In this page
Information about what the law requires in relation to the role of a councillor in a county or county borough council and the way they are supported. To do this the following topics will be explained:
- what is a councillor
- what is the role of a councillor
- how do people become councillors
- who decides how many councillors there are for each area
- do councillors get paid for their work
- how are councillors expected to behave
- what support do councillors receive to help them in their role
What is a councillor?
Councillors are people who put themselves forward to represent local people within a specific area in Wales. This would normally be the area they live in. The size of the area represented will depend on whether the councillor is elected to a county / county borough council or a community / town council. Councillors can be elected to both types of council, these councillors are often referred to as twin hatters. More information about the types of councils is contained within Part 1 of this handbook.
Who decides how many councillors there are for each area?
Every year sees changes to the population, culture and socio-economic circumstances across communities in Wales. These changes are not the same everywhere, for example, some areas experience increases in population while others experience a reduction. The differences resulting from these changes over time have the potential to impact on how many councillors might be needed for a particular ward (for the purposes of an election council areas are divided into wards).
The Local Democracy and Boundary Commission for Wales (the Commission) is the independent body responsible for deciding how many councillors there are for each county and county borough council in Wales. It does this through a statutory process called an electoral review. The latest programme of reviews was completed in 2021 in advance of the May 2022 local government elections.
The purpose behind regular reviews of electoral arrangements is to reduce the impact of constant change by ensuring each local councillor in a council represents, as far as possible, roughly the same number of people.
As part of the review process the Commission is required to consult with mandatory consultees and other interested parties on the procedure and method it intends to use for the review. In particular how it proposes to decide the appropriate numbers for the county council in the area under review.
At the end of the review the Commission submits a report including its recommendations to Welsh Ministers for consideration.
What is the role of a councillor?
All councillors have a range of responsibilities, but fundamentally their role is, working with communities, to make the place they represent a better place to live and work. Councillors are the link between the public and the council they are a member of. This involves a range of responsibilities which may include:
- representing the best interests of all residents within the area or ward they are elected to
- promoting local issues and influencing decision making
- working towards a shared community vision with partner organisations
- resolving conflict between community organisations
- developing solutions to community problems
- balancing competing demands for resources
- contributing to debate and discussion about priorities for investment
- scrutinise, or study specific decisions of the leadership of the council or existing policy and service delivery
- participating in council processes such as deciding on planning or licencing applications
Councillors carry out these responsibilities by:
- attending council and other meetings, listening to the different views of colleagues and others and voting as part of the decision making process
- representing and meeting with the people and interest groups within the area they represent and dealing with issues they raise. This may include visiting local community services and businesses
- holding surgeries to enable constituents to share their view, identify problems and seek help
Roles councillors undertake
There are a number of roles councillors can undertake these include:
Leader of the council
Is elected by the full council and is responsible for the overall direction and objectives of the council and ensuring those objectives are achieved. The leader is the main political spokesperson for the council and has a key role in representing the council’s views to the public and the organisations the council works with to deliver its objectives.
The leader is also responsible for appointing a group of people to support them, by having responsibility for a specific area of the council’s business for example education, environment or social care. This is often referred to as a portfolio responsibility. Collectively this group of people is referred to as the Cabinet. More about the work of the cabinet can be found in Part 4.
Portfolio members of cabinet
Are appointed by the Leader of the Council to be responsible for an area of council business. They work closely with the senior officers within the portfolio area taking responsibility for and participating in the decision making process on matters within that area. Their role includes presentation of reports to the Cabinet, attendance at appropriate committees of the council, representing the council and cabinet’s position in meetings with external organisations, regular liaison with other group leads on portfolio issues and supporting the leader and management team in monitoring the performance of the council.
A committee is a made up of a small group of the members of the council. The law requires councils to establish certain committees. These include at least one scrutiny committee, a governance and audit committee, a licensing committee and a planning committee. Councils can establish other committees it considers necessary to support the work of the council.
The role of the Chair of a committee, whether statutory or non-statutory is to ensure the meeting is conducted appropriately and in line with the expected standards as outlined in the standing orders (the council’s rule book for how it will conduct its business). The Chair is also responsible for agreeing the business and objectives of a meeting, ensuring any decisions taken are in line with the responsibilities of the committee and organise public participation at meetings in line with the council’s agreed procedures.
Each member of a committee brings with them a range of knowledge and experience upon which to draw when discussing the items on the agenda. Members are expected to fully participate in the meeting, listen to what others have to say, contributing positively to the discussion and providing comments as necessary.
Who can become a councillor?
Almost anyone can become a councillor. There are no requirements for councillors to have specific qualifications, or to have particular experience. The key to becoming a councillor is an interest in the community they live in and enthusiasm and commitment to learn about the issues that impact on local people.
Individuals are not able to be a councillor if they are bankrupt, have a criminal record that included a prison sentence of three months or more within a period of 5 years prior to seeking election, or hold a restricted post within their council or another council. A restricted post is a post such as the Chief Executive or a senior manager. Such posts are considered restricted because standing for election, without first resigning, would mean that person was in an advantaged position in comparison to other candidates and it could also result in difficulties in the conduct of council business.
