Diversity in local government: do they represent the communities they serve?

Published 24/06/2019   |   Last Updated 27/05/2021   |   Reading Time minutes

The decisions taken by local government have a significant impact on our everyday lives, from the amount of money spent on schools and social care provision to how often our bins are collected. Those tasked with making these decisions are elected by their communities via local government elections, the last of which took place in May 2017. For the electorate, it would be legitimate to expect that those taking decisions on their behalf broadly reflect the profile of the communities they serve. After all, communities are not homogeneous, consisting only of people of a similar ethnicity, age or sex for example. And yet, evidence shows that the profile of those elected to office rarely reflects the communities they serve.

On Wednesday 26 June, the National Assembly for Wales will debate the Equality, Local Government and Communities Committee (ELGC) report on Diversity in Local Government (709KB). The Committee undertook the inquiry in anticipation of the proposed local government bill, to suggest practical solutions to overcome some of the many barriers preventing greater diversity in local government.

In 2014, a report by an expert group established by the Welsh Government - On Balance: Diversifying Democracy in Local Government in Wales (999KB), found that the profile of councillors is still predominantly white, male, and with an average age of about 60. The report authors noted at the time that it is “vital that the people which make decisions on our behalf […] are in tune with and representative of their local communities”.

ERS Cymru, in its foreword to a report in 2018 - New Voices: How Welsh politics can begin to reflect Wales notes that lack of diversity among elected representatives risks continued disengagement with the democratic process:

How diverse our elected representatives are is an issue that goes to the very heart of our democracy. It is vitally important that the people who represent us properly reflect us, whether that be through their gender, their ethnicity, their sexuality, their age, their socio-economic background or a disability. If people don’t see themselves in modern politics then we cannot blame them for being disengaged and frustrated with the way it is representing them.

Representation in local government

Changing the makeup of our democratic institutions, making them more diverse and representative, has not progressed as rapidly as many would have hoped. Despite some early successes in Wales, such as equal gender representation at the National Assembly in 2003, similar progress has not been seen within Council Chambers across Wales. At present, women account for around 28 per cent of elected local authority members - in 2004, the figure was 22 per cent. And despite some progress in the number of female local authority leaders, of Wales’ 22 local authorities, only four a led by women.

Female under-representation in local government forms only part of the challenges ahead. Increasing representation among younger people, individuals from BAME and the LGBT community, individuals with disabilities and those from different socio-economic backgrounds presents significant challenges. Activities to encourage participation in local government do exist, such as mentoring and leadership schemes. These provide opportunities for individuals in under-represented groups to build confidence and develop skills for public life. Nevertheless, evidence heard by the Committee shows that such schemes have not always had the anticipated impact on diversity. Chwarae Teg in its evidence to the inquiry on Diversity in Local Government noted:

“We’re only able to make a small impact with a small number of people. And that’s important; it’s not to do down the value of that. But we don’t have any comprehensive scheme or longevity that would lead to the kind of systematic or systemic change that we need”.

Committee recommendations

The Committee made 22 recommendations in its report, which were predominantly for the Welsh Government. These ranged from publicity campaigns to encourage greater diversity of candidates standing for election, to mock elections for young people to run concurrently with Assembly elections. Some of the Committee’s recommendations would require new and additional resources from the Welsh Government. However, as a matter of urgency, the Committee were of the view that the Welsh Government should establish an Access to Elected Office fund in Wales. While the Committee did not specify how much resource should be allocated, the fund would assist individuals with disabilities to run for office. The fund could also be extended to assist individuals from other under-represented groups in Wales.

In addition to the above, the Committee made a number of recommendations in relation to aspects of the administration of local government business. These include relaxing restrictions on members’ remote attendance at formal council meetings, and expanding opportunities for job-sharing at Cabinet level. The Committee also called for the collective reporting of care allowances for dependents claimed by members – anecdotal evidence suggests some members are deterred from claiming the allowance for fear of public criticism.

Social media presents elected members with a platform to engage and communicate with the electorate in a way that was not previously possible. However, it also provides a platform for sharing abuse and harassment. The Committee called for stronger guidance for candidates and elected representatives on what is, and isn’t, acceptable behaviour on social media. Further to this, the Committee recommends a review of the robustness of support mechanisms for members experiencing online abuse and harassment whilst carrying out their public duties.

Article by Osian Bowyer, Senedd Research, National Assembly for Wales