Local Elections: Hopefuls motivated by desire for change: Who wants to be a local councillor? Martin Whitfield canvassed the views of Birmingham election candidates

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The Independent Online
'MY WIFE said just two words to me when I was selected to stand for the council, 'You're mad',' said the Rev Richard Bashford, Church of England vicar and the newest Labour councillor on Birmingham City Council.

Sheila Bashford's reaction to her husband's selection will have been repeated among many partners of the 15,000 people who are putting themselves forward for election in next month's local elections.

For those who are successful, it will involve long hours of unpaid work, an adverse impact on family, career and social life, inceasingly little power and influence and scant thanks from a largely ungrateful electorate.

Cynics often attribute unhealthy motives to people who put themselves forward for election; political ambition, petty power, and business advancement.

But Mr Bashford, a 'Christian socialist', said this would be unfair. 'There is a lot of rubbish talked about power . . . There may be some status in being a councillor but I have very little interest in that as I have spent my life trying to counteract the false status of being a vicar.'

The 1980s saw a succession of legislation which transferred power and responsibility away from local authorities to central government and to quangos.

Central to the perceived loss of power was the 'capping' of financial budgets to restrict the excessive rate rises of a number of radical Labour councils. The result has been described as giving authorities the power of 'how to cut the cake, but not how big the cake is'. Apart from financial constraints, local authorities have lost control of water, further education colleges, various health care functions and, most recently, grant- maintained schools. Compulsory competitive tendering has limited powers to provide direct services.

Combined with the decline in influence has been a fall in popular support at election time. Many of the victorious councillors next month will be elected on a turnout of fewer than 30 per cent of those eligible to vote.

Professor Patrick Dunleavy, of the London School of Economics, believes the position of local authorities has stabilised in their relationship with central government although their influence is far less than it was in 1979. 'I am more sanguine about the prospects for local government than many others,' he said. 'Certainly being a councillor is much less rewarding than it was, but in the late 1980s it looked as if local authorities were being programmed to disappear.'

Mr Bashford, 57, is convinced that being a councillor is worthwhile. He was elected last month, winning Quinton for Labour from the Tories for the first time. 'I don't have a driving political ambition. I am an egalitarian and believe that everyone is entitled to a good quality of life. On the council you can write to officers and have a bit more clout than a troublesome inner-city vicar,' he said.

The desire to make changes, get things done and improve the quality of life for constituents is a major factor behind the confidence of all candidates.

David Evans, a particle physicist at the University of Birmingham and Tory candidate in Brandwood ward where the Conservatives are trying to recover a seat lost in 1990, admits to political ambitions as he enters his first public election at the age of 27. 'I have been out with sitting councillors and have enjoyed helping people, getting paving stones fixed or getting rubbish cleared. Doing the basic things does help,' he said.

But Bernard Zissman, 59, the Tory leader on Birmingham council, is worried that pressure of business these days meant that senior business figures were no longer represented on the council as they were when he was first elected in 1965.

The Liberal Democrats, who have 13 members on the 117 strong council, say they have no difficulty in finding volunteers wishing to be councillors.

Nicola Henry, a 41-year-old teacher, said she decided to stand because she wanted 'to be part of the process, to take power to change things and make it fairer'.

(Photograph omitted)