Southend Borough Council has it’s full council meeting on Thursday 25th February — this coming Thursday. As this is the meeting where the budget for the 2016/17 financial year will be decided, everything else has essentially gone unnoticed.
But there is (At least -Ed) one measure for debate which is particularly vital to the future running of the council.
I am talking about the proposal by the Leader of the Council, Ron Woodley (IND – Thorpe), to cut the number of councillors by a third, in order to save money. The proposal is on the table as a money-saving measure, with estimated savings being in the region of £205,000.
The trouble, it seems to me, is both that the savings are too meagre and the cost to the effectiveness of the councillors representing Southend residents is too high, and ultimately the sacrifice is just not worth it.
A few of the basics first. At present there are 51 councillors on Southend Borough Council. The borough is divided into seventeen wards, roughly equal in population at the time the boundaries were last redrawn (Which was in 2000/2001 -Ed). There are three councillors per ward, and they are elected in thirds, with 17 seats (One from each ward -Ed) up for re-election each year for three years, and then a “fallow” year with no elections.
The Woodley Plan (As I am going to refer to it, since it seems to have come from Cllr Woodley himself -Ed) would essentially reduce the number of councillors by a third to 34 councillors. This would be done by reducing the number of councillors per ward to two. At the same time, Southend would also switch to “all-up” elections, in which all of the now 34 seats would be contested at once, every four years.
The advantages of this are being mooted as such:
- Not having to pay for as many councillors would save £155,000.
- Not having to hold elections every three years out of the four would save £55,000.
- Meaning a total saving of £205,000.
On the face of it this sounds quite nice. Saving money, to presumably be spent on nice things. Fewer politicians, that’s bound to be popular. It’s not abundantly clear, but I’m going to be kind and presume the savings are annual and not one off.
However, there are some very big drawbacks to this proposition. First of all, this will increase the workload for the remaining two councillors by 50% each. If you think that all a councillor does is raise their hands at meetings every few months and go for tea with the Mayor, then you have either missed a lot of the work they do, or have a particularly lazy councillor (Sorry. You should hold them to account. By the ballot box -Ed). Given that local councillors are pretty much the first point of call for any problem from rubbish in the streets to housing issues, from policing concerns to the quality of schools, the role is actually a combination of social worker and pro-bono legal advisor, with a pinch of Mary Poppins for good measure.
I have had the pleasure of knowing some of the councillors representing town centre wards, where the proportion of vulnerable residents is higher than some of the leafier and more gentrified areas of the town. For these councillors, the increase in workload as a result of losing one of their number will be debilitating. Currently there are around 2,666 residents per councillor. The Woodley Proposal would raise this to an unmanageable 4,000 residents per councillor.
Not to mention one of the factors that the Echo article does not mention: there would still be seven cabinet members. Except that it would be seven out of 34 rather than seven out of 51. And a Mayor, whose workload typically limits the amount of casework they can do. So the executive would be strengthened against the council full, and for those wards where one of the councillors is a cabinet member, all of the ward casework falls on the remaining person. If both of your councillors are in the cabinet, then good luck to you.
I’m also not a fan of all-up elections. As an active campaigner, I consider it very important for elected representatives to be in contact with the people they represent. On the doorsteps in Blenheim Park I frequently ask residents if they know who their councillors are, and a worrying majority of then don’t. If elections are every four years rather than most, what incentive do councillors have to go and speak to their residents? Already, far too many of the lazier ones get away without doing so, and this would just exacerbate that.
I am not deaf to the arguments that belts must be tightened everywhere. But if our cost-saving measures are going to leave councillors unable to do the job we’re doing, what is the point of having them? If holding elections and letting the electorate pick their representatives is too expensive, why not abolish democracy altogether?
Whilst I believe the intent is honourable, there are too many problems with the proposals as they stand. If the need is to send a signal, then the better choice would be to cut councillor allowances which, whilst also necessary, could be trimmed with less disastrous consequence than a reduction in numbers.