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Could you be a Councillor?

An essential precursor to success at General Elections and getting Lib Dem MPs elected is establishing a strong base on local councils. We can't do this if we can't find people willing to stand for election, both in target seats, but also in areas where we are unlikely to win. Failing to stand candidates in elections gives the impression of a party that is weak and/or not serious about winning.

However, we don't want members to volunteer to be candidates without having some idea about what commitment would be required and what being a councillor involves. Firstly it would be helpful to give a brief outline of the organisation and responsibilities of the various levels of local government in the Shepway area.

Town and Parish Councils

These are the most local form of local government and the tier closest to the people. Forget The Vicar of Dibley which confused Parochial Church Councils with Parish Councils. Parish Councils are statutory civil corporate body that have nothing to do with religious parishes.

Parish Councils have few obligations, but they do have the ability to be involved in planning, highways, transport and traffic, community safety, allotments, cemeteries, playing fields, community centres and many more areas.

There are 30 parishes within the district of Shepway, consisting of 5 Town Councils, 19 Parish Councils and a further 6 having a Parish Meeting. The entire district is covered by one of those Councils / Parish meetings. In terms of powers, there is no difference between Town and Parish Councils. Some are classed as "Towns" for historical reasons and are often larger communities. In Shepway, Folkestone, Hythe, Lydd, New Romney and Hawkinge are examples of Town Councils, but Sandgate, Saltwood, Dymchurch and Elham amongst others are Parish Councils. The only practical difference is that Town Councils have a Mayor, while Parish Councils have a Chairman.

Candidates for election to Parish Councils can stand as party candidates, but generally do not do so on most Parish Councils, standing instead as Independent.

Becoming a Parish Councillor is generally very easy as most Councils do not have contested elections. Elections are held every four years on the same day as Shepway District Council elections and were last held in 2015. In the event of vacancies remaining after an election, or vacancies arising between full elections, by-elections can be held if local voters ask for one, but this is uncommon and it is more usual for local residents to be invited to submit a written application to the Council who can then choose from amongst multiple applications and co-opt.

The benefits of becoming a Parish Councillor are various. Firstly it is an opportunity to give something to your local community and at a time when the funding for principal authorities is under such strain, the opportunities for Parish Councils (whose funding is not capped) are much greater. Secondly, being a Parish Councillor is a great way of learning how local government works and who does what. It is also a way of raising your own profile if you have thoughts of standing for Shepway District or Kent County Councils.

Most Parish Councils meet monthly during the evening although some smaller ones may be less frequent. There may also be committees dealing with planning, footpaths or other matters.

Town and Parish Councillors are almost always unpaid (we know of no Town or Parish in Shepway that pays an allowance to Councillors). The role is voluntary.

More information on Parish Councils can be found on the websites of the Kent Association of Local Councils www.kentalc.gov.uk or the National Association of Local Councils www.nalc.gov.uk.

Principal Authority: Shepway District Council

The levels of local government above Town & Parish Councils are referred to as Principal Authorities. In the county of Kent there is the Unitary Authority of Medway which covers Rainham, Gillingham, Chatham, Rochester, Strood and the Isle of Grain. As a unitary authority, Medway is responsible for all local government duties.

In the rest of the county, local government is divided between Kent County Council and 12 District or Borough Councils (i.e. Ashford Borough Council, Dover District Council). The only difference between Districts and Boroughs is that Districts have a Chairman while Boroughs have a Mayor.

Shepway District Council (SDC) is made up of 30 councillors, representing 15 wards and operates with a Leader and cabinet model.

The composition of Shepway District Council is currently (September 2015) 23 Conservatives, 7 UKIP. The 13 District wards in Shepway are now Broadmead District, Cheriton Ward District, East Folkestone District, Folkestone Central District, Folkestone Harbour District, Hythe District, Hythe Rural District, New Romney District, North Downs East District, North Downs West District, Romney Marsh District, Sandgate and West Folkestone District, & Walland and Denge Marsh District.

