Over the past 13 years in the course of the various urban design and housing projects that HemingwayDesign have been involved in I have met hundreds of elected town councillors and presented to a good number of town council committees. On most occasions, the councils I have met have been dominated by retired or semi retired folk. I am full of admiration for people who give of their time to serve their communities for “allowances “that are far from generous (The average councillor works 22 hours and receives an allowance of £6099 per annum, equating to £5.38 ph *1). However when the average age is 60 (that’s the highest in Europe) and 43 .3% are retired (the second highest is France at 30.2% *2), when from 1997 to today the proportion under 45 has fallen from 18.4 per cent to 13.1 per cent (*1), then we surely have a problem.
I class myself as a fairly “with it” 52 year old and work in an industry where it pays to make great efforts to understand what them there young un’s are thinking , are up to, what they want . But I can’t hope to be fully “down with the kids“. I can talk to younger generations about how social media has and is changing the way they conduct relationships, I can try and get under the skin of how they are having to adapt to an economic landscape that is far different, in many places, than when I left home in the 70s. But I am not there living it. Neither am I a woman (only 31 of councillors are women) and like 96 % of town councillors I am white in a population where over 10 per cent are from ethnic minorities.
Anecdotally, many people think that local councillors have very little influence on our lives but that is far from the truth. Local councillors impact on planning applications (are all middle class 65 year old guys likely to fully understand the desperate need for first time buyer housing and is he going to allow it “in his backyard”? ), on education, health provision, public transport, leisure (and that includes those noisy nightclubs!) , the environment and more.
So what can we do to try and ensure that local councillors really represent the diversity of the public they represent and help deliver the localism and the noble but poorly thought through and “running on empty, Big Society” project?
The concept of being a local councillor needs to be seen as a positive way to be a citizen and to serve your community and not derided by the media as it so often is. Once public service in the form of being a councillor is seen as an honourable thing to be doing that impacts positively with employees and with your peers then it would have a good basis to address the current imbalances. The media can play the lead role in this.
We need young people to understand that if there isn’t enough to do in your town , that if the council keep turning down that licence for a live venue , that if there is land that could be used for affordable housing then they can have a voice that can be heard.
There is reluctance from town councillors to vote for an increase in the paltry remuneration. Is there any wonder when the likes of the Daily Mail writes headlines aimed to cause outrage like ‘Doing your civic duty never paid so well: How councillors’ payouts have soared as local services face savage cuts?’ With such a large proportion of councillors being retired then maybe there is less of a need to vote for increased allowances. This can only lead to a vicious circle where the young can’t afford to give of their time.
We need employees to be generous and understand that local councillors need time off to do their duty and that their knowledge and understanding of society can have an impact in the workplace. Without this generosity then how can we get parents with kids and those with a mortgage to contemplate public office?
And surely there is a need to make it clear that serving as a town councillor is about serving your community rather than serving a political party? Yet 92% of councillors represent a political party. (*1))
I personally have been wrestling with this for the past few years now, but with a large family (and with one child still at school), with a business to run and with less time sleeping than I could probably do with, I haven’t been able to practice what I am preaching above. I may be 60 before I feel I am in a position to do something about it!