The Cost of Local Democracy

I often wonder what could be done to reduce the cost of democracy, particularly now when the public finances are stretched to absolute limits and when the national debt is rapidly rising. When I was a serving Councillor, someone who originally comes from Poland, where the political system is different, I often questioned the election cycle in the UK and I never really understood why it is that we need to have elections every year; either to the Local or County Council.

My “election cycle scepticism” was magnified when I was told that it cost annually on average £100,000 to set up and run the local elections in Welwyn Hatfield. I thought that if, for example, the elections were to take place every other year, the taxpayer would save £500,000 in one decade only. It is potentially a lot of additional resources for one Local Authority. This significant amount of money could support a number of projects in our neighbourhoods.

Some of my colleagues argued that the current system offers and safeguards political stability and it also protects the Local Authorities from “overnight changes”. However, what if a particular area is incompetently led or governed? I would actually argue that sometimes drastic changes of leadership in towns and cities up and down the country are far better for our communities than a slow and often painful changes to our “democratic circumstances”.

Interestingly in Poland, the Local Council elections take place every 5 years.

With an overall population of just over 120,000, there are 48 Councillors in Welwyn Hatfield representing 16 wards. Equally, in neighbouring Stevenage with a population just under 90,000, there are 39 elected Councillors representing 13 wards. It does a lot, doesn’t it? I remember raising this issue at one of the Council meetings. Of course, my idea was rejected. After my intervention, I also recall receiving a number of unpleasant comments from some of my fellow Councillors. I was well aware that less regular election cycles or reduction in the number of Councillors could mean that my chances of being re-elected might have been significantly narrowed.

I’ve recently read in one of the national newspapers that a total of 2,802 staff were paid at least £100,000 in 2019-2020 with 693 receiving salaries above £150,000. I found it staggering that a former Deputy Chief Executive of Coventry City Council received the largest single pay package, an astonishing £573,660. Essex County Council employed 40 people on pay of £100,000 each.

Due to the pandemic, many of our Local Authorities have recently announced a rise in tax bills, well above the inflation rate. As a taxpayer, I recognise the importance of paying extra into the system, which has been so heavily affected by the COVID-19 crisis. I am happy to contribute more to ensure that our key services aren’t hit by further and draconian cuts. When our MP’s argue whether our nurses should receive a marginal pay increase, which in actual terms is a pay cut, I wonder whether the pandemic gives us an opportunity to revisit the cost of the local democracy, which could include the number of Councillors in our districts or our pay structures.

In my view, the debate ought to happen and it should happen quite soon. I also feel that the voice of citizens must remain at the heart of any changes to the local democratic framework. This is something that I would never compromise. Moreover, in times when many of us feel disconnected with the political process, this actually might be a good moment to reflect on ways in which the “system” represents its people and contemplate possible solutions, which could strengthen and enhance the political dialogue. It is not an easy task, but who doesn’t like a good challenge?!

* Michal Siewniak is a Lib Dem activist and former councillor

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27 Comments

  • Paul Barker 9th Apr '21 - 12:03pm

    I would be utterly opposed to this, even asking this question is making the arguments of Authoritarians for them. If we were going to suggest changes then I would want to go the other way, the more Elections the better. Its actually very hard to maintain interest in Local Politics at the best of times & only having Elections every four Years, as in London Boroughs for example, makes it that much harder.

  • Michal Siewniak 9th Apr '21 - 1:18pm

    Paul, you might be right. It is true that having elections every 4-5 years could actually mean that our politicians become too complacent. Having said that, I know that a lot of my fellow Europeans are often confused with the way, in which the local elections are run in the UK.

    I wonder whether a better political education could offer an answer or a solution? Would people be better connected with our local democracy if the process was explained in more simplistic way? Can we do a bit more, collectively, to demonstrate how voting in local elections directly affect our lives? As a migrant, I am particularly keen to ensure that so called “hard to reach groups” can actively take part in this important “civic journey”.

  • John Marriott 9th Apr '21 - 2:07pm

    Michal,
    Please don’t take offence; but coming from another system, as you say, you can often view our quaint electoral arrangements from a more balanced perspective. I spent four years of my adult life in two countries, namely Canada and West Germany, both with a Federal structure; but with different ways of electing people, I I reckon that some of our practices are balmy as well.

