Sunday, 28 June 2015

Wales County Councillor: Up Close and Under Scrutiny - Exclusive Special In Depth Report!

Who are our local elected Councillors?
What do they do?
Councillor: Up Close and Under Scrutiny
By Bernadette Horton

In Wales local government will soon be undergoing radical reform with recommendations made by The Williams Report and Welsh Minister for Public Services, Leighton Andrews, implementing the changes. Mr Andrews is keen to see a raft of changes aimed at reforming and governing our elected local community, town and county councillors be brought into force. The aim is to improve local government, streamline it, and make it more accountable to the people it represents.

 But who are our Councillors? What do they do? How much are they paid and what hours do they work? Are they worth the money they are paid and just how accountable are they to the people they represent? Is it one long gravy train with ‘jobs for life’ once elected with little work done? I was keen to find out exactly all of the above, but would I find a councillor willing to spend 2 months under close scrutiny on my terms, with their whole officially elected life accountable at all times?

I approached an Independent County Councillor in Wrexham, N E Wales who is not governed by party politics or has to follow a party line. He agreed to my strict terms of scrutiny and I was surprised at what I found. I have always been as sceptical as the next person about local councillors and have found there is a mixed bag of very inactive ones, brilliant ones, and frankly stupid ones who shouldn’t be let anywhere near public relations! For my study I spent considerable time with the councillor asking many questions and grilling him on his role, attended council meetings and committees he sits on, received feedback from constituents and also a school he is a governor of. I wanted an honest, accurate, in-your-face, in depth report, and that is exactly what I got!

So I will introduce you to the brave councillor who put his head above the parapet and agreed to be under the spotlight for this article; Independent County Councillor Mark Owens, aged 52 of Rhosllanerchrugog near Wrexham.

Mark Owens is the youngest of 5 children and has lived in Rhosllanerchrugog (Rhos), Wrexham all his life. His dad was a coal miner, member of the NUM, and he comes from a strong Labour household tradition. When Blair delivered a Labour victory back in 1997, Mark initially thought that some of the working rights for working people abolished under Thatcher would be restored, but this was not the case. It so influenced his perception of the Labour Party that when he decided to enter local government as a councillor he decided to stand as an Independent rather than follow any party line.

He is married with two daughters aged 26 and 23. His eldest daughter is autistic and his wife is a full time carer. He works full time as well as being a councillor. His daughter’s disability has had a huge impact on his life and the issues that he cares passionately about include disabled and carers rights. He says ’When Cameron came to power in 2010 he said he understood the issues affecting carers and disabled people. Due to his own experience of caring for his disabled son, he would certainly look after the most vulnerable. It is appalling that this has been proven to be quite the reverse!’

Mark started off as a voluntary Community Councillor for Rhos at the same time as he was elected Independent County Councillor for the Pant ward in May 2012. There are 2 groups of Independent Councillors in Wrexham one with 20 members which Mark is part of, and the other with 8 members making the Independents the largest group on the council. The Pant ward he represents is a mixture of both private and social housing with an adult population of roughly 1800 people.

Mark works full time on the shop floor for Coveris Advanced Coatings in Wrexham. He works quite a complicated 12 hour shift pattern which varies from week to week and between day and night shifts. However, the company are extremely supportive and give him time off for a lot of his councillor work. I was amazed when I found out the roles and committees he sits on for the county council. These include:

*      Full Council
*      Audit Committee
*      Democratic Services Committee of which he is Vice-Chair. (Vice Chairs receive no additional payments on top of their councillors salary)
*      Safeguarding Communities and Well Being Committee
*      Scrutiny Committee/Crime and Disorder Scrutiny Committee

On top of this he is an LEA Governor for both Ysgol y Grango and Ysgol Maes y Mynydd schools and Vice-Chair of Rhos Community Council!

As a county councillor he receives a taxable remuneration of £13,175 per year. He personally does not claim any travel or other expenses, although other councillors do. Is he worth it? What do his constituents think? What makes him tick?  My initial reaction is that working full time and sitting on all these committees would surely need some kind of superhuman effort?

I asked the councillor what he believes are three of the most important issues currently, which are important to him both nationally and locally, as he has strong views on political issues.

