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COMMENT - LOCALIST DREAM WILL TURN INTO A NIGHTMARE

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The fact Scottish councillors are still overwhelmingly white, male and middle-aged will surprise few in local gover...
The fact Scottish councillors are still overwhelmingly white, male and middle-aged will surprise few in local government north of the border.

Apart from some notable exceptions, the loudest voices in the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities are male, and the number of young councillors and those from ethnic minority backgrounds falls woefully short of an accurate representation of Scottish society today.

Local government's failure to reflect society is not just a missed checkbox in the Scottish Executive's diversity drive. It means councils are jeopardising their credibility as community leaders and their legitimacy as a powerful democratic force.

Councillors who do not represent their communities cannot represent their needs. And when voters are asked to choose between candidates of equal irrelevance, why should they bother? The result is voters that desert the ballot box in their millions, and electoral disengagement becomes endemic.

The first barrier to encouraging diversity is the difficulty of persuading people to stand in the first place. Local party branches, often perceived as bastions of the old guard, do not excel at attracting new blood into their ranks. National political parties are failing dismally to cure this state of affairs.

To be fair, they have a tough job on their hands. How many young people with full-time careers or families will volunteer for the time-consuming task of representing their local community for the low remuneration received by most councillors?

One of the nagging doubts underlying the Welsh severance scheme debacle was that even when such an initiative can be put in place, there is no guarantee a 'new breed of councillors' will be beating down the doors at town halls across the country.

The only solution is to make local government more attractive to the people it wants, and needs, to bring in. That is why the kind of remuneration and pensions package envisaged by the Local Governance (Scotland) Bill is a step in the right direction.

B ut the solution lies beyond financial reward - councils must become friendlier places for women, members of ethnic minorities and people with caring responsibilities. If local government across the UK is ever to become the vibrant, influential institution of localists' dreams, these are the people it will need.

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