    I spent thirty years, for my sins, as a councillor in Lincolnshire. At one period in the noughties I was briefly on three different councils, all with elections every four years; but one holding elections two years after the others. However, if you think that’s too often, if you crossed the boundary from where I stood into the City of Lincoln, you would have the opportunity to vote for someone every year!

    The City of Lincoln Council, a District Council with no elected Parish Councils, elects its members by thirds annually in a four year cycle, with the fourth year reserved for County Council elections. You can add to that the election of its MP and the PCC. So, no sooner have activists finished campaigning one year, they have to get ready to do it all again.

    What tends to happen is that the parties with any real organisation, which, for Lincoln, tends to be the Tories and Labour, will usually seek out their known supporters, so turnouts will invariably be low. Most people don’t suffer from ‘voting fatigue’, because a clear majority regularly fails to cast a vote for the local council. I once asked an old local councillor how you could generate more interest in our Town Council even to attend our Annual Town Meeting and his response was; “Put the rates up 100%!”. Herein lies the problem. Local government has been so emasculated over decades by central governments of all colours that most people don’t see the point of voting for it. Now, if real money were riding on the result of local elections, that might make them take an interest!

  • David Evans 9th Apr '21 - 2:35pm

    Indeed you can put a monetary cost on running elections or you can look at the value of true local democracy. Speaking as a Liberal Democrat and an accountant, too often I myself profoundly saddened when I hear people talking about cutting the cost of democracy without ever mentioning its value.

    This is sadly one of those occasions.

  • David Evans 9th Apr '21 - 2:47pm

    As an aside, I suggest people look at and consider the long term implications of this article in Local Government Chronicle.

    “Covid restrictions mean it will ‘not be possible’ for election observers to view ballot papers up close as they usually do at local election count venues, England’s most senior election officer has warned”

    https://www.lgcplus.com/politics/governance-and-structure/local-elections-not-possible-for-count-observers-to-see-ballot-papers-up-close-09-04-2021/?eea=QzlKeW5qSmZJSndKNzlLYmhsUFdWamtXOG9UTDZ4TGlMUlVzQUNkK1hyTT0=&n_hash=1482&mkt_tok=NDA3LUlYQi01MjkAAAF8VaSdhxxAO6mbjG65qXp3IdNrrEnm9n-7KEdoZTrRl_KNuCPoLMZN339dmSlEy6mtnCKgaflaGA4hHH7Chz_SBmXUQUFcJUTdUOLcfuQVN2Euw4I

    Remembering one by election count in Pendle, where I was helping Tony Greaves get another Lib Dem elected, the result was changed to a Lib Dem win when a batch of fifty votes in the Tory pile was switched to 48 Lib Dem votes and 2 Conservative, after one our our team spotted that the two on top were not representative of the whole batch.,

    I think the candidate was Maureen Davies and ultimately she won by eight.

  • Peter Martin 9th Apr '21 - 2:56pm

    @ Michal,

    You’ve come up with a sensible suggestion to halve the cost of elections and received three responses. All pooh-poohing it. Very odd. I can’t see why we have local elections every year either. If they were all timetabled together, say for even numbered years only, we’d perhaps get a better turn out.

    Sure, elections are fine but as Brenda from Bristol famously said “You’re joking not another one.” We can have too much of a good thing!

    PS. The National Debt isn’t a problem! 99% of the difficulties in the EU are caused by them thinking otherwise!

  • Graham Jeffs 9th Apr '21 - 4:05pm

    The cost of elections is largely irrelevant – the point has been made about the value of democracy.

    The trouble is that multi-member wards, whether elected by thirds every year or once every three years, are inherently insensitive to the views and needs of local communities.

    I live in what was/is a very strong Conservative ward/area. It has now been amalgamated with a two-seat ward that sometimes elected LDs. So the ‘surplus’ votes from ‘my’ ward are guaranteed to swamp the result in the three-seater ward. On top of that, this three seat ward covers three separate communities – politics apart, there is no guarantee that the aspirations of these communities are going to be the same.

