Are councillors with dual-mandates beneficial to Londoners – or a waste of public money?

London! Image: Christine Matthews via Creative Commons.

Now that the dust has settled from seemingly annual tradition of making Londoners vote in at least one major election a year, and with nothing planned for 2019 (dare you, Theresa), we can settle down for a bit of governing continuity in the capital.

There is, however, one aspect of London’s politics that is somewhat overlooked; the dual-mandates that councillors possess as elected officials. These are the councillors that are also members of the Greater London Authority (GLA), House of Commons, or House of Lords. But are dual-mandates actually any use?

Cant get a mandate?

Often misunderstood is that councillors are more powerful than other politicians on matters such as libraries, bins, social care, and, perhaps most significantly for Londoners, housing.

When it comes to planning, for example, councillors are involved throughout the entire process and ultimately decide applications at committee; all the while having to juggle the budgetary restrictions imposed by a national government with policy pressures from the GLA.

Having these decision-makers in local government who are also working across different tiers of government could well be beneficial, then. Their increased time, resources, and responsibility creates a different understanding of these issues by possessing multiple perspectives. This provides an invaluable asset for local government infrastructure already completely lacking in investment.

Today’s examples of dual-mandates span the political divide as well – aside from Ukip, which is about as about as electable in London as a sentient Clapham North tube station (although Suzanne Evans was briefly a councillor in Merton at the same time as being a national spokesperson for the party). Anyway, here is a list of those with dual-mandates in 2018:

Conservatives

Gareth Bacon is leader of the London Conservatives, GLA member for Bexley and Bromley, and councillor for Longlands ward in Bexley. He was formerly the Conservative spokesperson for regeneration in the GLA and gave up his private-sector job in order to devote time to both elected roles, once making him the highest paid councillor in London.

Steve O’Connell is the GLA member for Croydon and Sutton, and a councillor for Kenley ward in Croydon, where he is shadow cabinet member for communities. A trustee at Crystal Palace Football Club, who’s Selhust Park is seeking planning permission, he is also chair of the GLA’s police & crime committee.

Tony Devenish is the GLA member for West Central, sitting on three different GLA committees: planning, housing, and regeneration. He is also a councillor for Knightsbridge and Belgravia ward in Westminster, where he sits on the planning & city development committee, as well as chairing a planning sub-committee.

Susan Hall is a London-wide GLA member and also a councillor for Hatch End ward in Harrow. Previously leader of Harrow Council from 2013-14, and very active in local politics, she is also chair of both the GLA’s fire, resilience and emergency planning committee, and the economy committee.

A note also, on the triple-mandate once held by Conservative Victoria Borwick from 2015-16, when she was MP for Kensington, a councillor for Abingdon ward in Kensington & Chelsea, and a London-wide member of the GLA. Impressive.


Labour

Emma Dent-Coad MP is a long-standing councillor for Golbourne ward in Kensington and Chelsea, where she led the opposition between 2014-15 and has sat on the council’s planning committee. Her Kensington parliamentary constituency contains Grenfell Tower, where she has been influential in setting out the policy implications for local government nationwide through her “After Grenfell” report.

Leonie Cooper is GLA member for Merton and Wandsworth and a councillor for Furzedown in Wandsworth. She is co-chair of Sera (Labour’s environment campaign) and is deputy chair of the GLA’s environment committee, as well as being a member of the housing committee.

Tom Copley is a London-wide GLA member and councillor for Sydenham ward in Lewisham. He has led on a number of planning issues, including the balloting of tenants for estate regeneration. He is deputy chair of the GLA's housing committee, and also sits on both the planning and the transport committees.

Janet Daby, newly elected MP for Lewisham East, is a Lewisham councillor for Whitefoot ward where she was serving as deputy mayor prior to the election. The most recent dual-mandate intake, she looks set to continue in both of these roles.

Greens

Sian Berry is leader of the GLA Greens as a London-wide member and also councillor for Highgate ward in Camden. As chair of the GLA’s housing committee, she has campaigned on the issues of private renting and estate regeneration, and is expected to become the party’s co-leader in 2018.

Caroline Russell is a London-wide GLA member where she is chair of the environment committee and represents Highbury East ward in Islington. She is the party’s national spokesperson for transport, and has been an ardent critic of the Heathrow expansion as well as providing the sole opposition on Islington Council.

