Be a councillor
What matters to you in your local area? Is it the state of the local park, the need for more activities for young people, improving services for older people, making the roads safer or ensuring that local businesses can thrive? Whatever needs changing in your neighbourhood, you could be just the person to change it by becoming a local councillor.
Perhaps you are already involved in your community and local affairs and want to take the next step. Or you may be looking for a worthwhile and rewarding way to help your local community.
There are more than 20,000 local councillors in England and Wales, each representing their local community and all with their own reason for doing so. In order to be truly democratic, councils need to be representative of their community. To make the best decisions, they need to draw on a wide range of skills, experience and knowledge of what the local community wants and needs. Councils need people from all parts of the community who can bring their own perspective on what is needed locally.
Are you ready to help change the face of local government? No other role gives you the chance to make such a huge difference to the quality of life for people in your local area.
“Independent councillors benefit from being able to make decisions based on local residents, with no party whip. Being Independent is about putting people before politics.”
Councillor Marianne Overton, Independent, North Kesteven District and Lincolnshire County Councils
Being Independent doesn’t mean being isolated. There is a wide network and range of support offered to Independent councillors via The LGA Independent Group.
There are things that all prospective candidates should know before they embark on an election campaign. This guide will look at some of these issues and help you decide whether to take the plunge and stand for election to your local council.
How do councils work?
- The Structure of Local Government explained
Structure of Local Government
The United Kingdom is divided into four countries: Northern Ireland, Wales, Scotland and England. In England, there are nine regions.
The structure of local government varies from area to area. In most of England, there are 2 tiers – county and district – with responsibility for council services split between them.
London, other metropolitan areas and parts of shire England operate under a single tier structure with councils responsible for all services in their area.
In total there are 343 local authorities in England made up of five different types:
- county councils
- district councils
- unitary authorities
- metropolitan districts
- London boroughs
The table below shows the number of each type of council.
County councils 26
District councils 192
Unitary authorities 55
Metropolitan districts 36
London boroughs 32
City of London 1
Isles of Scilly 1
Some shire district councils (including unitary authorities) and all metropolitan district councils have the status of either a borough or a city and are referred to as borough or city councils.
Parish councils, sometimes known as town councils, are civil local authorities found in England and are the lowest tier of local government.
All councils are led by democratically elected councillors who, working together, set the council’s vision, direction and budget. Most councils are run on a system similar to that of central government, with a small elected executive (or cabinet) to decide on policy and make decisions which other councillors then ‘scrutinise’ or examine in detail. Some councils work with a ‘committee system’, where decisions are made across a range of committees. Whatever the arrangements, all councillors should research the issues that are affecting their residents and make recommendations.
Councils are large organisations that play a big part in the local economy and influence many aspects of the lives of the people who live and work there. Central government still has some influence over councils through controlling some of their funding and through legislation, however, this is lessoning as more powers are devolved locally.
Councils vary widely in terms of their style, political leadership and approach to delivering programmes, and it is here that your community links and local knowledge will make a real difference.
Depending on the type of local authority it is, a council can be responsible for a range of services, including:
- planning and licensing
- education and lifelong learning
- health and wellbeing
- children’s and adult social care
- housing and regeneration
- community safety and cohesion
- waste collection and recycling
- roads and street lighting
- arts, sports and culture
Councils now deliver much of what they do in partnership with other councils, services and agencies, so as a councillor you may have opportunities to sit on partnership boards or committees for health, education, community safety or regeneration.
What do councillors do?
Councillors are elected to a council to represent their local community, so they must either live or work in the area. Becoming a councillor is both a rewarding and privileged form of public service. You will be in a position to make a difference to the quality of people’s daily lives and to their prospects. Being an effective councillor requires commitment and hard work. Councillors must listen to the views of residents, other councillors and experts and work to bring them together to a common aim.
Residents, community groups, the party or group you belong to (if applicable), local business, outside bodies and the council, will all make legitimate demands on a councillor’s time, on top of the demands and needs of their personal and professional lives. If you are considering becoming a councillor it’s worth discussing the idea with your family and friends. You will need their support as you will have to spend time attending to council business, and depending on your ambitions this can amount to a substantial amount of time. The time commitment for councillors can range from five to 20+ hours a week. Your role within the council and local circumstances will determine how much time you spend on council duties. Joining a planning committee, for example, will increase your workload. As with most things in life, what you get back will depend on what you put in.
