I have been meaning to moan about this for a long time now, and tonight I am going to do it. It is the topic of councillors who serve on both a borough/district and a county council.
Last year I went to one of the county council’s local committee meetings. The councillors on the committee all behaved perfectly well, but the situation was like something from Monty Python. They were discussing a plan for the borough council to take over running the car park at Crawley hospital. It sounded like something that could have been nodded through, but they went into great depth about it, asking questions and suggesting that comments be made to the borough about it.
All that sounds good, but everybody on that committee, except one person, was also a borough councillor. Several of them were actually cabinet members on the borough council and all were in the controlling group on the borough council and so all would have had a chance to have an input to the proposal.
In a way it is admirable that they were able to compartmentalise so well, with a sort of internal Chinese wall that made them act as if they were not the people who sent the item to the county council and were not the people who would be receiving it back from themselves, but I left the meeting feeling that it would be better if they actually were different people.
I have actually thought this for a while for other reasons. I know the main justification is that if somebody is a councillor on both tiers of local government then they should be able to solve problems better because there is no passing off from borough to county, but I don’t think that outweighs all the disbenefits.
In our town we have 9 county councillors. Until the 2015 elections 8 of them were also on the borough council, so it is not exceptional for a county councillor to also serve on the borough, it is the norm. It means that we have 38 different people who are councillors in the town when we could have 46. This is not a good way to extend engagement and get as many people as possible involved. It is almost as if there was a deliberate effort to get as few people invilved as possible.
The thing is, it is not as if we are short of capable people willing to serve. I don’t know about the other lot, but my party always has more candidates than there are winnable seats available.
Apart from the town-wide impact, there is the fact that in a ward with only two borough council seats it is entirely possible for the two borough councillors to be husband and wife and for one of them to also be the county councillor for the area. This does not give a resident a lot of scope for a second opinion if they are not happy with the response they get from one councillor.
On top of that, it is hard for anybody to be truly impartial in their dealings with the other level of government if they are also in it. In an ideal world it would not be allowed. It is already the case that you cannot serve as an MP and also be a member of a devolved government or national assembly (I think). Other combinations may also be forbidden, but some are allowed, with no real consistency about which combinations are OK and which are not.
There is also an argument that this double-hatting can lead to, if not professional politicians then individuals or couples whose entire livelihood depends on staing elected, and that isn’t a good thing either.
Even though it is still allowed, the parties could stop it immediately by just not selecting peole for election who are already on another council. I keep suggesting this but I know it is not a popular opinion and it just looks like trolling when I make the argument. All I can do is to personally not support or vote for such candidates when it comes round to selection, though I doubt my own vote will make a lot of difference and if we select a candidate who is already a councillor I will still vote for them in the elections – better a double-hatted Labour candidate than a single-hatted Tory any day.