This week has seen the resignation of a respected and relatively youthful leader of a relatively good quality council in the Northwest because he is no longer prepared to let his family pay the price for his 60-hour working week.
Councillor Alex Ganotis, leader of Stockport Council, is stepping down after next year’s elections when his children will be eight and five to not miss out on precious family time which he says he would not be able to make up for later. And he’s not staying as a back bencher because of the negative impact even that reduced role would have on his family.
He’s not the first and he won’t be the last to quit for the kids but Councillor Ganotis is today’s poster boy for a rot that is threatening our councils across the UK. The truth is that being a councillor is an absolutely thankless task. The wonder of social media means you are publicly exposed to everyone’s views, angst and wrath on an hourly basis and your image, family, location, views and even wardrobe choices are subject to constant posting and commentary. Yes, it’s transparent governance but it must be pretty exhausting being constantly dragged across the coals for a job that you have stepped forward to do, presumably to make a difference to the community in which you live.
And all that’s on top of a full-time job which in Alex’s case is as a senior manager at the Information Commissioner’s Office. Just imagine finishing every day at work and driving into battle at a series of slow and acrimonious meetings and committee sessions.
Yes, there’s an allowance but as Alex has demonstrated, it’s just not worth the personal price you have to pay.
It’s little wonder then, that most of our councillors are retired and can give the time needed to this vital role in our communities. They are experienced and committed and some are truly tremendous, but many are no longer in touch with the working world and the pressures and compromises posed by real life. Picking up your comfortable pension, driving your reliable Honda to committee meetings and looking forward to your next cruise with the only real worry being about your hanging baskets drying out while you are away, is not the life most of us are living or can look forward to living when we retire.
And before you accuse me of sweeping generalisations, do pop along to your local planning committee meeting. There are some cracking younger councillors and some great older councillors, but the reality is that the hard core is grey.
So, something needs to change. We need to attract more working age people into councillor posts and we need to make the roles manageable, so they don’t feel they have to do ‘an Alex’. We either make the money paid to elected members enough to allow them not to have to work full time as well as holding a councillor post which is the case with MP salaries, or we spread the burden.
Perhaps we should consider more councillors, job shares or using technology to streamline the process. Personally, I favour deploying the Elon Musk guide to pointless and unproductive meetings which is to just leave, but maybe we should take one step at a time.
But what I do know is that we have to do something before our councillor posts start to become impossible to fill and the democratic process that drives local government crumbles before our weary, overworked eyes.
Partner, Newgate North