Community needs across the country are evolving at pace, accelerated by the combined impacts of Covid-19, urgent housing need, town centres in decline and wholesale change in consumer and community behaviours.

As local authorities plan for the long-term recovery of their towns, cities and regions, we took a moment to reconnect with a number of councillors across the UK. In particular, we wanted to highlight the perspective of the people who are often at the sharp end of local debate about the delivery of new homes. We also wanted to offer an insight into the motivations behind their decision to stand for Council and how they combine their important role with their day job/family responsibilities.

As this is certainly not intended as a representative sample of councillor opinions and motivations, we also quote findings from a 2018 survey of elected councillors undertaken by the Local Government Association (LGA) to provide a wider context. The councillors we have spoken to come from different political parties and different levels of seniority and were all kind enough to give us a few moments of their time. Here’s what we found out…

What motivated you to stand for election?

Overwhelmingly, the answer is that they want to serve the community in which they live. According to research commissioned by the Local Government Association more than 4 out of 5 (84.5%) cite this as a reason. Once they have taken the decision to stand for election, many of them ‘get the bug’ which makes them want to stand again. For Cllr Daniel Holden (Con, Merton Council) it was his annoyance at missed bin collections in his road. He had been a member of his local Conservative Association for some time. When he raised the issue, the answer he received from the local party leadership was “well, why don’t you do something about it?” Since then, he has stood for council twice (successfully).

For Cllr John Sweeney (Lib Dem, Kingston upon Thames) the catalyst was helping a local scout group with a lease dispute. This gave him a taste of getting involved in local government and attracted the attention of the local MP, Sir Ed Davey. At the next local elections, he found himself standing in a local marginal ward – and he now sits in the Cabinet.

Cllr Mark Shearer (Con, Westminster) also wanted the chance to make a difference locally. When the opportunity came to stand for St James’ ward in Westminster he leapt at the chance. He has a background in business and running community campaigns and saw it as an opportunity to bring that thinking into the Council for the benefit of residents.

Cllr Chloe Smith (Lab, Harrow) had been an active member of the Labour Party for years. Her motivation for standing was that “I was raising two young children in the borough where I grew up and felt that it was the right time for me to get involved with decision-making in the area”.

A smaller, but still sizeable number of councillors say that their political beliefs or values were a motivation, (52.9% according to the LGA’s 2018 survey). As Cllr Nick Dolezal (Lab, Southwark) says “originally, it was because of the Thatcher years and cuts”. Increasingly, he came to the conclusion that “… the impact of the cuts in communities and for individuals could only be managed, increasingly, through the political process rather than through managing the services.” Party colleagues can also have an influence. Cllr Dolezal adds that “I was encouraged (to stand) by the people I worked with in Camden and by councillors there… I was also encouraged by other local Labour Party members to become a councillor. They plied me with enough drinks to say “yes” – pretty much like drinking the King’s shilling and finding yourself in the Navy!” 

How do you combine your council responsibilities with your day job/family responsibilities?

Anyone who discusses this question with a councillor is likely to be struck by just how hard they work. Once elected, a councillor needs to be on hand for their residents to address issues that range from potholes to bins to proposed new developments and many others in-between. Councillors hold regular, monthly surgeries where residents can bring these issues up. Most of them also have other duties, including committee membership, cabinet duties and, for the ‘chosen one’ each year, mayoral duties. Done properly it can easily amount to a full-time job.

Cllr Nick Dolezal (Lab, Southwark) comments that “… anyone considering standing for election has to be honest with themselves and their family about the amount of time being a councillor takes up and how much energy and emotion it draws upon”.

Councillors trying to balance their responsibilities with a day job and/or family life have to be very disciplined. Cllr John Sweeney allocates certain days of the week to his council duties although combining the two meaning that he ends up “probably doing 60 to 70-hour working weeks on average”. Cllr Chloe Smith says that combining, as she does, “a full-time job with councillor duties and raising two young children is pretty tough going. I’m one of only a few parents of young children on the Council.”

Cllr Mark Shearer says that the support provided by his fellow ward councillors and “phenomenal” officer team at Westminster are essential in helping him to manage the work arising from what is “a very busy ward”. He also advises that it’s important to be honest with yourself and the Council leadership about what you can and cannot manage. His approach is to pick a handful of projects and campaigns and then focusing on doing them really well.

Cllr Daniel Holden spends “a few hours every evening doing emails and meetings” and tries to accommodate anything urgent into his lunchbreaks. Like many other councillors he tries to keep the two things separate. For him, Saturday mornings are usually taken up with meetings and campaigning although this can occasionally leak into Saturday afternoons. Sunday evenings are usually ‘catch-up’ time. He tries to keep at least two evenings per week free from council or day-job duties.

Little wonder the LGA’s survey found that 45% of councillors are retired.