In the 2018 census of local authority councillors, The LGA found that:
- Eighty-five per cent of councillors became councillors in order to serve their community
- Sixty per cent thought that representing local residents was among the most important role of councillors, and 51 per cent thought the same of supporting local communities
- Eighty-five per cent would recommend the role of councillor to others
- Sixty-eight per cent intended to stand for re-election.
Who can be a councillor?
The easy answer is almost anyone, as long as you are:
- British or a citizen of the Commonwealth or European Union
- at least 18 years old
- registered to vote in the area or have lived, worked or owned property there for at least 12 months before an election.
You can’t be a councillor if you:
- work for the council you want to be a councillor for, or for another local authority in a politically restricted post
- are the subject of a bankruptcy restrictions order or interim order
- have been sentenced to prison for three months or more (including suspended sentences) during the five years before election day
- have been convicted of a corrupt or illegal practice by an election court.
There are many reasons why people decide to become a local councillor. They include:
- wanting to be involved in shaping the future of the local community
- wanting to ensure that the community gets the right services
- wanting to represent the views of local people
- wanting to contribute particular skills
- concerns about one particular issue.
What’s expected of a councillor?
It is intended to assist councillors in their work at the council. The councillor’s role and responsibilities include:
- community leadership, engagement and support
- making decisions
- developing and reviewing council policy
- scrutiny and holding the executive/cabinet to account
- regulatory, quasi-judicial and statutory duties.
Being available for community members to contact is an important part of a councillor’s job. Many councillors enjoy attending local events and meetings. Some produce newsletters or use social media or blogs. Some hold regular drop-in surgeries, which provide a chance for residents to discuss their problems or concerns.
Much of a councillor’s work can be done by telephone, letters or email, though sometimes it is better to arrange meetings with residents or council staff to resolve issues. Sometimes all a resident needs is to be directed to the right information and/ or contacts to enable them to deal with an issue themselves. If you are a councillor in a two-tier area (where there are district councils along with a county council), you will need to know who your county councillors are to redirect some inquiries to them.
It is also useful to know who your local MP, as some inquiries will need to be escalated to them. All councillors are expected to attend full council meetings, and most attend scrutiny meetings (the process of examining the work and decisions of the executive). Councillors may also choose to sit on quasi-judicial committees, for example planning and licensing committees which take non-political decisions on applications. The timing, number and length of these meetings varies from council to council. Depending on the arrangements within your council, you will have opportunities to join relevant political or Independent Group meetings as well as training events.
Being a councillor is very worthwhile, but it does also require time. You will need to balance your council commitments with your personal and professional life, and this can sometimes cause conflict. If you have caring responsibilities you will also need to think about how to manage those. That said, there are many people looking after children or dependent adults who make excellent local councillors, particularly since they often have direct personal knowledge of the services they are responsible for providing or overseeing.
Councillor Kieron Wilson Independent, Bournemouth, Christchurch and Poole Council
One of the main reasons I stood as a councillor is that I didn’t feel represented, no one at the time I was elected reflected me or my experiences. 51 of the 54 councillors were Conservatives, and when I got elected at 23, I was the youngest on the council. It is quite daunting to begin with, getting elected in many ways was the easy part, but once you understand how things work you realise what an opportunity it is to give your community the voice they really need.
I have since won my second election, with the most votes in Bournemouth, and I have found myself in power rather than the opposition, becoming the Cabinet Member for Housing. It has been both the most rewarding and most challenging experience of my life, but it all started by making the positive decision to run for election as an independent councillor.
I would highly recommend getting involved in local politics. I am sure anyone reading this will have a unique type of experience which will add value to the decision making that effects the community they live in.
Do I need any special skills or experience to be a councillor?
It’s important that councils have councillors who reflect and represent the communities they serve, and also have a broad range of skills and life experience. You don’t have to be highly educated or have a profession. Skills gained through raising a family, caring for a sick or disabled relative, volunteering or being active in faith or community groups can be just as valuable. While you don’t need any special qualifications to be a councillor, having or being able to develop the following attributes will help you in the role:
- communication skills
- problem solving and analytical skills
- team working • organisational skills
- the ability to engage with your local community.
Don’t worry if you don’t yet feel that you have all the skills to be a councillor. All councils provide support, information and training for new councillors.
