I recently completed a short study in to local councillors in Wales (where they are known as community councillors) as part of a wider study in to volunteering in Wales. This showed that community councillors in Wales play a substantial, unique, role in ‘volunteering’ (albeit whether they should be seen as volunteers rather than accountable public office holders emerged as contestable): primarily motivated to ‘make a difference’ 8,000 councillors contribute an average seven hours per week of unpaid effort in communities (worth £36.5 million across Wales). Given their democratic nature and closeness to communities they can leverage substantial social capital to boost local facilities: if community councils are fully effective they could transform local sustainability. This has been shown by several community councils which have embraced the opportunities of devolution by cash strapped local authorities and the spirit of the Welsh Government’s Future Generations Act. In such councils seats tend to be contested evidencing their importance to the community. But the situation across Wales is fragile: only 36% of seats were contested in the 2017 elections and the demographic profile of councillors is skewed towards to older, retired, people. Only 70% of Wales is in fact has a community council. Evidence shows that being a community councillor requires substantial unpaid effort and individuals can only be motivated to commit this effort if their efforts actually do ‘make a difference’.
But should local councillors be seen as ‘volunteers’? The official position in Wales is now that they are not, but rather should be regarded as accountable elected officials. Whilst this is an understandable view, and can be seen to enhance their status, at the same time it understates their voluntary (i.e. unpaid) role which many would see as a fundamental aspect of mobilising social capital and enabling the rolling back of the state.