Councillor remuneration and citizen engagement with councillors: survey of councillors (summary)
This report finds out more about the role of councillors at principal and community and town council levels.
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The Welsh Government has undertaken a programme of research to find out more about the role of councillors in Wales, their remuneration and experiences of citizen engagement. This programme of work builds on an evaluation of the first phase of the Welsh Government's Diversity in Democracy programme (McConnell and Stevenson, 2019) which identified the need for a more targeted and tailored approach to supporting under-represented groups to help them actively participate in local democracy. The evaluation also highlighted a lack of awareness among the general public of the role of the councillor and the important contribution they make on behalf of communities.
To meet these evidence needs, the Welsh Government carried out an evidence review of councillor remuneration in Wales and how it compares with other countries (Williams, 2021), and a survey of public attitudes (Owens, 2021). The final element of this research involved carrying out an online survey of councillors in Wales at principal and community and town council levels. Taken together, the research findings from all three stages will broaden understanding of the role and remuneration of councillors in Wales from multiple perspectives.
Findings from the evidence review and the survey of public attitudes will be used alongside the evidence gathered as part of this research to inform the design and delivery of activities under the next phase of the Diversity in Democracy Programme aimed at increasing confidence of councillors that they are valued, and ensuring that expectations placed upon them are fair and that their remuneration appropriately reflects the work they undertake.
The purpose of the online survey was to find out more about the role of councillors at principal and community and town council levels, including the type of work they undertake, the time spent working as a councillor in supporting communities, the remuneration they receive and the training provided to support the role.
The survey questions were developed by social researchers and policy officials in the Welsh Government in collaboration with representatives from One Voice Wales (OVW) and the Welsh Local Government Association (WLGA). The survey was administered using SmartSurvey, an online survey platform that allows completion on computers, tablets and smartphones and was made available in Welsh and English.
Main points of contact from OVW and WLGA helped disseminate information about the survey and a link to the online survey to relevant networks, with the aim of reaching councillors across Wales, in both principal and community and town councils. A total of 1,624 responses were received.
Profile of respondents
Around two-thirds of respondents (66%) were community or town councillors only and around a fifth (19%) were principal councillors only. The remaining 15% noted they were working as ‘dual-hatted’ councillors.
Across all categories of councillors, 14% had served as a councillor for 1 to 2 years, and just under a third (32%) between 3 and 5 years. Just over a fifth (21%) of respondents had served as a councillor for between 10 and 20 years and fifteen% for more than 20 years.
Around three-quarters (73%) carried out voluntary or unpaid roles alongside their work as a councillor. The type of voluntary activities undertaken by councillors varied greatly and included organising community events; providing practical support with shopping, medication collection and food parcel delivery; helping to run community friendship and befriending schemes; co-ordinating local foodbanks; and maintaining public open spaces.
Reasons for becoming a councillor
A large proportion of respondents had become councillors to improve their community and make it a better place to live. Others had put themselves forward as candidates ‘to help people’ and ‘give local people a voice’.
A number of councillors had been encouraged to stand or felt motivated to do so as a result of inaction of previous councillors in their area. Others felt they had the suitable knowledge, experience and values to carry out the role successfully.
Perceptions of a councillor’s role and influence
The vast majority of respondents (91%) said that the most important role of a councillor was to 'represent the views and needs of local residents', followed by 'support the local community' (88%) and 'work with residents to address local issues' (87%).
More than half of all respondents (61%) agreed that their understanding of the role had changed during their time as a councillor. Common explanations for this change included:
- being unprepared for the scale and complexity of the work they were expected to undertake when first elected
- that the role was a big commitment on top of their existing workload
- that they were unable to contribute as much as they would like to due to a perceived distance between themselves and decision-making processes
Community and town councillors in particular noted a mismatch between what they expected to achieve and the reality of the democratic process.
Respondents provided examples of the most common misconceptions held by the public about a councillor’s role, including:
- a lack of understanding of what councillors are able to achieve for residents
- that all councillors are full-time, salaried politicians
- that all councillors were ‘in it for themselves’
Around half (49%) felt they had less influence to change things than they initially expected when entering their role, just over a third (35%) felt they had as much influence as expected.
A slightly higher proportion of community or town councillors (51%) thought they had less influence to change things than expected, compared with 44% of principal councillors and 45% of dual hatters. Conversely, principal councillors (19%) and dual-hatters (23%) were more likely to respond positively and say that they had more influence to change things than expected compared to community or town councillors.