‘Nationally I would definitely say it is the state of our NHS. There is a lack of funding for cancer patients and a lack of suitable drugs available under this ridiculous postcode lottery patients seem to suffer all over the UK. I believe firmly that the NHS is far too top heavy with admin staff and we need to recruit more doctors and nurses.

‘In Wales the Williams report itself, is, (in my view) an assault on local democracy by Welsh Labour and the local government minister. Under the reforms it will definitely be harder for Independent Councillors to stand for election. Wards will be a lot bigger and a heavier workload will ensue. Possibly this will have a detrimental effect and restrict the role required to older non-working councillors, which I believe is the one thing Leighton Andrews wishes to avoid.

‘Locally, affordable housing in both Wrexham and the villages is sorely needed, especially for young people. We need more social housing built in village communities plus a mix of greatly discounted starter homes. I would like to see incentives for builders brought in to encourage this mix. I could go on as I believe better paid jobs and more funding for road repairs are urgently needed too!’

As someone involved in party politics as a member of the Labour Party myself, I have often wondered why people stand as Independents on councils. In the past I have always seen it as a maverick, lone-wolf type person who stands as an Independent, so what are Mark’s reasons?

‘Independents don’t follow a party line or are forced to vote a certain way by the party whip. They have been elected by constituents to represent their local community, and do their utmost to do just that. I believe the role of a good councillor is to always address constituent’s problems with an honest, open and frank approach, and to only promise what you can 100% deliver. It is my duty to also speak up on behalf of those who cannot, and try to protect the most vulnerable in our communities.’

‘But how can constituents know how you are going to vote on local issues, if there is no official party line to follow? Surely you could end up voting for what a minority want?’ I queried.

‘I reassure all constituents that they can contact me anytime to discuss which way I will be voting on various local issues. If there are conflicting interests I go with the majority decision. If it is too close to call, I trust my instinct to do what I consider to be the right thing for the benefit of all.’

After shadowing the councillor closely, I have been able to see what both his normal full time job workload is like, and also his councillor workload. I have been present to a phone that never stops ringing; morning, afternoon and evening council meetings, community visits, workshops, training and school meetings, and have seen the deluge of emails he receives. My estimate of his councillor workload is in excess of 40 hours a week, because I have witnessed it across several different weeks; something he agreed with me upon.

‘My employers are very supportive and I often take half day holidays to fit everything in too. It would be easier if scrutiny meetings were combined into one meeting, rather than the 2 or 3 we have currently where we can scrutinise all the reports’

It is no secret that 60% majority of councillors across Wales are retired older people who do not have to work full time too. But after shadowing this working age councillor it is no surprise. It seems virtually impossible to manage full time work and a councillor’s workload effectively, without seriously damaging your home/work/life balance. Mark agreed wholeheartedly!

‘Local councils do have a lot of retired people as councillors, and I don’t believe we could afford to lose that wealth of experience. I also believe in total democracy and that any adult, irrespective of age, should be allowed to put their name forward to stand for election, it is only the electorate who can decide who they want to represent them.

However I think there does need to be better support for working age councillors and to encourage younger people to come forward and stand for election. I’d like to see statutory rights for time off for councillors that employers have to abide by. My employers are exceptionally supportive, but that is rare. We need a bigger age range of councillors with different experiences and we need to encourage that by making it easier to stand for local office.’

We moved on to the thorny issue of money! Councillors in Wrexham receive a taxable £13,175 P/A and on top of this are expenses and travel expenses, although Mark does not claim the latter, just the basic salary. The general public perception is that this is far and away too high. I too, (prior to this research) thought it was very generous, compared to many jobs on zero hours or agency employment but have altered my view for working age councillors in particular. What view did our Councillor have?

‘I think it should be higher to attract younger professional full time councillors who don’t have to constantly fit in working commitments alongside council commitments. For example, it is pretty difficult to pay a mortgage on £13,175 per year if you didn’t work full time as well. For retired councillors the sum is a nice top up for their pension, but I firmly believe the councillors I am associated with in Wrexham, (cross party) earn every penny of their salary.’

Do constituents therefore have a realistic view of a councillor’s role? Due to the salaried aspect of the job when is a councillor actually required to ‘work’ I wondered.

