The role of the local councillor is one that seems to be difficult to define, and tends to fluctuate from authority to authority. As such, this figure’s future remains debateable. APSE’s latest piece of research, commissioned by APSE Scotland and produced by a collaborative team from Edinburgh University, Leeds Beckett University and De Montfort University, seeks to offer a novel contribution to ongoing debates over the future of elected members and local democracy in Scotland.
Building on APSE’s 2014 report, The Future of Elected Members in Scotland, this new research carefully examines the everyday practices of local councillors. Awareness of these everyday practices, we argue, has to inform any redesign of Scottish local politics; it is too easy for local authorities to take these frequently neglected routines, rules, and local capabilities for granted. In fact, our findings suggest that the new ‘common sense’ of local politics runs the risk of bypassing the specific contribution of councillors to local democracy in Scotland.
Elected members who participated in this study recognised the constraints on their current role, and indeed the varying effectiveness and commitment of local councillors themselves. But, the new common sense ultimately runs the risk of bypassing local councillors in any discussions of the future of local democracy in Scotland. It either constructs councillors as part of the ‘problem’ rather than part of the ‘solution’, it tends to ignore them, or it takes their role for granted, with councillors becoming the symbolic vessel for a host of demands and grievances that cannot be simply attributed to the failings of local representative politics.
This study ultimately argues that we need to recognise the multiple roles undertaken as part of the everyday practice of local councillors. Rather than bypassing councillors, we need to reinvest in the work of elected members, building any reforms using a deeper understanding and engagement with what councillors actually do when they do ‘local politics’.
APSE’s Chief Executive Paul O’Brien said, ‘this is important and timely research. Its approach to the ongoing debate about the future role of elected members is surely a positive step forward for local democracy. The contribution that these councillors make is significant, and provides a good sense of community spirit to local authorities in Scotland. The work they do must be protected and ensured for the future.’
Complete with recommendations for action, we hope this new research will provide a timely tool to facilitate discussion and broaden understanding about the future role of elected members in everyday politics and local democracy within Scotland.
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