How Many Local Politicians Do We Need?

By Londonist Last edited 91 months ago
How Many Local Politicians Do We Need?

Islington Town Hall, by M@.

The recent elections gave many of us cause to think about local democracy and how we are represented. Many would argue we have too many politicians (or at least, too many of the wrong sort). But people in Edinburgh, Birmingham and other British cities have far fewer politicians per person than we do here in London. Should they be jealous? Are the needs of Londoners better articulated by our army of councillors? Or are people who live outside London better off without them?

What do councillors do?

Councillors are elected to represent you, as a member of the community in which you live. They have to balance your interests against those of the council, and their political party. They do this by running surgeries, visiting constituents in their homes and going to meetings with council officers. Councillors inform local policy, make decisions on local services and sit on boards like planning and licensing committees.

Collectively, they are responsible for the £15 billion London’s local authorities spend every year on public health, housing, education and other services, like emptying the bins and filling potholes. Councils must provide most of these services by law, which means councillors don’t have as much influence as you might think. Save for closing the odd library or leisure centre, there are very few things a council can just stop doing. While they do have important roles to play in their communities, councillors are also very important to their political parties.

Firstly, the position provides recognition and reward for loyal party members. Most voters choose their councillor according to political party rather than the individual (how many of us can remember the name of the candidate we voted for in the recent election?), and the party has to select the candidate. For the people who do a lot of the legwork — canvassing, fundraising, campaigning — being made a councillor means a title, some cash and a modicum of power. While they can’t do very much to change the services a council offers, they can wield a lot of influence in prioritising where services are delivered. Next time you have a problem near your house, like a pothole or fly-tipping, see how quickly it’s resolved by a single email to your ward councillor rather than calling the council switchboard.

The councillor position also provides a training ground for parliamentary candidates. It offers prospective candidates the opportunity to get their faces known among the electorate, and it helps parties to identify future MPs. If you can’t persuade 12,000 of your neighbours to vote for you, what chance do you have with 107,000 parliamentary constituents?

How many are there?

As well as our 73 MPs, the Mayor and 25 Assembly Members, London has 1,970 local councillors. In London, we have 3.2 councillors per square mile, but other cities get by with far fewer — Birmingham has 1.4, and Edinburgh has just 0.6. It’s a similar picture when you divide councillors among the residents they serve. The City of London has a whopping 121 local politicians (as in all things, they do things differently in the Square Mile). Even taking them out of the equation, London has 2.5 councillors per 1,000 residents. This compares with 1.3 in Birmingham and 1.2 in Edinburgh.

The range between London boroughs is also striking. Conservative-run Bromley has the fewest councillors by any measure — just one per square mile and 1.8 per 1,000 population. At the other end of the spectrum is the Royal Borough of Kensington & Chelsea (also Tory). It has the highest concentration of both measures — 3.2 per square mile (the only council except the City to exceed 3) and a huge 11.5 per 1,000 population. That’s almost three times more than the second highest, Merton, which has 4.1 per 1,000. There is no correlation between political control and concentration of councillors.

Why do we have so many?

The reason we have so many councils — and so councillors — is because of the granular division of borough boundaries. The current boundaries were drawn in 1965. Before then, London was divided into county, municipal and metropolitan boroughs and urban districts — more than 80 in total. Each type of borough had different powers; confusion reigned. The government of the time agreed to reduce the number of councils by merging existing boroughs and incorporating parts of the Home Counties. The aim was to create municipal units with a similar size to a typical English town, and with a consistent level of power and autonomy.

Each London borough now has an average population of 244,000 (excluding the City), and the smallest (Kingston) has just 163,000. By contrast, Birmingham has a population of more than a million people. Edinburgh has almost half a million. In fact, there are 19 British cities bigger than the average London borough. For an international perspective, New York City is arguably London’s closest comparable city in many ways. It has a population of 8.3 million, compared with our 7.8 million. New York is divided into five boroughs — Manhattan, The Bronx, Brooklyn, Queens and Staten Island — each with an average population of 1.66 million people.

Does it matter, if they’re not hurting anyone?