    What should be happening is that this three seat ward should be split into three single-seat wards. That might encourage people to recognise that they could elect a representative for their community and have some chance of changing the results periodically. At present, everyone knows the result is a foregone conclusion.

    So rather than bleating about the cost of local democracy, why not try and make it more interesting?

  • Thoughtful contribution from John Marriott reflecting on experience over the years. However “So, no sooner have activists finished campaigning one year, they have to get ready to do it all again…? I accept that an actual election means stepping up a gear in campaigning activity but where we succeed and continue succeeding the campaigning as such doesn’t stop, whatever the nature of our electoral cycle. That doesn’t mean it is a subsitute for an effective use of power where we have it (Boris J runs a Government like a permanent election campaign) but there should be a consistent relationship between the work we put in on the ground and the work we do in council chambers or Parliament or wherever.

  • Laurence Cox 9th Apr '21 - 7:56pm

    Multi-member wards have several advantages, not least that one hard-working councillor can get one or two colleagues elected alongside him or her. In wards around where I live and that we have held in the past there has always been a single councillor who was a clear leader and set the pace for the ward. Because we depend so much on case-work to raise our profile, moving to single-councillor wards would make it harder rather than easier to win.

  • Graham Jeffs 9th Apr '21 - 8:10pm

    Laurence Cox / sorry that is, in my opinion, total nonsense. Smaller wards enable individual stewardship far and away more ‘localised” than in large wards where councillors can get away with being passengers.

  • Laurence Cox 9th Apr '21 - 8:36pm

    @Graham Jeffs

    It is exactly how it has worked in the London Borough where I still live. Just because you think that your experience in a rural area should dictate how wards are arranged in towns and cities does not make my point of view nonsense. Our wards are still smaller than the natural communities in the Borough.

  • Graham Jeffs 9th Apr '21 - 8:49pm

    But wherever you are why should one support a system that means localities possibly have their representatives chosen by people who aren’t part of that locality! The smaller the electoral unit, the more sensitive It is going to be.

  • Nonconformistradical 10th Apr '21 - 6:25am

    It seems to me that obsession with equalising numbers of voters in electoral areas (ward, division, constituency or whatever) at boundary reviews is likely to result in communities being chopped up artificially and distributed among different electoral areas. Meaning a councillor is not representing a community as such.

    Communities do evolve and their boundaries might change (increased housing) but, irrespective of the single/multi-member ward issue, the voters in a community should be electing representatives for their community, not based on some arbitrary boundaries.

    Agree that what works in a rural area with low population density might not be appropriate for a densely populated urban area.

  • If I have read the article correctly Michal is suggesting that the number of councillors should be reduced and gives the examples of Welwyn Hatfield with 48 councillors and Stevenage with 39. However, I think he is missing the point. In Stevenage the ratio of electors to councillors is 1 to 2308 compared to 2500 in Welwyn Hatfield. Therefore to have representation equal to Stevenage, Welwyn Hatfield needs to increase the number of councillors to 52 not reduce the number of councillors.

    I would like to see all district councils having a ratio of 2000 electors per councillor and for the rules on electing by thirds to be changed back to how it was in the past, where a council could still elect by thirds even if there were a mixture of one, two and three member wards. For county councils I would like to see a maximum ratio of 7500 electors per councillor.

    I am used to having elections every year, but this didn’t happen everywhere in my Borough because until this year’s election we had a mixture of one, two and three member wards. I like having elections every year. As Laurence Cox points out with a three member ward there can be one leader driving the team and two other non-leader types also being elected. I think this helps to increase diversity. The challenges of being the leader councillor are large and not everyone can take on this role.

    With reference to the annual costs of local elections, I wonder if included in the £100,000 annual figure given by Michal are the costs of the staff in electoral services and the costs of the annual production of the electoral register and the employment of staff to chase people to register in the autumn. Is so, having elections only twice every four years would not save £500,000 over ten years as he suggested.

  • Doug Chisholm 10th Apr '21 - 8:27am

    The local election cycle is 4 years in scotland and it is stv.

