Flicking through my free local-paper-knacking “Heathscene” the other day, I gazed upon the serried ranks of our proud elected members. I was moved to do some extremely basic analysis – it’s based purely on looks, so I apologise in advance if any of it’s wrong.
Of our 40 Councillors, 26 (65%) are male and 14 (35%) female. This is slightly better than the national average (68-32), which is positive (and unexpected) for Surrey Heath.
Less positive is the representation of BAME (black and minority ethnic) members. Again, I’m only going on visuals here, so apologies if I get this wrong, but it appears that only one member (and a Lightwater one at that) is from a visible minority. You might be surprised to learn (or maybe not) that nationally 96.6% of members are white (it’s 98.5% in Surrey Heath), so we’re not too far off the mark there. 95% of the population of Surrey Heath (as of 2001) were white, so this isn’t quite as bad as it looks.
What really made me look twice was the age balance. Every single Councillor is (or, at least, looks) over 40; I estimate that 22 (55%) are over 60. Again, that’s not surprising; the average age of a Councillor in England and Wales is just short of 59.
So, you might think that Surrey Heath was doing well; very much an “average borough”. But are a bunch of 59 year olds truly representative of the local people? The mode age of Surrey Heath is 38 – but as we’ve seen, there aren’t ANY 38 year olds on the council. Why not?
Well, to be a Councillor is quite a commitment. Although some work harder than others (as with anything), there’s still a whole load of committees, documents, decisions to be made – not to mention providing a range of advice and advocacy for local people. And your reward for this? A mighty £4,752, which is supposed to cover Councillor’s expenses (I would be surprised if it does). Most people who are Councillors do it when they’re retired, yet still sprightly enough to offer something to the role; which is good of them, but do we instead need a more dynamic, forward-thinking, dare I say “professional” Councillor?
A regular moan from the right-wing press is about the size of “council chief’s salaries”, a usual whinge being that some earn more than the PM (none get a massive house in Westminster and a stately home in Bucks, nor chauffeurs and security, nor an enormo-pension, nor lucrative publishing/speaking deals afterwards, but hey ho). Personally I think that if we value public services we want the best people doing them; and to attract the best people, we need to pay them a decent salary.
And that counts for Councillors too. We’re asking them to make some extremely significant decisions; essentially to decide the direction of million/billion pound organisations, and paying them tuppence ha’penny. If you’re an intelligent 38 year old with a family, political skills, and managerial nous, why would you choose to be a Councillor on £4k instead of a manager on £75k?
So my proposal is this. Pay Councillors somewhere in the region of £75k per annum, more if they’re in the cabinet. Make their jobs full-time. Realise the savings as the brightest and best compete to work as a Councillor (and the really good ones become MPs). Elected Police chiefs will earn £130k – why not elected Leaders? Ditch all the old duffers, set in their ways, devoid of energy and creativity.
Now you might think that we can’t possibly afford this. So why not put these Councillors – who are elected to make the difficult decisions about public service – in place of some of those “highly-paid council officers”? In the USA elections are held for most senior posts in local administrations – what could be more democratic? Don’t like the way local parks are run? Vote for a new head of Leisure!
Maybe we should be asking ‘what drives someone to become a politician?” I have a horrible feeling it’s the drug of power, and money is irrelevant; this then attracts the power-hungry rather than the more measured individual we might need to make a success of a senior management post.
Whatever, one of big democratic deficits in this country, and exemplified in the recent riots, is the disconnect young people feel with the democratic process. They feel disenfranchised and distant from the political process; and this is only exemplified when the see all their Councillors are old and grey. Maybe the promise of a proper reward – not to mention some decent role models blazing a trail – would encourage more young people to take note of local democracy, and ideally begin to get involved.
Our guest blogger is Chris Williams creator of the leftoflightwater blog