Cllr Meghan Gallacher is the Leader of the Scottish Conservative and Unionist Group on North Lanarkshire Council and a Member of the Scottish Parliament.
The Scottish Conservatives are in the process of selecting our candidates for the Local Government Elections next year. Our Council Groups have had a successful five years, with Conservative administrations winning Council of the year and our opposition groups gaining seats in areas that are not traditionally Conservative. As councillors, we have a lot to be proud of – and the new cohort elected next May can build on the foundations laid by their predecessors.
I will not be leading the Conservative Group in North Lanarkshire into the Council Election campaign. I have thoroughly enjoyed my time serving Motherwell West and I will always be thankful to the local community who put their faith in me to represent them as their ward councillor. However, this is not my political swan song as I was elected to the Scottish Parliament in May. So, I will be just as active in my community, merely debating in a different chamber. I am also looking forward to pounding the streets with my colleagues to ensure we elect more Conservative councillors in North Lanarkshire then we did in 2017.
When looking around the various Council Groups, what struck me was the number of younger Conservatives who have announced that they are not seeking re-election. Councillors such as Baille Thornton who served at Glasgow City Council and Edinburgh councillor, Nick Cook, who was first elected in 2012, will be a huge loss to their local communities. Although this is not a problem isolated to the Conservatives, we need to understand the challenges young people experience during their time in Elected Office and what we can do as a Party to maintain and increase the number of Young Conservatives standing for election.
Interestingly, many of the Young Scottish Conservative councillors have sighted changes in personal circumstances, job opportunities, and life/ work balance, as reasons for stepping down. My concern is, that if we don’t look at the way Councils conduct business, we won’t be able to entice the next generation of Conservatives who will stand up for their communities against the SNP Scottish Government and their austerity agenda.
Being a councillor in Scotland is a full-time job, given the number of committees they are expected to attend, community groups they work with, and the amount of time they spend in their ward. The truth is, many councillors need to take on a second job to make their role sustainable, as their base income is £18,604. The problem with trying to keep two jobs, is, that many Councils conduct committee business in the morning and early afternoon, which narrows employment options available to councillors who cannot afford to live off one salary. If a councillor was already in employment before election, this could reduce progression opportunities within their primary place of employment. Having two jobs can also negatively impact home life which could inevitably lead to the decision not to seek re-election.
A survey among Scottish councillors conducted by Improvement Service backs these claims with the average age of councillors being 53 – and most participants who responded (52.2 per cent) were in additional employment. With councillors detailing that they spend, on average, between 26-30 hours per week conducting Council business, on top of 21-40 hours of additional employment, you can see where the struggle between work/ life balance begins.
Unlike other jobs, there is no opportunity ladder for councillors to climb unless your Party forms the administration. Therefore, if a young person is offered a job promotion in their other job, they may need to consider this over the privilege of serving their community. I am sure this would not be a decision that anyone would take lightly, but the reasons for doing so are understandable.
I started my political journey at the age of 25 and although I will always encourage young people to consider standing to be a councillor, as a newly elected MSP, I will be campaigning for change across our Local Authorities to remove these barriers for young people. This is something which has already been raised during the Local Government committee at Holyrood and it was reassuring to see all parties present acknowledge that we need to make changes to allow younger people the opportunity to become a public servant.
Remuneration is one of the areas MSPs need to look at, but we also need to look at the role of the councillor and break it down, to ensure that young people understand the hard work it involves. Finally, we need to raise the issue of work/ life balance. I remain unconvinced that Councils make standing for election attractive to younger people – and they need to undertake work to ensure that the chamber is representative of the electorate.
Despite young Conservative councillors standing down, I know that more will put their names forward next year and I am comforted by the fact that we will have representation across all age groups. But we can and must do more – and that will be one of my priorities as a MSP, working alongside my councillor peers.