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Who on earth would be a councillor? Hours and hours spent in meetings, often trying to get your head around complex issues.

Yet more time spent listening to the views and concerns of local people, whether it’s in the street, at public meetings, or a late night phone call.

Perhaps it’s the feeling of making a difference that carries you along.

Yet those willing to carry out this important role are frequently languishing in the relegation zone of society’s league table of ‘people I most respect’, rubbing shoulders with the likes of estate agents, solicitors and, worse still, journalists.

The latest census of councillors confirms, for the most part, what we already know: too many of them are white, middle aged men and not enough are women or people from ethnic minority backgrounds.

Cue another round of debates on how the role of elected member can be made more appealing to a greater range of people.

The government is consulting on ways to redefine the role of councillors as part of its big devolution plan and there is talk of doling out more powers. But are we missing the point?

Between 1997 and 2006 the average age of councillors rose by almost three years to 58, while the proportion of councillors who are retired jumped from 34% to 41%.

Quoted alongside the census was Rotherham councillor Mahroof Hussain, one of the dwindling number who juggles full-time work with council commitments.

He didn’t talk about the need for new powers; top of his list was practical help like someone to check emails and keep the diary up to date.

He also highlighted a fundamental problem – employers often think you’re less dedicated to the job if you’re a councillor while the view from colleagues ‘always tends to be negative’.

How often have we heard councillors being dismissed as busybodies and windbags?

As a Leeds University study recently pointed out, on the rare occasions local politicians are portrayed on television, it’s usually in a negative light.

If we’re serious about giving councillors a leading role in connecting communities to decision-making, we must engender respect for the part they already play in democracy.

Austin Macauley, editor, New Start Online magazine

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