There are decisions being made daily in councils across Scotland which will directly impact the lives of individuals and communities. Some of these decisions, bluntly, will be about helping people to both heat and eat.
As the resources available to councils are becoming increasingly scarce, it is imperative that they are targeted most effectively. To do this, we must ensure that we really understand need, both that which is apparent and that which is hidden.
There is appreciation that the inequalities which existed before Covid, were exacerbated during the pandemic and that under-represented communities are suffering the greatest poverties, economically, socially and in terms of well-being. Moreover, the differences between rural and urban poverty are now being unpicked. As a result of all this, there is an increasing sense that things must be done differently.
We have had some notable sparks of change and insights into what could be when, for example, some of the third of Scottish councillors who are women have worked to promote issues around family leave, gender budgeting and period dignity, thereby helping to empower women in the workplace and so enable their skills and experiences to contribute to achieving better outcomes.
However, we haven’t learned from this – collectively we still haven’t placed enough priority on addressing the overall lack of diversity at our council decision making tables. We haven’t managed to attract additional voices of lived experience who could better reflect the needs of our communities as policies are set. Too often, councillors are still making strategic decisions for people rather than with people, and scrutinising outcomes for the organisation, without considering a person-centred approach.
Councils have set up numerous forums of lived experience and consult on particular issues which they select and for which they control the agenda. Those in positions of power are deciding the matters on which people from our communities can express a view. However, it is within the democratic structures of Local Government themselves that those voices of lived experience would be best, most widely and most consistently heard. Here they would be voted in, representative and accountable to their communities.
There is an urgent need to fully overhaul political participation in council policy making across Scotland. This work fundamentally includes ensuring that councillors are properly remunerated for the work they do, and that terms and conditions better reflect the role of a 2020s councillor. A COSLA survey of councillors published in January 2021 found that a councillor works on average 38.5 hours per week but receives less than the Real Living Wage in return . This is not going to encourage people from currently under-represented groups to step forward for election. By remunerating councillors as we do, we are preserving a system whereby those of independent means can more easily contemplate standing for election – this is damaging to our local democracy. The Scottish Government and COSLA made a commitment in March 2022 to work at pace on councillor remuneration and this remains key . We need to be confident that remuneration won’t still be a barrier to people considering standing in the next Local Government elections.
In addition, there are councils which still do not have policies for Family Leave for councillors, which makes the role very difficult for younger people or for those with wider caring responsibilities. There is no consistency across Scottish councils about the level of support which all councillors, but particularly disabled councillors, might expect to receive. Assumptions are made about the digital literacy of councillors and about their access to safe spaces for home working. We are only just developing awareness that councillors do much lone working and can face abusive and hostile situations in person and on-line. Only very recently has partnership work with Police Scotland been initiated to give more support to our councillors and there is more work to be done on this. And in many areas, we have not started to address the culture which creates barriers to potential representatives from ethnic minorities.
All this matters. The role of a councillor has evolved considerably since I was first elected in 2012. Councils remain the sphere of government closest to our communities, but the experience of the pandemic and the ever-deepening cost of living crisis has underlined the importance of making decisions as close as possible to the communities impacted. Councillors now have to engage more locally and to better represent all parts of their communities. More people are becoming dependent on the essential services of the council just as resources are becoming ever scarcer and there is a responsibility to maximise their impact locally.
Yet achieving all this remains aspiration unless we hasten our continuing journey to local democracy, giving meaningful voice to people from right across our communities. We cannot afford not to act. Councillor Remuneration Survey Results Public Documents | COSLA  Increasing the Diversity of Local Councillors Public Documents | COSLA
Cllr Alison Evison was President of COSLA 2017-22, leading a diverse organisation and developing partnerships across the Public and Third Sectors, representing Local Government in the formulation of the Covid response and recovery strategies at a national level and working to achieve support across the Scottish Parliament for the European Charter for Local Self Government. Chair of the Improvement Service 2017-22 during a time of organisational change. Recognised for supporting diversity in office and for encouraging inclusion for all. Appointed by care experienced young people in Aberdeenshire as their champion 2015. Previously Co-Leader of Aberdeenshire Council. A local councillor, engaging regularly with people across the communities of the Mearns and focusing on community planning with local partners. Honorary Lecturer, University of Aberdeen. Recently appointed Chair of NHS Grampian.