‘I’ve been called at 3, 4, 5am on various issues’ Mark says, ‘Some that could have waited and others that couldn’t. I am very often on the phone until 11pm at night, especially when I have worked a 12 hour day shift at work too. I never had a realistic view myself prior to becoming a councillor of what the job actually means and entails. It’s only when the public need to contact us about an issue that they can see what we do and the hours we work’

‘So there are no set hours really,’ I questioned. ‘You are on call 24/7?’

‘Yes you could definitely say that!’

Mark has an impressive campaigning record since 2012 and is not backwards at coming forward on issues that affect his ward. He is very concerned at closures of community facilities, particularly in the village areas, and has spoken out time and again on the closure of Rhos Nat West Bank, Rhos Library, Funding cuts to the Miners Institute and on safe routes to school, to name but a few. He also produces regular newsletters informing constituents of the work he does and the great pride he takes at developments in the local area. Successes have included many things that benefit the community like garden furniture and planters for residents in warden controlled flats, WI-FI installation for residents to participate in an IT club, plus new fencing for bungalows, security lights, and the need to arrange regular litter picks for untidy areas of community land. Mark has helped in organising events for Rhos community council which have included 2000 people attending a bonfire event in 2014. The list is impressive by any standards, all of which can be attested to by his constituents.

I spoke to several constituents about their views on their councillor. John White lives in the Pant ward that Mark is councillor of in Erw Gerrig Sheltered Housing Units. He said-

‘I knew of Mark when he was growing up in the village, but have got to know him properly as a local councillor. I think Mark has been an excellent councillor during a tough few years of austere times when councils have limited funds. If you approach Mark with an issue or query he always researches whether things are possible to do or not and always comes back with an honest answer. He makes a point of going out of his way to help. I run a computer club and he has been instrumental in getting Wi-Fi put into the sheltered units. He has helped to secure other items for the gardens too. I hope he is re-elected in 2017 as we definitely need more like him.’

Cheryl Vaughn is a resident in the Pant ward too, and she has had dealings with Mark over contentious planning issues and neighbour problems.

‘Mark grew up in Rhos and knows the area better than anyone. He connects to the people who live here very well. He is always at the end of the phone and regularly visits people in the area to discuss issues. I find his best quality is that he speaks to people on their level and explains things properly. He is a local lad who fights for local people and this is what makes him a great councillor.’

During my research asking constituents about their councillor, I did not come across one negative comment or adverse opinion. Everyone agrees Mark is an exceptionally hard working councillor.

Mark is also a keen supporter of N E Wales Unite Community branch and gave his support recently to the national day of action Unite Community took against the benefit sanctions regime. Mark believes the system of routinely sanctioning benefit claimants for being 5 minutes late for appointments, or for attending a family funeral on signing on day is pernicious and an attack on the poorest in society.

 During my research for this article, I witnessed the councillor speaking in the arena of Wrexham Guildhall. Attending council meetings is not something generally thought of as an afternoon or evening out for the public (myself included) but I was curious to know how all our councillors perform in meetings and in particular Mark himself.

I came to the conclusion I would definitely like to see time limits put on some councillors who frankly like to hear the sound of their own voices- repeatedly it seemed, even when similar questions had been asked by other councillors! Mark is one of the more thoughtful councillors, intervening and asking pertinent questions when necessary. He is fully tuned into the discussions and has an enquiring firm style of engagement.

 I attended a Lifelong Learning Scrutiny meeting where he enquired about the data available on how Parents are engaging with the Welsh Flying Start programme – a programme that begins intervention with specialised help and support to parents even prior to the Childs birth to age 4. Flying Start helps to prevent children in the most deprived communities coming to school at 4+ with huge gaps in attainment levels already. Mark recognises this as a vital programme but wondered how parents were engaged in the home environment.

Although Flying Start is out of the remit currently of the committee, he pushed for the committee to be provided with a Flying Start report at future meetings, as he felt the link between this programme and early years in school was essential to make. Frankly while some councillor’s nit picked over technicalities, Mark was engaged in the issues that people need to know about and which are necessary for the committee.

Part of a County Councillors responsibility is to act as a school governor for the local education authority. Mark is a school governor for 2 schools; Ysgol y Grango a local High school and Ysgol Maes y Mynydd in Rhos. I spoke to Headteacher Steve Garthwaite at Ysgol y Grango to ascertain Mark’s role and how well he does his job there!