Jonathan Bartley is also co-leader of the Green Party and has just been elected to St Leonards ward in Lambeth where he is now leader of the opposition on the council. He will be running for a second term as co-leader in 2018. (You’re right, this is not technically a dual-mandate. But interesting, no?)

Liberal Democrats

Okay I’m scraping the bottom of the barrel now, but only because the currently elected Lib Dems in London don’t have dual-mandates; although Baronness Ludford did unsuccessfully stand for Clerkenwell ward in Islington in 2018.

It wasn't always this way, though. Leader of the GLA's Liberal Democrats, Caroline Pidgeon, was also a councillor in Southwark for Newington ward from 2008-10 at the same time, and lost to Kate Hoey at the 2010 General Election. Tom Brake was both MP and councillor from 1997-98, Baron Tope was a councillor in Sutton for many years and member of the House of Lords, and Dee Doocey was once simultaneously a member of the GLA and the House of Lords.

Dual-issues

There have been many other past examples of dual-mandates in London, but what they all have in common is a question mark over their ability to perform both roles adequately.

Detractors argue that it is residents who lose out at ward-level, as councillors who have democratic responsibilities elsewhere are unable to dedicate a satisfactory amount of time to their duties. This was the case for Labour’s Neil Coyle and Helen Hayes in Southwark, both of whom were elected as MPs in 2015 and later resigned from the council in 2016.

However it is possible that these dual-mandate councillors are spending their time developing a broader knowledge of the issues we face as a city, and then using different perspectives to bring positive change down to a ward level. If your ward councillor is also a leading policy maker for housing issues at the GLA, that is beneficial for you as an individual.

There is a concern, however, that those with dual-mandates are some of the highest paid councillors in the capital. Although there are much richer councillors out there than those with dual-mandates, the idea of spending public money on high salaries in an age of austerity really irks people, which is why many on this list waive collecting their councillor allowances.

For some, the very notion that councillors are paid at all is unpalatable. But this is usually an argument attributed to those who live in a timeline where London is one large pseudo-version of the Trumpton universe. The allowances paid to councillors enable the less financially well-off to serve their communities in the first place. And anyway, an independent panel on the remuneration of councillors in London says they should be paid more, so yeah.

It is a widely held belief that there is a lack of investment in local government. When money is scarce, using the expertise and power of dual-mandate councillors to make timely investments is surely a positive. Enabling their unique perspectives and promoting the sharing of information will provide better articulated solutions to the issues we face as a city, and when London tackles such issues pragmatically, the whole country benefits – at least until that 2019 general election is called, anyway.

 
 
 
 

To see how a city embraces remote work, look to Helsinki

A deeply rooted culture of trust is crucial to the success of remote work. (Sean Gallup/Getty Images)

When I speak to Anssi Salminen, an account manager who lives an hour outside Helsinki, he’s working from a wooden platform on the edge of a Finnish lake. With a blanket laid out and his laptop set up, the sun low in the sky, Anssi’s remote work arrangement seems blissful. 

“I spend around half of my time working somewhere else other than the office,” he says. “I can work from home, or on the go, and I also travel to the Netherlands once a month and work from there.

“The emphasis in my work has always been that it doesn’t matter when or where I work, as long as I get things done.”

For many people around the world, the shift to remote work was sudden, sparked by the coronavirus pandemic. Finland, however, is finding the transition much less significant. Before Covid-19, the Nordic nation already displayed impressive levels of remote working, with 14.1% of its workforce reporting usually working from home. Only the Netherlands has a comparable percentage of remote workers, while the UK lagged behind at 4.7%, and the US’s remote workforce lingered at around 3.6%

Anssi works for one of many Helsinki-based companies that offers its employees flexible policies around when and where they work. That arrangement is in part due to the Finnish capital’s thriving start-up scene. In spite of being a relatively small city by global standards it is home to over 500 technology start-ups. These companies are leading the way when it comes to keeping employees connected wherever they choose to work.

“Our company has a completely location-free working policy,” says Kasper Pöyry, the CEO of Helsinki-headquartered software company Gapps. “All meetings are made available for online participants and facilitated accordingly. Some employees have worked extensively from abroad on a working holiday, whilst others prefer the comfort and social aspects of the well-stocked office. Whatever works for our employees is what works for the company.”

