This is a slightly peculiar system – not because of the requirement to regularly elect Councillors (we do live in a democracy, after all) but because the vast majority of Councillors elected are a member of one of the main political parties.
To understand why this is a little odd, we need to think a little about what Councils do. Firstly, they deliver local services. These can be broken down into statutory and non-statutory services. Statutory services are those which the Council is required to deliver, as directed by UK statute law. The non-statutory services are therefore discretionary – so Councils could discontinue them should they choose to do so. Statutory spending makes up the bulk of each Council’s budget, Cardiff Council’s is reported to be about 60%, for example. When a priority has been set by a higher power, it’s not like it can then be delivered in a particularly party-political manner. Policy direction and prioritisation takes place at higher level, be that at Westminster, or at a devolved institution (where they have the competence to do this). In the case of Cardiff, this institution would be the Welsh Government.
An additional peculiarity of way that Local Authorities are run is the ‘Leader and Cabinet’ system which most have implemented. In this system, certain elected councillors are allocated lead responsibility for a service area. To continue the example of Cardiff Council there are nine cabinet members plus the Council Leader. The areas of responsibility are such things as Finance & Economic Development, and Education & Lifelong Learning. This system has seen a loss of the direct relationship between Ward Councillors and Council Officers as they now need to go through the Cabinet Member, who has often ‘gone native’ as the Officers have ‘educated’ them. Therefore there is a loss of tension and direct accountability of Council Officers to elected representatives in each Ward.
Another anomaly of the current system is that where independent individuals are elected, there can be an Independent ‘Group’ created. Being a Group confers certain benefits, for example in terms of office space for the Group Leader. In some circumstances, the Independent Group can run a Council (this happened in Carmarthenshire until recently, as well as in Merthyr Tydfil. It is still the case in both Powys and Pembrokeshire). In other circumstances those of a certain political persuasion are likely to hide it from the voters by masquerading as an independent, when in fact they are closely aligned with a certain political party. Many Conservatives in the South Wales Valleys stand on an independent ticket to prevent the ‘anti-Tory’ vote going to their nearest challenger.
In recent years, the UK has seen an increasing number of Cities directly electing mayors, rather than them being drawn from within councillors elected to represent local wards. A number of the successful mayoral candidates have been independents – in Bristol, Mansfield, Middlesbrough and Tower Hamlets they bead political party candidates to be returned to office. This is a step in the direction that US Cities are run – and the renowned 99th Mayor of New York, Fiorello La Guardia, was notoriously pragmatic. He, who worked closely with F.D.Roosevelt on the ‘New Deal’ even though he was a Republican and FDR was a Democrat, is often quoted as having said that “there is no Democratic or Republican way of cleaning the streets”.
However most Councils remain dominated by party political candidates. This is probably because if a person has a party affiliation, it is worth a number of votes to them. Many voters will decide who to vote for locally based on national issues. However many will then vote for or against national candidates based on their Council’s performance. This seems odd, when the skillsets needed to be a good Councillor are organisation to administer decisions made by more senior institutions, empathy and sound judgment to undertake local casework for ward residents.