Well, there is a cost involved in all this representation. Councillors receive a sum of money — not a salary, but an allowance — to cover them for the time spent on council business. Much like MPs, councillors’ allowances are set by an independent panel. The intention is that councillors shouldn’t be disadvantaged by their duties, but nor should the money act as an incentive. Unlike Parliament, though, councils can choose to ignore the recommended level. At present, the basic allowance is £10,597 a year, but some councils pay more, and some less. Kingston upon Thames has one of the lowest basic allowances in the country, at £7,529. Croydon has the highest in London, at £11,239.

The costs don’t end there though. In addition to the basic allowance, councillors get more money for additional duties, like sitting on committees, being a spokesperson on an issue or certain party-political roles. According to the levels recommended by the panel, even the most junior councillor attending a regular committee meeting (of which there are many) could expect to top up their allowance by up to £8,852 a year. This could be for just a few hours’ work a week. Cabinet members or committee chairs, who work considerably more hours, could expect total annual allowances of up to £51,859.

In addition to these allowances, councillors can also — quite rightly — claim back expenses incurred in doing council business. This includes travel expenses to all those committee meetings, as well as any other event where they represent the council. Councillors also have to be provided with space to work, computers, phones and other equipment, and stationery and postage facilities.

While we wouldn’t argue politicians should give up their time out of the goodness of their hearts, many Londoners might be surprised to learn how much all the allowances add up to. Even just the basic allowance, for all councillors, tots up to almost £21 million a year. When you add the enhancements for positions of responsibility, and all the cab fares, train tickets and the like, the figure will be much higher.

Is there an alternative?

It ought to be possible to merge some boroughs together and save some money through economies of scale. After all, every borough has an IT department, and an HR department, and a marketing department, and a finance department. They also all provide parking enforcement, and recycling facilities, and libraries. Birmingham gets by with one IT department, one HR department and so on, as does Manchester, as does Edinburgh. As far back as 2003, then-mayor Ken Livingstone proposed redrawing the map and creating five ‘super-boroughs’. The proposals were seen as empire-building on Ken’s part; not only would there be fewer boroughs, they would have dramatically-reduced powers. Ultimately, there was no political support for the proposal, and it never went ahead.

More recently, some councils have dipped a toe in the water of joint services — a way of achieving economies of scale by sharing services across borough boundaries. In 2010, Camden and Islington proposed a bold joint venture to share a chief executive and senior management team. After a great fanfare, the proposal was quietly dropped in December of the same year. Each council still employs its own chief executive, both of whom earn around £160,000. The two boroughs are successfully delivering some services jointly, though — cemeteries, school dinners and support for young carers are among those to be provided more efficiently.

Under increasing budgetary pressures, other councils are also exploring joint working. Westminster, Hammersmith & Fulham and Kensington & Chelsea, for example, are doing some interesting work under the banner of ’tri-borough working’. They are looking to save £43 million by 2015/16 by merging their children’s services, adult social services and libraries departments, as well as some back office and management functions.

Whether the councils will achieve their financial target remains to be seen, but early signs are very promising. Hammersmith & Fulham and Kensington & Chelsea now have a shared chief executive, and all three boroughs share executive directors for both children’s services and adult social care. Resident satisfaction in 2012 was comparable with the period before tri-borough working (79 per cent compared with 77 per cent in 2011). Westminster’s council tax remains the lowest in the country, Hammersmith and Fulham have reduced theirs by more than any other British council, and Kensington & Chelsea returned £100 to each of their households as an ‘efficiency dividend’. Council tax rates are extremely complex and not solely connected to efficiency, but these results are still to be commended.

As the pressure on the public purse gets ever higher, more and more councils might need to follow suit, but the only way to make serious savings would be to merge whole boroughs together, rather than individual departments on a piecemeal basis. Any talk of joint working always makes it clear that councillors' roles will be protected, as if this is a particularly important issue to residents. Many councillors stand out of a genuine sense of community spirit and a desire to serve their neighbourhoods. But perhaps the tri-borough report from 2012 explains best how some councillors view themselves: they talk of retaining their ‘sovereignty’, as if councils were autonomous states in their own right.

The wholesale rewards of reducing the number of boroughs are potentially vast, not just through more efficient back office operations but improved bargaining power when commissioning services like waste collection or road maintenance. Such savings are unlikely to be realised, however. Fewer councils means fewer councillors – and how many councillors would support that?

Note: we contacted the councils of Camden, Islington, Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea, Hammersmith and Fulham and Westminster for comment, but have yet to get a response.

By Rob Kidd

Last Updated 14 June 2014