‘Mark is an excellent governor. He is involved with the strategic running of the school and sits on the finance and disciplinary committee, but also is integral to interviewing new staff members etc. Mark provides us with an excellent link to the community as a very informed and active county and community councillor, and he also brings things to us that we can act upon. For example, he has supported us 100% in our campaign to close a public footpath that runs right through the school grounds that was a risk to our pupils. Likewise if he hears of any community issues that affect the school he brings these to our immediate attention. Our school rates him very highly, and we are proud to have such an excellent school governor on our team.’

High praise indeed, but fitting in 2 school governorships on top of full time work and his councillor’s work, is a tough task. Again, in my opinion, this severely impacts on working age councillors. To do a thorough job, while holding down full time work, seems almost impossible.

As previously outlined the Williams report and Welsh government proposals for the reform of Welsh councils and councillors are currently causing a stir in local government in Wales. I asked the councillor about some of the findings and recommendations in the report that have been put out for public consultation. One recommendation is that councillors should be able to communicate with local people in a wide variety of ways – one of which is social media, as well as face to face, email and phone.

‘Personally I am happy to converse with constituents in any form- whether that be phone, email, at their front door or social media. I don’t believe however, engaging on social media should be compulsory. We have a lot of older people who have never heard of social media in our communities, and for them the phone or face to face talking to their councillor is essential. However, local government could offer social media training for councillors, but again time constraints are demanding if councillors work too. We are offered media training and core training currently but this could be improved in my opinion. Training for new councillors and ongoing training is essential, but fitting it all in under the current system is frankly impossible.’

Currently only 30% of councillors in Wales are women. What are Mark’s views on this anomaly in the figures?

‘It is a shame that there are only 30% of councillors who are women. Women are juggling work and frequently caring duties for children or older relatives. I believe women should be encouraged to come forward to stand for election with specific targeted support. This could be in the form of perhaps a crèche facility in the town hall, less meetings and more family friendly timed meetings. However, I do believe the electorate should decide who they want to represent them ultimately regardless of gender. I do not believe in quotas but the best person to do the job.’

The recommendations are also to reform council elections. A range of options are open which include 4, 5 year fixed elections or the same phased system in England where one third of councillors are up for election every year. What are Mark’s views?

‘I would be happy for either 4 or 5 year fixed elections to take place but I feel phased elections like the ones in England would lack continuity with different councillors coming and going. It would interfere with the councils work programme and committees as new members would not be up to speed with discussions.’

Controversially the Williams report recommends compulsory annual reports on an individual councillors record and performance and what they have achieved in the given 12 month period. Is our Councillor in favour of this scrutiny?

‘I feel we should have an individual report on each councillor as it is in our and the electorates best interests. It should be both a report and an appraisal done by the leader of each group. However with the lack of funding coming to individual councils currently, and councillors not being able to achieve all they wish to for constituents, this may reflect badly on a councillors individual performance. This aspect should be taken into consideration when reports are made.’

I wondered whether Mark would like to see more use of Youth Councils which are also being talked about for the new look local government in Wales-

‘Absolutely. In Rhos we already have a youth council, as well as one in Wrexham. I would like to see younger people playing a bigger part in local government decisions and having a bigger say. It is vital to engage younger people in democratic decisions and enable them to become future potential councillors themselves.’

There are currently 1,245 councillors in Wales. Under the new proposals there will be considerably less in fewer larger councils. I wondered how this would impact councillors, but particularly Independent ones like Mark? He took a strong view on this –

‘It will impact Independent councillors more than those in the political party groups as we have no party machine behind us. Imagine either standing or canvassing as an Independent candidate who works full time in a much larger area? It’s a very tough task now. I think it will totally discourage Independent candidates from standing for election and this is not particularly democratic in my view.’

One major proposal is to cap terms of office for councillors at 25 years and for leaders of councils 10 years. Whilst Mark has already told us of his views on 25 years, what does he think of 10 years for leaders?

‘I disagree with 10 year fixed terms for leaders of the council. By the time you get used to being leader after 4 or 5 years and gain your stride in a second but final term of office, you then have to step down. I do not believe this is necessarily the right option for excellent leaders.’

