(Title Image: Action 4 Equality Scotlan)
Your Local Councillor: A Brief Guide
Wales elects just over 1,250 councillors to 22 local authorities. The largest local authorities include Cardiff (75 councillors), Gwynedd and Rhondda Cynon Taf, going down to the smallest in Merthyr Tydfil (33) and Anglesey (30). The number of councillors is set to be reduced to around 1,200 for the next local elections in 2022 as part of an ongoing boundary review.
Each councillor represents a ward. Some wards elect one councillor, others elect as many as 4 or 5 – it usually depends on how many people live in the ward.
In wards represented by a single councillor, the election is by first-past-the-post – the candidate with the most votes wins.
In wards electing more than one councillor, multiple non-transferable vote is used. For example, if a seat has three seats to fill, the three candidates with the most votes are elected. This has been described by the Wales Governance Centre’s Prof. Roger Scully as the “worst electoral system in the world” as several candidates from a single party could easily be elected with under 30% of the vote.
In wards where only enough candidates are put up to fill the available seats, those candidates are elected unopposed (uncontested seat). There were 99 uncontested seats across Wales at the 2012 elections, and turnout in local elections is historically poor, rarely going higher than 40%.
If you’re lucky enough to get elected (or even luckier to have an uncontested seat), what next? The role of a local authority councillor includes:
- Acting as a community leader, listening to the views of local residents in the ward.
- Passing on complaints and queries from local people to the relevant council department and following them up (referrals).
- Chairing, taking part in and voting in meetings of the full council and its committees.
- Scrutinising decisions taken by the council, including policies and budgets.
- Representing the council on regional boards and joint committees (i.e. National Park authorities).
- Attending training sessions to build up skills (where applicable).
- If a member of a political party, taking part in internal party governance (i.e. branch chair, treasurer) and working with more senior politicians (AMs, MPs) on local matters.
- Some councillors will also be appointed to the cabinet (I come back to that later).
From May 2017, local authority councillors will be eligible for a £13,400 annual allowance, with top-ups for cabinet members and committee chairs. Councillors are also eligible to join the Local Government Pension Scheme.
What are Local Authorities responsible for?
Welsh local authorities are responsible for ~£4.6billion worth of public spending each year. The budget’s set by, and granted to them by, the Welsh Government with the approval of the Senedd. Councils also raise about half of their annual income through council tax and non-domestic rates (aka. business rates).
- Schools – Councils are responsible for the upkeep and budgets of all public schools in their respective area. This includes employing and recruiting headteachers, teachers and support staff.
- Social Services – Councils are responsible for vulnerable adults and children as well as children who’ve been placed into care. They also employ social workers, run day centres for the elderly, provide services like “meals on wheels”, home care (in some cases full-time residential care) and some services for full-time and part-time carers.
- Waste & Recycling – One of the more obvious functions: they take rubbish away and either recycle it, send it to landfill or convert it into electicity. Councils are responsible for setting rubbish collection policies and for prosecuting fly-tippers, vandals and people who don’t pick up dog mess.
- Highways – All roads except trunk roads (like motorways) are the responsibility of local authorities. This includes the road surface, street lights, public car parks, traffic wardens, road signs, minor upgrades (like new pedestrian crossings and junctions) and seasonal responsibilities like winter gritting.
- Planning – One of the most important functions of a local authority is deciding whether to grant planning permission for a development (no matter how big or small), setting out how land should be used via Local Development Plans and ensuring people build only what they’re allowed to build.
- Economic Development & Regeneration – Councils are usually the lead authority in major regeneration projects (with funding drawn down from multiple places). They also play a role in tourism promotion and attracting businesses to their particular area.
- Public Leisure & Cultural Services – This includes leisure centres, playgrounds, parks, beaches, libraries, public toilets, as well as some cultural venues like theatres and art galleries.
- Cemeteries & Crematoria – In the case of crematoria these may be run regionally.
- Electoral and Registry Services – For births, marriages, elections and deaths. Councils are also responsible for running elections at all levels.