Like Gapps, many Helsinki-based firms are deeply preoccupied with providing the necessary technology to attract talent in a vast and sparsely populated country. Finland has only 15 inhabitants per square kilometre, and companies understand that in order to compose teams of specialised expertise, they may have to seek talent outside of the city. Local governments take a similarly proactive stance toward technological access, and Helsinki offers free, unrestricted, high-speed Wi-Fi from city-wide hotspots, while the country as a whole boasts some of the best coverage in Europe. 

But encouraging remote work isn’t just about optimising the potential of Finland’s workforce – companies in Helsinki also recognise that flexibility has clear benefits for both staff and employees. 

“The idea of a good work-life balance is ingrained in Finnish culture,” says Johannes Anttila, a consultant at organisational think tank Demos Helsinki. “It goes back to our rich history of social dialogue between labour unions and employers, but also to an interest in delineating the rules of working life and pushing towards people being able to enjoy their private life. Helsinki has been named the best city in the world for work-life balance, and I think that this underlies a lot of the mentality around remote work.” 

For Peter Seenan, the extent to which Helsinki residents value their free time and prioritise a work-life balance prompted his move to the city ten years ago. He now works for Finnair, and points to Finland’s summer cottages as an example of how important taking time to switch off is for people in the country. These rural residences, where city residents regularly uproot to enjoy the Nordic countryside, are so embedded in Finnish life that the country boasts around 1.8 million of them for its 5.5 million residents

“Flexible and remote work are very important to me because it means that I don’t feel like I’m getting stuck in a routine that I can’t control easily,” he says. “When I’m working outside of the office I’ll go down to my local sauna and go ice swimming during the working day, typically at lunchtime or mid-morning, and I’ll feel rejuvenated afterwards… In winter time especially, flexibility is important because it makes it easier to go outside during daylight hours. It’s certainly beneficial for my physical and mental health, and as a result my productivity improves.”

The relaxed attitude to working location seems to pay off – Finland is regularly named the happiest country in the world, scoring highly on measures such as how often its residents exercise and how much leisure time they enjoy. With large swathes of unspoiled countryside and a national obsession with the outdoors, sustainability is at the forefront of its inhabitants’ minds, leading to high levels of support for measures to limit commuting. In January, Finland passed a new Working Hours Act, the goal of which was to help better coordinate employee’s work and leisure time. Central to this is cementing in law that employees can independently decide how, when, and where they work.

Yet enacting the new ruling is not as simple as just sending employees home with their laptops. For Kirsimarja Blomqvist, a professor of knowledge management at LUT University, perhaps the most fundamental feature that remote work relies upon is a deeply rooted culture of trust, which Helsinki’s residents speak of with pride. The anecdotal evidence is backed up by data which suggests that Finland boasts one of the highest levels of trust and social cohesion in Europe, and equality and transparency have always been key cornerstones of political thought in the country.

“Trust is part of a national culture in Finland – it’s important and people value it highly,” she explains. “There’s good job independence, and people are valued in terms of what they do, not how many hours they work for. Organisations tend to be non-hierarchical, and there is a rich history of cooperation between trade unions, employers, and employees to set up innovative working practices and make workers feel trusted and valued. 

“It’s now important that we ensure that this trust can continue to be built over technology, when workers might have been more used to building it face-to-face.”

As companies begin to look hopefully toward a post-Covid future, the complexities of remote work are apparent. Yet amid issues of privacy, presenteeism, and social isolation, the Helsinki model demonstrates the potential benefits of a distanced working world. The adjustment to remote work, if continued after the crisis, offers a chance to improve companies’ geographical diversity and for employers to demonstrate trust in their workforce. On these issues, Blomqvist believes other cities and employers can learn a lot from Helsinki.

“People are now beginning to return to their workplaces, but even as they do they are starting to consider the crisis as a jumping point to an even more remote future,” she says. “The coronavirus pandemic has been an eye-opener, and people are now interested in learning from Finland’s good practices… We are able to see the opportunity, and the rapid transition to remote work will allow other countries to do the same.”

Katie Bishop is a freelance writer based in Oxford.