Councils and the dual mandate…

The judging process for the Slugger Awards are well under way. In considering the council category some of the off and online conversations we’ve been having regarding the re-organisation of local councils there is a recurring and controversial theme (not least since a sitting DUP Minister was forced by circumstances to run (and win) in the recent Enniskillen council byelection): the dual/triple mandate. Below the fold are some private thoughts on the matter that go somewhat against the popular opinion.I understand nothing is official yet, but I’d be interested if any of Sluggers’ regular politicos have anything other than speculation to confirm any of this:

Firstly, the rumour is that – following the announcement of the local government reorganisation, and recent pre-consultation clarifications on boundaries and numbers, Councillors are going to be offered a retirement package next year. (OK, that’s an old rumour, but I’ve not seen anything confirmed yet, either on what the size of the package is, or what date it will be offered).

If this is the case, there is an upside and a downside for anyone who cares about local government. The downside is that it’s likely to be slightly unpopular and a target for any cheap shots that any interest group or journalist want to take at elected representatives anywhere. In the current climate, it would be fair to say that anyone who is elected to a position and is given a payment to do it has to pussyfoot around a hostile media and a slightly resentful public.

The upside is that – after 2009, for two years, all 582 of Northern Ireland’s councillors will have a slightly imperfect democratic mandate (because the 2009 elections are being postponed). By offering a parachute to those who don’t want to carry on after 2011, at least we won’t have councillors who lack democratic legitimacy and have no long-term interest in the job of running local government.

Co-opted councillors may feel that they have something to prove.

They may bring a bit of enthusiasm and energy, and the next couple of years could provide the springboard to a number of new political careers. It may be the case that the most prominent politicians here in ten years time will be people who have taken their first steps among the sizeable set of co-optees that may take their seats in 2009. From that point on, they will have maybe 18 months to keep things going, until the new elections usher in eleven councils with a total of 460 councillors (40 per council, except Belfast that will have 60).

The sums are difficult at this stage, but it seems likely that a couple of hundred councillors – at least – will take the money and go in 2009. None of the political parties are likely to say so publically, but I know that they are all scratching their heads wondering where they will find two or three dozen new people each who are up to the challenge.

So anyone who wishes to start a political career – now is a good time to start networking!

Speaking to a few local government Chief Executives recently, there are further concerns. ‘Enthusiasm and energy’ are virtues that are not universally admired in politicians – particularly among the civil service that work with them every day. Think ‘Yes Minister’? Whisper Sir Humphrey’s favourite warning to yourself: “That would be a very courageous decision Minister!”

So it would be a mistake to say that they are entirely happy about a new cadre of young and inexperienced councillors flooding into their local chambers next year. The relationships between councils and their councillors have often been negotiated over decades and smoothed over by custom and practice. All of this may go out of the window now. In addition, there are a fair number of local government careers that will be culled during the reorganisation. A few CEOs have expressed concerns that their best officers will take the opportunity to seek early retirement or to use it as a career change / break. Not only will they have inexperienced councillors, they will also have a inexperienced and slightly demoralised team of officers holding everything together until 2011.

Throw the inevitable territorial battles into the mix as 26 councils (buildings, sets of departments, mini-fiefdoms) boil down to eleven within two-and-a-half years, and you can see the scale of the problem.

As one CEO told Slugger recently: “Some of my most competent and useful councillors are also MLAs. I hope that someone can take the heat of the ‘dual mandate’ issue for a while.”

And – if anyone wants to quote Slugger in the forthcoming consultation on the councillor-numbers post-2011, maybe a cut from 582 to 460 isn’t enough – if they are also going to do away with the dual mandate? Surely local authorities that have real powers – councils that can demand more powers from the assembly – need to have a smaller number of well-resourced semi-professional councillors rather that the relatively minor reduction currently on offer?

We’re still in the market for YOUR nominations for the Council of the Year and Councillor of the Year.

Mick is founding editor of Slugger. He has written papers on the impacts of the Internet on politics and the wider media and is a regular guest and speaking events across Ireland, the UK and Europe. Twitter: @MickFealty