- Licensing & Community Safety – Deciding whether to grant licences to pubs, nightclubs, sex shops, taxi drivers, casinos etc. Also, councils usually run CCTV systems and undertake initiatives like alley gating.
- Environmental Health – Making sure places that serve food are complying with the law (such as displaying their food hygiene rating or maintaining clean kitchens). Also, dealing with pests like rats and wasps.
- Trading Standards – Protect consumers by ensuring businesses don’t sell dodgy products, try to scam vulnerable people or illegally loan money.
- Administration of certain benefits – Applications for housing benefit, council tax reductions/exemptions, free school meals and things like home improvement grants are normally dealt with by local authorities. In some limited cases councils will provide social housing, but in most of Wales responsibility has now been passed to quasi-public housing associations.
How are local authorities run?
Councillors are in charge of the local authority and employ all council staff.
They’ll appoint a Council Leader (depending on which party can rely on the support of a majority of councillors). The Leader will, in turn, appoint councillors to a cabinet, with each cabinet member being directly accountable for a department. The Leader and cabinet approve any and all policy decisions of the council.
All other councillors will be appointed to committees, which scrutinise council policy in detail. Councillors have the power to “call in” any cabinet decision in order to be debated, and voted on, by the council as a whole. The rules for how many councillors are required to “call in” a decision vary from council to council.
The staff are led by the Chief Executive (aka. Head of Paid Service). With the exception of Carmarthenshire, the Chief Executive is subservient to the councillors and works for them not the other way around. The Chief Executive and relevant senior council officers in each department make recommendations on policy changes, planning applications etc. which councillors are not obliged to follow but usually do.
The Chief Executive usually acts as a returning officer in elections, being responsible for the administration of the election and the count itself; this is a paid role.
Two other important council staff positions are the Section 151 officer (Finance Officer) – who is in charge of the council’s finances, borrowing and preparing the annual budget – and the Monitoring Officer, whose job is to ensure the council acts within the confines of the law and that councillors behave themselves according to their own code of conduct and the council’s rules (constitution).
Town & Community Councils
Town and community councils are the lowest tier of government. The Welsh Government say there are around 730 town and community councils in Wales and more than 8,000 community councillors. Some may represent only a few hundred people, while the largest (I think it’s Barry Town Council) represents 50,000 people – almost as many people as live in Merthyr Tydfil County Borough.
Not all of Wales is covered by a town or community council – there are hardly any in Cardiff, for example – but if you live in an area with a town or community council then you’ll also be electing them on May 4th.
Unlike councillors elected to the 22 local authorities, town and community councillors are unpaid – though some larger councils may hire full or part-time staff (i.e. a clerk, groundskeeper) or grant some sort of allowance to the chair/mayor.
Town and community councils are funded through precepts – an additional charge placed on top of council tax bills. These precepts vary depending on the size of the council and how much income they receive from their parent local authority, but larger community councils may manage annual budgets of £800-900,000+. The precise role of town and community councils is vague and sometimes overlaps with some responsibilities of the county councils, but it generally includes:
- Grant Aid – Community groups often bid for small grants from town and community groups for various things.
- Community Assets – Some have been transferred from local government control and might include: community centres, parks and playgrounds, arts and cultural centres and public toilets.
- Youth Facilities – This includes playgrounds, summer play schemes.
- Street Events – i.e. Christmas lights, street markets, Remembrance parades, fairs.
- Grounds-keeping – Providing bins, planters, regulating street furniture etc.
- Town Twinning
- Cemeteries – if not controlled by the parent local authority.
- Planning – Town and community councils normally have to be consulted on planning applications.
There are often large numbers of uncontested seats at this level. In Bridgend alone, eight of Bridgend’s twenty community councils were completely unelected (most notably Pencoed Town Council) in 2012, with at least 85 uncontested seats altogether.
If there are vacancies during the year and not enough candidates are willing to run in a by-election – or if the council believes someone has skills they need – community councils often co-opt/appoint a councillor by vote of the whole council.