Councillor Gillian Ford Upminster and Cranham Residents Group, London Borough of Havering
Having childhood holidays in my parent’s friend’s retirement home, I grew up helping out where I could. Aged sixteen, I was invited on a social committee, representing young people to raise funds and activities for the community. Next came voluntary work in the local school and a position on the school governing body.
Being asked to go on the Residents Association Committee followed with the request for me to stand as a councillor. This was the obvious next step in influencing, supporting and improving the lives of others. I have found my councillor role incredibly rewarding and a humbling experience.
Will I get paid for being a councillor?
Councillors don’t receive a salary, but they do get a ‘member’s allowance’ (which is taxable) in recognition of their time and expenses incurred while on council business. Each council sets its own rate for these allowances.
Councils also provide a special responsibility allowance to those who undertake additional duties such as the Leader of the Council, portfolio holders, scrutiny chairs and opposition leaders.
There is also a childcare and dependents’ carers’ allowance for attendance at meetings payable on production of receipts, up to an agreed maximum cost per hour.
Councillor Michelle Bateman Independent, Pembrokeshire County Council
When someone suggested to me that I stood in my local elections, I dismissed the idea as I thought I didn’t fit the stereotype of a typical councillor. I later realised this was exactly the reason I needed to try: Women are underrepresented in local government. I had no previous political experience, but I had always been actively involved in my community and my children’s school.
A good councillor understands their local area, and what matters to people. I love my role, it’s challenging but varied and there’s a real sense of achievement when you help resolve an issue for a resident. Being a Councillor is about people, and if you’re already asking if you’d be good enough, then you’re halfway there.
Can I be a councillor and have a job?
Yes. By law if you are working your employer must allow you to take a reasonable amount of time off during working hours to perform your duties as a councillor. The amount of time given will depend on your responsibilities and the effect of your absence on your employer’s business. You should discuss this with your employer before deciding to stand for election.
Please note that there are some jobs holdings which will make an individual ineligible for councillorship. You are disqualified from standing as a candidate at elections to a particular local authority if you are a paid officer or employee of that local authority. This can include if you are employed under the direction of a joint board or committee, such as fire services and education authorities. It is not always the case that a public service worker would be denied from standing as a councillor. Therefore, if you work in the public sector and are unsure of whether you can stand, you should seek advice from your employer’s HR department to establish whether the disqualification applies to you.
Does being a councillor effect my benefits?
If you are on benefits, the council allowances can affect your entitlement, so get advice before agreeing to stand.
I have a disability, can I be a councillor?
Yes. The Public Sector Equality Duty, places a specific duty on public bodies, including local authorities, to consider all individuals when carrying out their day-to-day work, from shaping policy to delivery of services and in relation to their own employees.
Councils are required to make ‘reasonable adjustments’ to accommodate the needs of disabled councillors who would otherwise be placed at a disadvantage compared to non-disabled councillors. It is an ‘anticipatory duty’ meaning that councils must think in advance about the needs of disabled people and make reasonable adjustments.
If you believe that the council you wish to be elected to would need to make adjustments to accommodate your needs, you should contact them at any early stage to discuss your requirements. Under certain circumstances, disabled councillors might also be eligible for Access to Work, which provides grants for things like specialist equipment and travel (when public transport can’t be used).
Previously the Government Equalities Office provided financial support for individuals seeking elected offices with disabilities. We hope similar support will be available in the future to cover the cost of items such as BSL interpreters, Assistive Technology, a Personal Assistant to support certain tasks, or taxi fares where other modes of transport are not appropriate. If you are looking for such support do get in touch with the LGA Independent Group Office to see if anything is available.
Once you become a councillor, your council will work with you to overcome any barriers you come across as a result of your disability and will make sure you can be fully involved. Being a councillor, however, is not a full-time job and therefore you are not counted as an ‘employee’ of the council.
‘It’s crucial that elected members are reflective of the communities that they represent. As a disabled woman I bring a particular lived experience to the discussions that I take part in, to effectively shape policies and procedures for the benefit of residents facing similar issues.
The things that our Democratic Services did for me were really simple things like putting a footrest in my space in the council chamber and trying to place me at the end of rows so I could get seated more easily etc. It was all stuff that was done without a fuss and very discreetly which I appreciated.’