The workload of a 'backbench' councillor consists of:

  • attending Full Council, Committee, and Area Member Panel meetings which are held in the evenings. These total around two meetings per month
  • attending other meetings, e.g. councillor briefings, working groups, etc. These might total one per month
  • dealing with ward casework. This will vary with the ward but can be between 4-8 hours per week
  • writing and delivering Focus
  • attending Lib Dem Executive meetings - about one per month.

Although Independents can stand for election, most Councillors represent political parties. With wards steadily increasing in size it is becoming harder for an independent without a support team to get elected.

Shepway District Councillors receive a basic allowance for their time (as of September 2016, that allowance is £3,867 per year. There may be additional allowances payable for Chairing Committees, roles of special responsibility etc and expenses under some circumstances. The allowances and expenses payable to Councillors are detailed at http://www.shepway.gov.uk/your-council/your-councillors/councillors-allowances Although these allowances and expenses are payable, they are not compulsory: you do not have to claim or accept them. There have been a number of examples of Councillors never claiming expenses or only some of their allowance.

The next elections will be in May 2019, although byelections are always a possibility before then. Shepway District Council is responsible for Planning, Housing, Open spaces, Waste collection, etc. Find out more at www.shepway.gov.uk

Principal Authority: Kent County Council

Kent County Council will next be up for election in May 2017 and new "Divisions" (not Wards) will be in place. In our local party area 6 single member divisions will be fought. The Liberal Democrats aim to select candidates for election some time in advance of any election. The Lib Dem candidates for Kent County Council in the Shepway area were announced in June 2016. Unless any candidate withdraws prior to May, these will be our candidates at that election.

KCC is responsible for Social Services, Education, Libraries, Waste disposal, Transport and Highways. Find out more at www.kent.gov.uk

The first thing to say is that unlike Parish or Borough Councils, being a County Councillor requires attendance at meetings in Maidstone during the day. Therefore to be able to do it properly, one must be either retired, self-employed with flexibility in one's work timetable, or have an understanding employer.

Kent County Councillors receive a much larger basic allowance for their time (as of September 2016, that allowance is £12,805 per year). There may be additional allowances payable for Chairing Committees, roles of special responsibility etc and expenses under some circumstances. The allowances and expenses payable to Councillors are detailed at http://www.kent.gov.uk/about-the-council/finance-and-budget/spending/councillor-allowances# Although these allowances and expenses are payable, they are not compulsory: you do not have to claim or accept them. There have been a number of examples of Councillors never claiming expenses or only some of their allowance.

Casework on behalf of residents is probably lighter than for District councillors. However, everyone uses roads, pavements and footpaths, and a county councillor must expect to seek solutions to problems relating to these, whether it be potholes or overgrowing vegetation. As a member of the Liberal Democrat Group on KCC a councillor is expected to specialise in a particular area of county business.

What next?

If you want to join your local Parish Council as an "Independent" that is entirely up to you, but we would be delighted. No endorsement or approval by the local party is required.

There is more information available on being a Liberal Democrat Councillor in the 2016 Local Government Association / Association of Liberal Democrat Councillors Guide to being a Liberal Democrat Councillor.

To stand as a Liberal Democrat candidate for any local council it is essential that you apply for approval. There is a formal application process involving an application form and possibly an interview to assess your suitability and commitment as well as your understanding of the requirements of the role.

Once approved as a candidate it is then necessary for you to be selected to contest a particular seat. Should more than one person wish to stand for a particular seat an election process and hustings will be arranged so that local members can make a choice.

We encourage people to apply for candidate approval at any time and not wait until the eve of elections. It is vital that we have a pool of approved candidates in place so that we have people who can contest unforeseen by-elections which can happen within three or four weeks. It is also vital that target seats have candidates in place as early as possible so that they can campaign and raise their profile for months (or longer) before the election.

To find out more about the candidate approval process or to request an application form, please contact Lynne Beaumont at lynne@shepwaylibdems.org.uk