A new study suggests there is a growing split among councillors, with backbenchers and cabinet members effectively becoming ‘two tribes’.
Based on a survey of 2,600 elected members, it reveals starkly contrasting views on the direction of local government.
Almost two-thirds of decision-making councillors believe the modernisation agenda for local authorities – which heralded the introduction of cabinet systems of governance – has been a success. Just 37% of backbench members agreed.
Two out of three non-executive councillors felt the changes had marginalised their role with 43% believing they could personally help to improve local services compared to 87% of executive elected members.
The Association for Public Service Excellence (APSE), which published the study, said the findings highlighted the need for local authorities to reconnect all councillors with decision making powers. One way to do that is through APSE’s ‘ensuring council’ model, which enhances the role of local politicians, said Paul O’Brien, chief executive of APSE.
‘Any dialogue on the future of local government needs to be grounded in a set of principles that genuinely advances local political leadership and democratic accountability,’ he said. ‘The ensuring council ethos offers a way of triggering that constructive dialogue.’
He added: ‘Councillors that exercise executive decision-making powers, or those in waiting to occupy such roles, expressed persistently different views from what we might term “backbench” members, regardless of political persuasion.
‘Party groups are a means whereby any potential divisions were mediated, but the poll raises questions as to whether the party group is up to the task of restraining the institutional drivers of the modernisation agenda.
‘This study shows there is a need to find a way to better recognise the contribution of councillors who may be focused on serving their communities but feel disconnected from decision-making.’