Viewpoint: Striking a balance

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Being a councillor and a parent are the two most important and rewarding roles in my life, writes Gareth Siddorn, but the way local government is structured means that I often get to the end of the week feeling that I haven’t fulfilled either to the best of my ability.

The challenges faced by parents are deterring them from standing for and remaining in office and, as a consequence, councillors with childcare responsibilities are significantly under-represented in town halls across the UK.

Life as a councillor with a young child is tough, especially as one of the 20 per cent who combine elected office with full-time employment. A 2012 Communities and Local Government Select Committee report on the role of councillors quotes Nan Sloane, Director of the Centre for Women and Democracy: “you can have a job and be a councillor; you can have a job and a family or be responsible for a family; you can be a councillor and be responsible for a family; but it is extraordinarily difficult to do all three at the same time”.

The most recent LGA census of councillors found that we spend an average of 25 hours per week performing our duties. Fellow councillors will know what this looks like: at least three or four evenings of meetings, surgeries at the weekend, and a steady flow of casework. The nadir for me came recently when, by the time my final council meeting started, I was already over 12 hours into the working day. Were my concentration levels as good as they could have been? Probably not. Was I tired and past by best? Almost certainly. What made it worse was knowing that I wouldn’t see my two-year old son that day and that my partner was at home, yet again, taking sole responsibility for childcare duties (this often gets overlooked). If I was a single parent, or lacked the support of my employer and council colleagues, then it’s difficult to imagine how I would cope.

There is quite rightly criticism of the under-representation of female councillors and those from BAME backgrounds in England, comprising just 32 per cent and four per cent apiece, however, less attention is paid to the low numbers with caring responsibilities for children. The LGA’s research found that we make up just 14.5 per cent of councillors.

This undoubtedly contributes to the striking imbalance in the age profile of councillors. The average age currently stands at 60 years old, with more councillors aged over 70 than under 45 years old. The difficulties those with childcare responsibilities face are a major barrier to them becoming and remaining as councillors, and in turn ensuring a better balance of ages, experiences and perspectives across local government.

Unfortunately the solutions to this problem aren’t obvious. In contrast to other tiers of government, the working practices of local councils remain largely unreformed. Lessons could be learnt from the more family-friendly sitting hours of the Scottish Parliament and Welsh Assembly. Even the House of Commons has attempted to amend its culture, culminating in the opening of a parliamentary crèche in 2010. However, any shift away from evening council meetings would penalise those with day-jobs and, whilst less likely to inconvenience the 47 per cent of councillors who are retired, would do little to ensure a more even mix of ages.

Which brings us to the elephant in the room: allowances. A significant increase is neither economically viable nor politically palatable but we need to decide what kind of system we want and whether we are comfortable with councillors remaining resolutely white, male and increasingly drawn from a narrow and ageing demographic.

Perhaps the time has come to ask if we need in excess of 18,000 councillors in England or whether we would be better served by a more streamlined system of local government, with fewer councillors who are better supported and hopefully more representative of the communities they serve.

Gareth Siddorn is a Lewisham councillor. This article first appeared in C’llr magazine, December 2015.

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