I put it to Mark that currently some leaders of councils had been in post for over 20 years and many deputies might never get the chance to be leaders of the council as under the current rules leaders can stay on indefinitely. Mark thinks that if leaders were voted for at the start of each term of office this would be more democratic. Those leaders who were doing a fine job could then stay in situ having been voted for in the democratic process and so avoid the definite step down after 10 years.

The power to recall a councillor as well as the current discussions to recall MPs are also under the spotlight. The report is recommending 10% of the people in the area sign a petition calling for a councillor to step down if they have broken the law and been convicted of an offence or been imprisoned. Did Mark agree with this?

‘In some ways I disagree as I believe it should be crime dependent. For serious crimes yes, but for something like speeding then no. I do believe that when a councillor has been voted in by the majority in the constituency to remove him/her on 10% is far too low. If there were a robust system of monitoring recall then I would agree with it, but there has to be a well planned and well thought out system in place to go ahead with this.

The report is looking at whether county councillors should be stopped from serving as AM’s at the same time as being county councillors and also whether to stop them also serving as community councillors. What were Marks thoughts on these proposals?

‘My opinion is a county councillor should not be able to stand as an AM simultaneously. It is the equivalent of 2 full time jobs and you would not be able to do justice to both. I do believe serving as both a county and community councillor is a must as you have been voted in to represent community on the county council anyway. Community councillors are voluntary and receive no remuneration so there is no conflict of interest between community and county councillors.’

After 3 years as a county councillor what advice would Mark give to someone thinking of standing as a councillor and how did he find the process of co-operating for this article?

‘Do your homework first. Read this article! It’s all about being passionate for the local area and wanting to make a difference in the community. It can never be about financial gain. You must be willing to put yourself out for constituents and grow a thick skin because sometimes when you cannot get a good outcome for someone, they tend to forget the favourable outcomes you have secured in the past. I would definitely recommend sitting on a community council first to get a taste of wha
ts involved and if you are the right person for the job. Speak to existing county councillors in your area and sit in on public meetings at the town hall. Be honest and frank with people, and above all never promise anything you cannot deliver!

‘I found the process of co-operating for this article intriguing but certainly challenging! Being grilled in depth made me explore my views on the wider issues involved in my role as a councillor. I would like to thank Bernadette for the length of time she spent shadowing me and researching this article. It was indeed a challenge! I hope the wider public respect my views even if they disagree with them. I would like it to be known all views are my own personal ones, and are not associated with Wrexham County Council in anyway at all.’

After 2 months of intense research and scrutiny for this article, personally my opinions on how our councillors work and the job they do has changed dramatically. I firmly believe there should be changes to the working practices of our councils and that far more support for working age councillors should be given, in order to balance out the age and gender gap of our current councillor make up in Wales. It simply can’t be right that 60% of councillors are aged over 65 due to the time demands of the job, and that only 30% are women, while tiny percentages are disabled and of black or ethnic minority. This is not a true reflection of the electorate and radical proposals need to be made and put into place as soon as possible. The proposal of fixed terms for councillors of no more than 25 years is a double edged sword. In order to bring down the high percentage of elderly councillors, many of whom may have served 25 years+; can it be right to say to a 30 year old active councillor, you are no longer required aged 55? I feel a blanket approach is not needed, but a realistic proposal to allow younger councillors to gain experience and then go on to leadership roles without having to wait decades to achieve those roles.

I believe there is a definite need to either make a councillors role full time with a salary to suit so they can do the job properly with no financial worries, or if the current system remains, there needs to be statutory requirements on employers for time off with pay to do the councillors role. A dividing line in the sand needs to be drawn: Do we need intelligent, highly skilled, professional motivated local councillors who are properly paid to do the job? Or do we continue with the same system that is heavily biased towards retired people and also has very low proportions of women, disabled and black and ethnic minority representatives? A 21st century Wales now needs to move to 21st century local government, but the people of Wales need to have a big say in how they want their local communities to be governed too. Volunteers on community councils and their skills and enthusiasm should not be lost just for the sake of making local government more accountable.

It has been a pleasure working with Councillor Mark Owens on this article and I would like to thank him for his complete co-operation, time and effort into producing a worthwhile piece of work. Hopefully readers are more informed and want to have their say in the reforms taking place in Wales currently.