    Totally agree that a “high pay” commission is required to reduce and regulate the pay of local government employees. It is obscene.

  • Graham Jeffs 10th Apr '21 - 8:39am

    Nonconformistradical – agree that an obsession purely with electorate size is unhelpful, but suspect that even in more densely populated areas there can still be a sensible attempt to create wards more representative of local communities.

    The problem is how to achieve this without allowing (more?) gerrymandering. Are these boundaries all set ‘top down’?

    Bizarre that as the population expands there is an acceptance in some quarters that the number of democratic reprepresentatives should go down. All part of the dilution of democracy in this country – the omens are not good. And soon this inane doctrine is to be applied to constituencies.

  • John Marriott 10th Apr '21 - 9:20am

    Regarding reducing the number of councillors, from my experience natural selection or, more likely, natural indifference plays an important rôle. When I served on the Lincolnshire County Council invariably, of the 70 or so members, around half, usually Conservative, but not always, were ‘dual hatted’, serving both on County and their local District Councils. Indeed, between 2001 and 2007 so was I, until I started to practise what I preached and retired from the latter.

    We quite often over the 16 years I served as a County Councillor had dual hatted members, who were part of the Conservative Group, who served as ‘Independents’ on their District Council! I’d call that wearing THREE hats! What that tells me is that, if even the mighty Lincolnshire Tories can’t find enough people to fill the seats, having even MORE councillors is hardly the answer. To be brutally honest, thirty years as a councillor has taught me that most councils are run by a smallish clique of able individuals, with the rest of their party colleagues there to make up the numbers, make an occasional contribution, and vote when required!

  • I feel a comment from the Pendle area is poignantly missing here.
    If we are talking about restructuring local government elections, the first consideration must be by what method, for us that is STV. If you need justification for STV Google the 1918 Sligo Corporation Act!
    From STV elections would necessarily be all ups every, ideally I think, four years. The argument against all up bringing in lots of new inexperienced councillors disappears under STV. Incidentally Counties are elected by all ups and have by far the larger budgets than Districts, again knocking down that argument.
    Regarding number of councillors, pre unitary here in Cheshire we had (in a typical county division) 8 councillors in total, this is now down to 3, with some double hatters as John M puts it. This has resulted in councillors being even more remote from their communities, certain factions may even describe them as more elitist as a result! We are at 4000 electors per councillor, which is I believe to be to remote for good liberal democracy.
    Cost, apart from avoiding wasteful expenditure, should not really be part of the democratic equation.

  • John Marriott 10th Apr '21 - 2:22pm

    @Andy Hyde
    Interesting that you compare Unitaries with remoteness. I seem to recall that when, following the Redcliffe Maude Commission Report of the early 1970s, the old Rural District Councils’ campaign against Unitary Authorities featured a slogan, which went something like; “Don’t be R E Mote”. Unfortunately, someone actually unearthed a Cllr R E Mote, who threatened litigation, so it was dropped!

    Seriously though, the remoteness you describe can be avoided if enhanced powers are offered to and accepted by Town and Parish Councils. I accept that the current lot are a mixed bunch (I generally label them proactive, reactive or inactive). Mind you, the same could be said of the members of many more senior councils up and down the country. With ‘enhanced powers’ should come allowances as long as they are only paid for the work put in. In fact that should be the case for all councillors’ allowances. Under the present system you get your dosh no matter how much or how little you do.

  • Laurence Cox 10th Apr '21 - 2:48pm

    @graham Jeffs
    “The problem is how to achieve this without allowing (more?) gerrymandering. Are these boundaries all set ‘top down’?”

    Your comment suggests that that you do not know the process of boundary changes.

    In England they are the responsibility of the Local Government Boundary Commission for England (https://www.lgbce.org.uk/how-reviews-work). The other nations of the UK have their own Local Government Boundary Commissions. There is an extensive consultation, with inputs typically from the local Council, political parties, residents associations, and individuals, which leads to a draft report from the LGBCE, which then goes out for further consultation on which the final report is based. Gerrymandering by any political party is far more difficult than in the USA, where politicians are much more involved in fixing boundaries.

