Ignore the catch cry - councillors do deliver value for money
Published 31/03/2016 | 02:30
The call for an increase in the salaries of county and city councillors has, to put it euphemistically, received a mixed press.
There is a popular stereotype of the local councillor doing a few hours each week on parish pump issues and looking to claim expenses for everything. 'We have too many of them, they do little work and they waste money' is a popular catch cry.
The reality is very different. Yes, there have been councillors who have been dishonest and who have exploited the system, but the overwhelming majority in all parties and in none are there to serve their local communities and to try to assist people living in their local area.
Think of the local councillors who live in your locality. They will generally be involved in many community-based activities and have a genuine interest in making your area a better place in which to live and to work.
There is a myth that we have too many councillors. Following the abolition of town councils, we now have 949 local councillors (there was a net reduction of 678 local councillors at the last local elections). That works out at about one councillor for every 4,800 people. This, as far as I am aware, is far higher than every other European country. For example, the ratio in other EU countries - UK 1:2,900; Netherlands 1:1,700; Denmark 1:1,200; Belgium 1:800; Spain 1:620; Germany 1:420; France 1:120.
We also have the most centralised system of decision-making with weak local government structures in comparison to the rest of Europe. Local councils are often the way in which citizens most closely engage with political structures.
I would actually argue that we need more politicians at a local level to better serve local communities but that can only happen with the real devolution of powers to local councils.
What do councillors do? The role ranges from meetings where decisions are made about our cities and counties, to making representations on behalf of individual constituents on issues affecting them, to assisting groups in the community navigate State decision-making processes. Last week, for example, in the Gorey area where I represent, the local councillors had an initial meeting about the new Town Plan. We will decide in the coming months on zoning which will determine what is built and where in future years. Every councillor there took their role very seriously.
We have a social housing list of almost 1,000 people in the north Wexford area alone - I have to spend time dealing with individual queries and helping those people, some of whom are in desperate circumstances, as well as campaigning at a local and national level for policy-based solutions to address that challenge.
Why should councillors be doing this? Often, we are the only option for those frustrated by bureaucracy or where the system is unfair or unwilling to respond. Indeed, when it comes to waste, it is councillors who hold officials to account over spending plans and are the only mechanism by which decisions of council management can be challenged.
Most councillors are not in politics for the money. There are easier and less stressful ways to earn a crust. The roles are 24/7 - you cannot say to a constituent on a weekend if they call: "I'm off duty until Monday at 9am." I don't know of any councillor anywhere who puts in fewer than 20 hours a week between meetings and dealing with queries - and most put in a lot more. I am fortunate enough to have a day job but I reduced my working week and took a pay-cut in order to fulfil the role that I am honoured to hold. I'd have a lot more free time and a private life if I wasn't a councillor. But I became a councillor because I wanted to shape how my community and country developed.
The ultimate test, though, as to whether I or my council colleagues represent value for money comes in local elections every five years. If we haven't delivered value for money, you can vote us out of office. The same cannot be said of others who manage public resources.
Politics is a noble profession and requires a lot of hard work and commitment. Political reform is essential, though, to make our systems work better and to ensure that becoming a politician and contributing through public service is an attractive option for smart people in all walks of life. We need a review of the workload of local councillors and that there is appropriate compensation based on the evidence.
Malcolm Byrne is a Fianna Fáil member of Wexford County Council and a candidate in the Seanad elections