It is possible to have a full-time job and family commitments – and be a county councillor.
That was the message to a group of about 30 people who gathered in County Hall to hear a warts-and-all assessment of life as an elected representative in the top-tier of local government in Lancashire.
The event was aimed at attracting new candidates and helping Lancashire County Council to reflect as closely as possible the people which it serves.
But one of the prospective politicians said she was “taken aback” by the suggestion that the average councillor spends 20-25 hours per week on their council duties.
The authority’s overview and scrutiny manager, Josh Mynott, moved to reassure her that those hours were not set in stone – but accepted that the perception of the commitment required meant that the county council was “over-represented by people who are retired or work part-time”.
“However, there are also people who are working full-time or running their own business – but have worked out how to use their time well,” Mr. Mynott said.
“It’s not impossible – it can be done, because it is [being] done.”
Those considering life as a councillor were told that their commitment – which, as a minimum, is to attend one full council meeting in a six month period – would depend on the number and type of committees on which they choose to sit. It could also be influenced by whether they opt to affiliate themselves to a political group or stand as an independent – with the latter option reducing the time required for party-related activities.
But council leader Geoff Driver explained that the experience remained “pretty close to being a full-time job” – and revealed that he was dealing with a worried constituent at 11pm last Friday night.
“You’ve got to get the work-life balance right – but you are always on call. People feel that if they’ve got a problem, you need to sort it out.
“And if you don’t look after the people who put a cross against your name last time, they won’t [do so] next time,” County Cllr Driver added.
Employers are obliged to give “reasonable” time off to staff who are elected to public office – but there is no definition of what constitutes “reasonable” and workers are not entitled to be paid for the time they spend on council businesses.
However, prospective candidates were promised that the potentially daunting complexity of how local democracy operates would be demystified by the authority’s buddy system, under which each new councillor is allocated a non-political council officer who can show them the ropes.
It was that distinction between elected councillor and paid council officer which was one of the issues which took some explaining to those unused to the inner workings of local government. County Cllr Driver – a Burnley fan – turned to a footballing analogy.
“I might say to the chief executive, ‘Drive me to Blackburn Rovers’ ground at Ewood Park’ and she would quite rightly say, ‘Are you sure you want to go to Blackburn, you’ll get a better class of football at Turf Moor (Burnley FC’s home)?’
“That’s the sort of relationship we have. [Councillors] might decide a policy, but we’ll do it on the advice of officers – the chief executive and her team will [then] implement the policy.
“But unashamedly, we are a political organisation…and we will take decisions based on our political beliefs,” he added.
Chief executive Angie Ridgwell, who has also held the top job at Thurrock Council, said the role of elected representative was not one which she envied.
She said it was made doubly difficult by the fact that the thresholds for the statutory services which councils have to provide to some of the most vulnerable in society are not always clearly defined in legislation.
“Councillors have to weigh up the risks and make their decisions – and I, for one, am glad that it’s councillors who have to make those decisions, because it’s really challenging.
“Looking after the people of Lancashire is probably the most important job we do,” Ms. Ridgwell added.
Left with an impression of the responsibility which they would undertaking and the commitment which it would require, the would-be councillors were given a tour of the corridors of power in County Hall. Josh Mynott once again reminded them that they would have a team of people behind them should they eventually secure a place in the council chamber.
They will, of course, need a team of voters behind them first.
ADVICE FOR THE COUNCILLORS OF THE FUTURE
The current crop of county councillors offered their advice to those hoping to join them – or even, whisper it quietly, replace them.
Gina Dowding (Green Party), Lancaster Central: “You have to enjoy talking to people and be patient, because things do take time.”
Hasina Khan (Labour), Chorley North: “You have to be open-minded and able to take criticism – and have great organisational skills.”
Cosima Towneley (Conservative), Burnley Rural: “You have to be a good listener, a good letter-writer and persistent – and have a thick skin!”
Edward Nash (Conservative), St. Annes South: “You have to be prepared not to take easy answers.”
WHAT DO THE WANNABE COUNCILLORS THINK IT TAKES?
These are just some of the attributes which the prospective candidates thought they would need if they make it to County Hall – compassion, dignity, personal integrity, patience, passion and the ability to compromise.
WHEN DO YOU NEED TO DECIDE?
Nominations for anybody wishing to stand as a candidate will open in March 2021, ahead of the next elections to County Hall in two years’ time. However, political parties will select the candidates they wish to represent them in each of the council divisions much sooner than that.
“The parties don’t exactly hide themselves away, so get in touch with them,” Josh Mynott advised.
WHAT DO YOU GET?
Every councillor receives a basic allowance of £10,675, with “special responsibility” payments for those holding other roles on the authority.
Committee chairs are given an additional £7,620, with lead members for different portfolios getting an extra £8,382. Those with cabinet ambitions will receive £16,766 on top of their basic allowance – if they make it to the top table.
To find out more about becoming a Lancashire county councillor, visit: www.beacouncillor.co.uk/lancashire