  • @ Doug Chisholm “The local election cycle is 4 years in (S)scotland and it is stv”.

    As a (now retired) Councillor in Scotland, sorry Doug, it’s a five year cycle, usually with three members elected by STV (sometimes four). My ward had 10,500 electors, was twenty miles long, ten Community Councils meeting monthly (expecting their local government Councillors to attend)

    In England as a District Councillor many years ago (in what is now Tim Farron’s seat), I had a ward of 5,000 with two elected by first past the post. Later, further north, I represented a small town with 2,000 electors….. I hope I worked hard in all three seats (elected five times, never lost) responding to my electors in a way my old friend Tony Greaves would have approved. I know which were the easier seats to serve and to make an impact in.

    I’m afraid I don’t recognise or understand a comment made above by a former London Councillor that, “Multi-member wards have several advantages, not least that one hard-working councillor can get one or two colleagues elected alongside him or her”.

    Why should a hard working Councillor carry two sleepers ?

  • Graham Jeffs 11th Apr '21 - 9:17am

    Laurence Cox: Exactly! The status-quo brigade with little appreciation of, or desire to see, truly local representation. ‘Block’ political votes for unwieldly wards of such size that few feel truly involved.

    As I say, democracy is being diluted – deliberately. Don’t be surprised, therefore, that electors feel their involvement lacks purpose.

  • John Marriott 12th Apr '21 - 8:20am

    Naive as I am, I used to think, and probably still do, that each electoral ward should be big enough geographically for one candidate, or a member of their ‘team’ if they had that luxury and provided they started early enough, to be able to get round to every house at least once during the campaign. I recognise that this kind of gerrymandering might be a deal easier in an urban setting.

    Unfortunately the Boundary Commission appears only interested in numbers and certainly not in affiliation or natural boundaries. Two and three member wards clearly favour the major parties as, in normal times, only they have the Human Resources to do what Heineken beer claims to be able to do! Mind you, even before COVID struck, when was the last time you had even one canvasser knock on your door?

    No, if you want to emulate Heineken, you don’t just start early or have a few friends. If you have the misfortune to be a Lib Dem in ‘true blue’ Lincolnshire as I have since 1977, you have to work all the year round. At least three FOCUS leaflets a year, regular letters and ‘news stories’ to the local paper – it also helps if you live locally (preferably for a number of years) and, in my case, having taught quite a few of the electors’ offspring over that time. Turning up, either in person or as the smiling face on an election leaflet, might encourage some people to vote for you, at least in a local election; but wouldn’t it be far better to be able to say or write with conviction; “You don’t just hear from us at Election Time”?

  • People are more ready to part with their money if it goes into a local than a national pot. High taxes are as much a symptom of the poor accountability and transparency of where it goes than the amount. Of course, this only applies if you can afford to pay it.

  • neil James sandison 14th Apr '21 - 9:22am

    Where do you start with what is wrong with local democracy yes we have elections by thirds and always feel we are always never endingly repainting of the Forth bridge .
    At district level every two years would work . with unitary and county elections every five years . I personally would support PR in local government elections to boost participation and make councils more genuinely representative of communities The question isn’t just about cost but also delivering services at a community or neighborhood level and district council being down graded to parish level with only having powers to deal with open spaces and cleaning up dog poo is not what I came into politics to do . All real power will be grabbed by often distant unitary / sub regional authorities yes they will be cost effective but will they be democratic and locally accountable .

  • John Marriott 14th Apr '21 - 2:07pm

    @neil James sandison
    Perhaps you might have read my response from 10 April at 2.22 pm regarding ‘distant’ councils. There’s your answer in paragraph two. Believe or not, even under the existing system, some Parish Councils do a great deal more than you say. If that’s all you reckon they do, you clearly haven’t done your homework!

  • Paul, do you not realise that all-up elections are common in the UK, usually every four years? It’s normal for county councils and for many more local councils. It saves money, and it can be argued that it avoids frenetic constant politicking, but my experience is that annual elections do a better job of persuading people that their vote counts and it’s them, not some remote formula, that decides who runs the place. Maybe the long wait for elections in Poland is one reason why Polish democracy has been subverted by cynical populists?

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