Councillor Anna Charles-Jones (Independent, Stockport)
Government Guidance to the Equality Act 2010
The Government Equalities Office
The Equality and Human Rights Commission
Councillor Paul Cullen Independent, Richmondshire District Council
It was early 1983 when talking with our Parish Council Clerk who mentioned there was a local District Council vacancy coming up in May for Lower Swaledale. So, despite being a full-time teacher, I said I fancied standing and that was it. As a “politically naïve” 36 year old, I planned my leaflet and the electorate obviously liked it because they elected me with 75 per cent of the vote.
Fast forward 37 years and, as a veteran of ten District elections, the following are some of the reasons why I think I’ve been re-elected over those years albeit in re-aligned wards: I have always lived in the wards I represented; regularly attended or sent reports to parish council meetings; kept my electorate updated by regular newsletters delivered by me; been easy to contact by letter, emails, telephone, and offering home visits or surgeries.
As regards the most rewarding aspect of being a councillor, it has probably been the ability to help and advise those less fortunate and to feel appreciated.
Being a councillor has obviously taken up a lot of my time but if I had the chance to go back and do it all over again, would I do it? The answer is a resounding yes!
Is there specific support for women, parents or carers to become councillors?
There is presently no legal right to parental leave of any kind for people in elected public office. It is a good idea to check with your council what policies they have in place with regards to parental leave. Where a council may not have a formal parental leave policy in place, they should be able to advise on their practices. Often these will be found in your council’s constitution, which should be available on the council website.
Data from the Fawcett Society in 2019 showed that:
- Twenty councils (8 per cent) have a maternity policy in place for their senior cabinet-level councillors.
- Seven per cent of councils have a maternity policy in place that covered ordinary councillor roles.
On International Women’s Day 2019 the LGA published a ‘Twenty First Century Councils’ toolkit, which was developed to help councils create the underlying policies, procedures, ethos and environment that encourages and empowers women, parents and carers to become local councillors and take on leadership positions.
There is a childcare and dependents’ carers’ allowance for attendance at meetings payable on production of receipts, up to an agreed maximum cost per hour.
How representative are councils?
Representation in councils is improving, but still only 35 per cent of councillors in England are women (Fawcett Society, 2019) and 7 per cent of councillors in the UK are from BAME communities (University of Manchester, 2020), which is why the Be a Councillor campaign is aiming to increase representation within our councils.
The LGA undertook a census of local authority councillors in 2018. From the councillors that responded, the LGA found that:
- Forty-five per cent of councillors were retired, and 26 per cent were in full-or part-time employment;
- The average age of councillors in 2018 was 59 years; 15 per cent were aged under-45 and 43 per cent were aged 65 or over.
- Eighty-eight per cent described their sexual orientation as heterosexual or straight;
- Sixty per cent had a long-term health problem or disability which limited their daily activities;
- Thirty-six per cent of councillors had a responsibility as a carer, most commonly looking after a child.
Once elected the LGA provides bespoke development opportunities and networks for women, BAME and young councillors.
What support is available to elected councillors to help carry out their role?
Councils have staff, known as Officers, available to provide support and assistance. Exactly what facilities you get will depend on the council and the position you hold. Many will provide you with a computer or tablet and some may pay for internet access and an additional telephone line and/or mobile phone.
Councils provide induction and training for new councillors, as does the LGA.
Once elected, Independent councillors can find it useful to formally link up with other Independent members of the council by forming a group. Joining an Independent Group, even if just for certain council business, will help you to gain the maximum number of seats on council committees and increase your influence.
Councillor Sarah Rouse Independent, Malvern Hills District Council
I became a district councillor five years ago and I love it. After several years working with local residents, community groups and parish councils raising concerns on local planning and community matters, the residents asked me to stand. They wanted someone who was not involved in party politics but was one of them as their representative.
Since then, I have moved from being leader of the opposition to Leader of the council. I still work hard on the local issues but am also now involved at a National level at the LGA. This allows me to stand up for the voices of my local people just as they elected me to do, but also to bring back to them greater learning from across the country. It is rewarding, exciting and a constant challenge. I would have it no other way.
If you are interested in being a councillor here’s some next steps to consider:
1. Start building your profile so that voters know who you are
Now that you’ve decided to stand it’s time to begin gathering local support.
To connect with your electorate, you will need to work out your position on local ‘hot’ issues such as crime, traffic, the environment and schools.
You will need to know what the council is doing about these issues and how your opinion differs from other candidates. You will need this information for when you begin canvassing. The aim of canvassing is for people to see you are making a serious effort and for them to know who you are. As you go from door to door persuading people to vote for you, you will be challenged on your opinions and it is best that you have a planned idea of your dialogue on important issues.