Almost half (47%) spent 10 hours or less each week carrying out the role. At the other end of the scale, 8% spent more than 40 hours each week.
Around two-thirds (69%) of community or town councillors spent 10 hours or less carrying out their role, while around two-fifths of principal councillors (44%) and dual-hatters (38%) said they spent 31 hours or more per week undertaking council business. Of these figures, a quarter of principal councillors (25%) and 17% of dual hatters indicated that they worked more than 40 hours each week.
Two-thirds of respondents (66%) said they were available 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Only 4% of respondents had set times during which they could be contacted by constituents.
Principal councillors emphasised that their day-to-day role and workload varied considerably each week, depending on the nature of the work they were involved in (for example, attending formal council and committee meetings, dealing with casework and engaging with constituents) and the type of roles they held within the council.
A particular concern across each category of councillors was the increasing workload and time commitments that the role demanded, with many finding it increasingly difficult to maintain a distinction between their council role and private life. Respondents also noted that it was becoming increasingly difficult for councillors to sustain their work commitments alongside full-time employment.
Town and community councillors emphasised that making themselves visible within the community helped them to manage their day-to-day work and time commitments.
Encouraging others to stand as candidates
Eight out of ten respondents (80%) said they would encourage others to stand as a councillor, while only 6% said they would not.
In positive terms, respondents across the three councillor types described being elected as a ‘privilege’ and emphasised that while the role was demanding, being able to deliver for the community made it a ‘worthwhile’ and ‘rewarding’ experience.
A small number of respondents cited personal experiences of abuse and intimidation and unacceptable behaviour they had witnessed towards fellow councillors as key reasons why they would discourage others from considering standing for elected office.
Barriers that prevented potential candidates from putting themselves forward to stand included demand on time, scale and complexity of the work involved, and lack of diversity in the current councillor population.
Councillors emphasised the need to encourage a wider range of candidates, especially more women, minority ethnic representatives and younger people to stand for election to improve the age, gender and social balance within the councillor population.
Only around half of community and town councillors were aware that they were entitled to a basic payment to carry out their duties. Around three-quarters of community and town councillors had not claimed their basic and senior payment in full.
In comparison, the majority of principal councillors were aware that they could claim for a basic salary to carry out their duties and had also claimed their salary in full. However, only around one out of five principal councillors said that they had claimed full reimbursement for travel and subsistence costs incurred as part of their role.
Councillors said they regularly faced criticism from the public of payments of allowances and expenses to elected members. As a result, there was a reluctance among councillors to claim what they were entitled to for fear of appearing ‘self-serving’ or being shamed by fellow councillors and constituents for taking public money.
Many respondents were against the idea of councillors receiving payment for their work, with community and town councillors in particular emphasising that this was incongruous with the nature of their role. A smaller number of community councillors supported the current system of remuneration and argued that being able to claim for support such as the carers allowances enabled them to carry out their roles effectively.
Behaviour and attitudes towards councillors
The survey highlighted widespread instances of bullying, offensive and inappropriate behaviour towards councillors, from fellow elected members, the public and officers.
Around half of respondents (48%) had experienced or witnessed inappropriate behaviour by members of the public while undertaking their role. Around four out of ten (41%) had witnessed or experienced inappropriate behaviours by other councillors.
Examples of verbal bullying and harassment by colleagues included:
- posting of offensive and inappropriate comments online
- spreading of malicious rumours
- inappropriate conduct in meetings designed to intimidate or undermine individuals
Cases of misogyny, racism and homophobia were reported by respondents. Abuse, bullying and harassment directed towards women councillors was particularly common. There was also evidence of normalisation of abuse towards councillors and an expectation that councillors should accept it as ‘part of the job’.
The growing use of social media meant that councillors were increasingly exposed and under relentless scrutiny by constituents and the general public. Councillors reported experiencing increasing online intimidation, abuse and threats against them and inappropriate behaviour at community council meetings where they were particularly vulnerable to verbal abuse.
Incidents involving physical threats, intimidation and harassment were reported by a number of councillors and several of these had been reported to the police. Comments were also made on the increasing levels of polarisation in public debate at a local level, driven by the impacts of Brexit, handling of the Covid-19 pandemic and declining levels of trust in politicians.
Report authors: Nerys Owens
Views expressed in this report are those of the researchers and not necessarily those of the Welsh Government.
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Social research number: 75/2022
Digital ISBN 978-1-80535-078-1