What skills does a councillor need?
A councillor does not need to have any specific qualifications; however the following skills/knowledge are beneficial for councillors to have or to develop. A councillor is not expected to have all these skills when first elected. Development and training support is provided to all councillors to assist them in undertaking their role.
Examples of useful skills or knowledge includes:
- a commitment to public service and representing constituents
- the ability to focus on what best improves communities and the council area as a whole
- the ability to consider a wide range of information
- maintaining an objective and analytical mind
- being a decisive and quick thinker
- the ability to scrutinise information/data and to reach a reasoned decision or conclusion
- the ability to communicate with constituents of all ages and backgrounds in an equal, polite, fair and transparent manner
- being an effective communicator and presenter, and adopting appropriate style for different audiences
- the ability to negotiate and be diplomatic
- an understanding of the council’s budgeting and financial systems
- an understanding of the role of the council and its governance arrangements
- the ability to work with others
- knowledge of IT systems such as email and Microsoft Office
How do people become councillors?
To become a councillor for a ward in a principal council you must be 18 years old or over, registered to vote in the area or have lived, worked or owned property there for at least 12 months before an election and you must also be a British citizen or a qualifying foreign citizen (living in the UK legally). An individual needs to be nominated as a candidate at a council election. This is done by completing a nomination form, which needs to be signed and witnessed. You do not need to be a member of a political party.
Nominated candidates may appoint an election agent, but they don’t have to and they can act as their own agent. An election agent is responsible for the proper management of a candidate’s election, for example demonstrating that the candidate’s campaign has not exceeded the financial limit set out in the law.
Once all the nominations are confirmed, a notice of poll is published by the Returning Officer, who runs the election, confirming the details of every candidate standing for election in each ward.
Are all councillors part of a political party?
Some candidates are members of political parties. Other candidates are independent and do not represent or belong to a particular political party.
Do councillors get paid for their work?
The Independent Remuneration Panel for Wales, often referred to as the IRP or IRPW is responsible for deciding the amount and type of payment councillors receive.
County and county borough councillors are all entitled to a basic salary. The salary for individual county councillors depends on the number of people living within the county. There are 3 bands these are:
- Group A: for counties with a population over 200,000
- Group B: for counties with a population of 100,000 to 200,000
- Group C: for counties with a population of less than 100,000
In addition to the basic salary, the IRP has decided the councillors who make up the executive of the council (the executive consists of the Leader and the cabinet members) should receive an additional payment to reflect the wider responsibilities and increased time commitment of their role. There are a small number of additional roles, such as chairs of committee, which also attract an additional payment. These are known as senior salaries.
All councillors are able to claim payments for the costs of travel, meals and accommodation where these costs are a direct result of their official duties. The level of payment that may be claimed depends on a number of things including:
- the number of miles claimed for in 1 year
- the type of vehicle used to travel
- whether there were any passengers in the same vehicle
- the location of the accommodation
- whether the councillor was staying with family or friends
All councillors are able to claim a contribution towards costs of Care and Personal Assistance (CPA). The purpose of this payment is to make sure that people who want to become councillors are not put off standing for election because they require financial support to cover their additional personal support needs and additional costs of caring for others to carry out their duties effectively.
In particular monthly costs of care varies considerably. This can depend on the number of dependants, their ages and other factors. The arrangements for claiming costs of caring for others are as follows:
- formal (registered with Care Inspectorate Wales) care costs to be paid as evidenced
- informal (unregistered) care costs to be paid up to a maximum rate equivalent to the Real UK Living Wage at the time the costs are incurred
The care costs cannot be paid to someone who is a part of a member’s household.
Can individuals be employed and also be a councillor?
It is possible for councillors to be employed or self-employed and also be a councillor.
How much time do councillors have to commit?
This varies depending on the amount of council, constituency and political party business that is required in the particular role. All councillors are required to attend meetings of the full council and any committees they are members of, and must attend at least one council meeting over a 6 month period or they are automatically disqualified (unless the council has given them a dispensation, for example because they are having treatment for an illness or caring for a close relative).
Do employers have to release employees to undertake council duties?
Employers are required under the Employment Rights Act 1996 to provide reasonable time off work for public duties, but you should discuss this with your employer. However, you should note that there is no legal requirement for an employer to pay a councillor for the time they take off to carry out their councillor role.
Can councillors have time off to look after their families?
It is important that councillors are able to balance their career choices and family commitments while serving communities across Wales.
Councils must put in place arrangements in their constitution (the council rule book) for the temporary absence of councillors for personal reasons (“family absence”).
It is set out in the law that county councillors are able to take periods of absence for a range of family milestones including the birth of a baby, the adoption of a child or other parental matters. The period of absence will depend on the purpose for the leave. The arrangements are set out in regulations, along with the requirements.
