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Working with independents can be 'a lot more complicated'

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Working with independent councillors and coalitions involving multiple groupings presents unique challenges for senior officers, LGC has been told.

Without the guidance of an established political party as to how council business operates and often lacking a clear policy platform they can require more support.

One chief whose council recently went from majority control to a coalition involving four different groups of independents and established parties told LGC their job had “just got a lot more complicated”.

They said ensuring the stability of the coalition had been a first priority by helping them set out an agreement about how they were going to work together.

LGC’s research found few of the independent councillors or local party’s had stood on a clear manifesto with many campaigning on very localised issues within their wards. On Herefordshire Council, for example, LGC was told one group of independents only policy was not to have a policy. 

The chief said this kind of approach meant “more work may be required by officers to identify what it is they’re trying to achieve”. “That’s particularly difficult if you have got various groups coming together,” they added.

Many of the independents LGC spoke to also professed to be seeking a new way of doing politics, that was less adversarial and did not involve a whip.

Catherine Staite, emeritus professor of public management at Birmingham University, told LGC an influx of independent councillors meant induction became even more important, something she claimed many councils did not spend enough time on.

“Even if you’re anti-politics you can only be effective if you understand how the organisation works, how the money flows, how the system works,” she said.

Marianne Overton (Ind), councillor on North Kesteven DC and leader of the Local Government Association’s Independent group, told LGC not having a whip meant leaders had to build consensus.

“With a party whip the leader doesn’t necessarily have to have good leadership qualities… If you can’t get it past your members, maybe it’s not the right answer”.

Randolph Conteh, deputy leader of the City Independent group which runs Stoke-on-Trent City Council in coalition with the Conservatives told LGC he had a “rude awakening” when he first became a councillor in 2002.

“I was under the impression that the city council was responsible for everything so I was quite critical [at first].

He said the LGA’s courses had been invaluable in helping him become an effective councillor.

“I got myself elected thinking I’m going to change the world now. The first thing I got advised to do was to listen and learn for the first 12 months; I will not change the word by being an individual councillor, you have got to work with others.”

LGC’s research also found many of the councillors recently elected as independents had at one time been a member of a political party.

Professor Staite told LGC this could present its own set of challenges if the individual had become independent after falling out with their party.

“To a certain extent you can rely on groups to manage their own mavericks. This is a time for people to be thinking about their code of conduct.”

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