What is your experience of planning and development issues?

We were keen to understand these members’ experience of planning and, in particular, their interactions with residents and their experience of being engaged by developments and their representatives.

All of the members we spoke to are proactive in engaging their residents between elections – and development is often raised. Issues are also raised during regular residents’ forums or catch-ups with the local residents’ association. Cllr John Sweeney comments that his role involves a fair amount of education on planning matters. Most residents do not have any planning experience and he often finds that he needs to explain the process and focus on material planning considerations.

Cllr Chloe Smith comments that, where residents feel strongly about a planning application, “they tend to get in touch with their councillors very early on”. She also feels that the past few years have seen, in general, “a higher level of political engagement across all levels of society and that this has had an impact on people’s engagement in planning”. For her, as a backbencher, planning represents about a third of her caseload. The rest involves a range of issues including environmental matters such as bins, flytipping and housing issues.

Cllr Mark Shearer also highlights the range of non-planning-related casework that he and his colleagues deal with. A significant part of their work, he adds, is: “… making sure that those in the ward who are under-privileged, disabled or struggling get the best possible help”.

In referencing good consultation, all of the councillors I spoke to said that it worked best where it took place at an early stage and the developer could demonstrate changes to the scheme that responded to local comments and concerns.

Cllr Nick Dolezal comments: “Like good or bad schemes, good or bad consultation is self-evident. It has a sound research and evidence base, understands the local context, uses understandable language, uses a range of online and face-to-face tools, captures the views of individuals as well as ‘groups’, is honest and presents the scheme as is, is honest about the influence the consultees have (and) can demonstrate that it has listened to the voices of all the actors.”

He adds some words on the importance of understanding your audience: “’The Council’ is not a homogenous audience. They are individuals with their own views. The same goes for communities. Listen to those around you, the voices from the community and the Council. You don’t have to agree with them but to ignore them risks missing local dynamics and complexities. Remember, that you are dealing with local issues with a non-technical set of audiences. Be prepared, for example, to explain why it is exemplary architecture when you claim to have delivered it … or why the scheme respects the heritage assets nearby.”

Good consultation increases faith among existing communities that they have been listened to (even if the developer has not said “yes” to everything) and that they have some influence over the way that their local built environment is going to change. As Cllr John Sweeney explains, “most people will understand that things change and that land needs to be redeveloped.”

Cllr Daniel Holden advises that “it’s worth talking to the councillors at an early stage. They know the local area very well and can recommend who else you need to be speaking to”.

Cllr Mark Shearer agrees. “It’s all about speaking to people early, identifying the key stakeholders and then … working collaboratively with the community.” He adds that “it’s very obvious when a scheme comes before committee that the consultation has been done and done well”. He adds that “with the increased use of technology over the past year there’s an opportunity to gather local people into local consultation and make their participation easier and more convenient”.

That partnership between developers and communities is crucial in an area like Westminster where the challenge is about “maintaining that balance between conserving the history, culture and sense of place, but also being ambitious and grabbing opportunities for the future”.

The final word comes from Cllr Daniel Holden: “Councillors are not anti-development. They just want their ward to be looked after and ensure that new development does not negatively impact on residents.”

Looking to the future

Inevitably, our discussions with councillors have brought up suggestions of what needs to be improved or how things could be done differently in the future. The ‘themes’ that come up are the scope for improved collaboration between developers and councils and the role of developer contributions through S106s and CIL.

Looking at the bigger picture, Cllr Nick Dolezal feels that changes could be made to make the system less adversarial in order produce better outcomes. “In my view there should be a chance to have a non-prejudicial discussion to make the process work before any scheme gets to the formal part of the planning process.” He feels that treating it as a quasi-judicial process does not always work in residents’ best interests and that the changes he recommends “would make it possible to refine the proposals and align them with the Council’s vision … drawing down the benefits and mitigating any harm”.

Cllr Chloe Smith feels that the advent of permitted development (PD) rights, where developers have fewer planning obligations, have constrained the ability of backbenchers to ‘sell’ the benefits of development in their areas.

Cllr Mark Shearer also highlights the importance of planning obligations in communicating the benefits that development can deliver. He feels that S106s and CIL need to be re-examined “so that the contribution of developers to a local area can be more visibly demonstrated”. At present, “the community never sees what developers in their area have contributed”.

Overall, there is consensus about greater collaboration between councillors and developers. Cllr Mark Shearer sees developers going a step further. “It’s nice to see landowners and developers being very passionate and in touch with existing communities”. While councillors are always visible, he believes the benefits of their work with developers would be multiplied where developers are, in local engagement, “front and centre”.

The councillors’ observations about the importance of good quality, and responsive consultation chimes with our experience and approach at Redwood. We have found that it can make all the difference in building trust and acceptance of new development among existing communities.