and council representatives, Community Leadership and Representation: Unlocking the Potential, which proposed freeing up members' allowances and offered all councillors full training 'and help through the administrative maze'.

Steve Bullock, the Lewisham Labour councillor seen by many in the BBC2 Town Hall series, has set up a cross-party group of experienced councillors with the aim of making councillors more effective through training. 'Training is one very important element in the wider issue, which is providing support for elected councillors that enables them to do the increasingly complex task demanded of them,' he said.

He argues that the reorganisation of local government (the new unitary councils are due on stream from April 1996) makes it imperative to have better preparation and shorter learning curves for councillors. Pundits say reorganisation will result in dramatically fewer councillors - half as many in Wales, for instance. This means a growing workload that may well exacerbate the turnover picture.

Elaborating on his organisation's mission, Mr Bullock said: 'We want to operate in that critical space between officers and members which is a crucial interface that makes or breaks councils. It is the most neglected area.' The reason for the efforts? 'If you get it right, the rewards are that we can achieve things we did not think were possible.'

He cited as examples such councils as Kirklees and Lewisham, which were beset by budget and other problems but which have improved services. At Kirklees, councillors have their own training budget, which is still a rare resource. In addition, they have benefited by expansion of their role into what John Harman, the leader of the Labour authority, calls 'community government'. Instead of sitting in committees most of the time, councillors go out in quality review teams to sample the views of staff and the public on council services. Select 'scrutiny commissions' of councillors have been created to look at wider community issues, such as water metering and disconnections and environmental impact assessments.

Mr Harman said: 'We have empowered councillors. If we had not changed, we would not be able to react to the challenges. Instead of monitoring and stamping things, we let them flow. We are able to manage something very dynamic.'

It is all part of a changing role, he said. 'It is important to exchange this dreary self-image that the public sector has with something more exciting. That is bound to increase the quality of what people do.'

Andrew Boff, a Conservative and former leader of Hillingdon Borough Council who is a partner in Mr Bullock's venture, said most councillors were elected with a vision to change things but were often distracted, bogged down and frustrated by detail, and left feeling they were fighting a losing battle. Councillor training was merely an introduction to the status quo. But with better training in time management, European systems and ways to change things, their performance could be vastly improved.

'A local authority should be an exciting place to serve,' he said. 'It should be a challenge and an honour to be a local councillor.'

This sort of culture change, with councillors moving into the driving seat, is happening at other councils, such as Nottingham city. Members have tailor-made courses in demystifying council finance, for example, and share joint sessions with officials. Yve Buckland, deputy chief executive, sees this as a move away from the old-style professionally domination of the 1970s, where training was restricted to council officers. For Council 2000, she said, it is essential for everyone to train.

The Association of Councillors, which organises courses for councillors, produced a report more than a decade ago that recommended better training as well as more facilities, such as telephones, and creche programmes that would encourage more women to seek council seats.

It urged councillors to implement its proposals without any sense of guilt over spending taxpayers' money on themselves, because better support would make them more efficient. It concluded: 'There can be no room for pride in muddling through. The price for our democratic system is high.'

Fred Pickles, the association's national secretary, said that message is as true now as it was then, but even more urgent.

(Photograph omitted)