- Maternity absence, up to a maximum of 26 weeks where a member meets conditions set out in Regulations.
- Newborn absence, up to a maximum of two weeks, to be taken within 56 days of the birth of a baby.
- Adoption absence, which can begin up to a fortnight before the date of placement and which lasts for 26 weeks.
- Parental absence, where a member becomes temporarily or permanently responsible for a child under the age of 14. This may involve multiple periods of absence over a given year.
A councillor who is entitled to family absence may be absent from meetings of the authority (and, if an executive member, meetings of the executive) during the period of absence. However it is possible for a councillor to make arrangements to attend certain meetings during a period of absence if they wish to, but this must be agreed with the local authority.
Family absence is designed to ensure that members with pressing personal care commitments are able to meet those commitments, before returning to their roles.
Are councillors able to job share?
Job share arrangements allow two or more councillors to undertake specific roles within the council by, as it suggests, sharing the responsibilities and workload of a role. The Local Government and Elections (Wales) Act 2021 made it possible for job share arrangements to be put in place for the leader and members of a county council cabinet. It did this by increasing the maximum number of councillors the law allows to be in a cabinet, when job share arrangements are in place. It is for the Leader of the council to decide appointments to the cabinet, including whether to invite councillors to undertake an executive role on a job share basis.
Job share arrangements can provide a number of benefits including:
- the opportunity for younger or less experienced councillors, who may have caring or other responsibilities, to participate as a cabinet member
- encouraging younger people to participate in the local democracy by considering standing for election
- as part of a career progression programme, enabling more individuals to operate at the cabinet level
How do councillors achieve and maintain a work life balance?
There are no provisions in legislation which deal specifically with support to work-life balance and mental health. However, councils are under obligations in respect of the Equality Act 2010 and the Human Rights Act 1998 with regard to their policies, systems and procedures.
How are councillors expected to behave?
There is a statutory ethical standards framework for all councillors. It guides elected members on the appropriate standards of conduct expected of them in undertaking their roles, whilst providing reassurance to the public that action will be taken if things go wrong.
All elected members of county and county borough councils, community councils, fire and rescue authorities, and national park authorities in Wales are bound by the statutory Code of Conduct. The Code lays down a set of enforceable standards for the way in which members should conduct themselves, both in terms of their official capacity and (in some instances) in their personal capacity as well.
The framework comprises a set of ten general principles of conduct for members (derived from Lord Nolan’s ‘Seven Principles of Public Life’). These principles are:
- integrity and propriety
- duty to uphold the law
- objectivity in decision-making
- equality and respect
All principal councils must establish a standards committee to promote and maintain high standards of conduct by their members and the members of the town and community councils in the area. Their role includes advising the authority on the adoption and operation of a code of conduct, assisting members to observe the code, supporting political group leaders to uphold high standards of conduct within their political groups and arranging or providing training for members on matters relating to the code. An officer of the council called the monitoring officer works closely with the standards committee to support them in providing day-to-day advice to members on conduct matters. Standards Committees are required to produce an annual report and also to support political group leaders to meet their statutory duty of upholding standards of conduct in their political group.
Any person may make a complaint to Ombudsman Wales that a member has failed to comply with their authority’s code of conduct. Where the Ombudsman concludes an investigation is appropriate, they may conduct the investigation themself or refer the matter to the relevant monitoring officer for investigation and subsequent adjudication by the local standards committee.
Examples of ways in which a member may break an authority’s code of conduct include: behaving in a way that brings the role of members or the authority into disrepute or negatively affects their authority’s reputation; failing to treat everybody equally, be that due to their gender, race, disability, sexual orientation, age or religion.
The Adjudication Panel for Wales considers cases referred by the Ombudsman of more serious breaches of the code of conduct. The Adjudication Panel also hears appeals by members against the decisions of standard committees.
What support do councillors receive to help them in their role?
By law, councils must secure the provision of reasonable training and development opportunities for their members. Each member (not including the Leader of a council), under executive arrangements must have the opportunity for an annual review of their training needs. Part of this involves the opportunity for an interview with someone who the council considers “suitably qualified” to advise on the training and development needs of a member. (s7, Local Government (Wales) Measure 2011). The leader may also request a review of their training needs if they wish to do so.
How can councils help councillors let the public know what they have been doing?
Councils must have arrangements in place to allow any councillor to publish an “annual report” (s5, Local Government (Wales) Measure 2011). Councils should ensure that annual reports are drafted so as to show the electorate the range of duties that councillors perform, and their involvement with local initiatives.
Annual reports should contain only factual information, and should only cover activities undertaken by the individual councillor in connection with their council role. Content should not be party political and should not be critical of another member, another Group, or of an officer or officers of the council.
Councillors carry out a huge range of roles. Raising public awareness of these roles, and of councillors’ work for the communities they serve, is important; annual reports are likely to play an important part of this. Councils can develop a standard template for such reports to make the task more manageable, which may include detail on what matters should, and should not, be included.