You may also want to begin building a network of supporters who will help with your election campaign. It will be easier to campaign with some helpers who are willing to deliver leaflets, canvas on your behalf, put up posters in their windows, etc. The number of helpers and time they are willing to ‘donate’, may impact your canvas and leaflet delivery plans. It’s a good idea to think about your support network before ordering canvassing materials. To identify yourself or your volunteers, canvassers can wear black and white rosettes with the candidates name on the stickers centre.
2: Put yourself forward as a candidate
If you choose to put yourself forward as a candidate and want to stand as a representative of a group, residents association or small political party, you will need to contact their local office.
You will be able to find their contact details online, via the council’s electoral services department or via the LGA’s Independent Group Office. You can also contact the Returning Officer at your councils for the candidate registration forms and guidance for candidates. Your council’s electoral services department can tell you when elections are next taking place. They can also point you towards useful sources of information in the council and the steps you need to take to be formally nominated.
3. Printing advice
Leaflets and letters are a key part of any campaign and guidance by the Electoral Commission is very clear on what needs to be included. If you have never dealt with commercial printers before, make sure you allow plenty of time to organise what you want. Prices will vary according to what type of paper you have, how many folds, if any, how many you want printed and the quality of the artwork you supply. Tip: The LGA Independent Group have a library of leaflets to give you an idea of what these might look like. 22 Your guide to becoming a councillor
4. Know your deadlines
Tip: Gather a diary of all the important dates leading up to Election Day to ensure you don’t miss any key deadlines. There are a lot of things that you will need to do, if you are to be successful in being elected as an Independent councillor. Leave nothing to chance. Plan ahead in plenty of time. Not having a party machine behind you means you need to be very organised. Do not think that you can leave anything to the last moment.
One way to do this is to have a count-down timetable including the deadline for nominations, printing timescales, postal voting dates and election day. Key dates will be informed by the Electoral Commission along with your own campaign goals.
5. Ensure you are officially nominated as the election date draws nearer
This means getting 10 people to sign your nomination papers (signatories must be registered electors in the ward where you wish to stand). These papers are available from your local council’s democratic services department.
You must also give your consent in writing to your nomination.
The council will also confirm dates for nomination papers and elections, as occasionally the pattern might change. However usually all the necessary documents should be submitted 19 working days before the day of the election. For more information, visit www.beacouncillor.org.uk or the Electoral Commission website www.electoralcommission.org.uk
6. Your Election Day checklist
By the time Election Day rolls around, you’ll have done so much work on your campaign between getting to know your voters, making your positions known, and organising campaign materials, it would be complete shame to forget any Election Day essentials.
- Maximise your social media channels to remind people to come out and vote for you.
- Are there any key locations, e.g. the local train station, for last minute leafletting, to remind people to vote?
- Is someone helping your known supporters who have mobility problems to get to the polling station?
- Are there posters in the houses on the way to the polling station?
- Do you have supporters at the polling station wearing rosettes? Are they aware of the rules?
- Remember that the busiest times at polling stations are before and after office hours.
- Are you planning to attend the count? Don’t forget to find out the details and confirm your attendance.
- Don’t forget to keep your energy up, it’s a long day!
Most councillors are elected for four-year terms, but councils run different electoral cycles. To find out when local elections are due to place in your area, contact your local council or visit its website.
Ideally, you will need to begin campaigning at least a year before an election so that you can get to grips with the important local issues, meet as many voters as possible and raise your profile before the election takes place.
How the LGA Independent Group Office can help
If you want to be an Independent councillor or represent a smaller party, you can receive support from the LGA Independent Group office. They cannot provide direct help with election campaigning but can offer general advice and assistance as part of our guide to becoming a councillor.
Once elected, you can access their regular regional meetings, information and development seminars, bulletins, training and peer support.
Email the group office. We can share resources for prospective candidates and we can help to put you in touch with an elected councillor to discuss their experiences.
If you would like to hold a Be a Councillor event in your area for yourself and fellow prospective candidates please do get in touch. We can help fund activity that promotes the Be a Councillor campaign and its aims to increase diversity within councils to ensure they are as representative as possible.
Browse our website for more resources and information, in particular the links below. You can keep abreast of updates by following us on Twitter @LGA_Independent
Useful pages on the LGA Independent Group website:
Be a Councillor