Women fear losing local power

July 26, 1996

The restructuring of local government has many vocal critics. The explicit aim may have been to improve cost-effectiveness and accountability, but opponents claim that it will weaken local democracy and reduce the quality of services and working conditions.

One fear which has perhaps been given less prominence is that women may be disproportionately hit by the changes. They have always been more strongly represented in local government than in Westminster, and local authorities, often pioneers in developing equal opportunities policies, are major employers of women.

An Edinburgh University research project is now set to investigate the impact of local government reorganisation on women, as councillors, employees, or users of local authority services.

The 18-month project, funded by the Economic and Social Research Council, will look at reorganisation in Scotland and Wales, which have a year's headstart on the somewhat piecemeal restructuring in England. The new unitary authorities were fully established in Scotland and Wales in April after a year of shadowing their predecessor two-tier councils.

The researchers, from Edinburgh's departments of politics, sociology and social policy, have already carried out a small pilot study, funded by the Equal Opportunities Commission. This was hampered by a lack of centrally collated and easily comparable data, and the full-scale project will involve considerable detective work on, for example, proportions of male and female staff in middle management and levels of pay in the former councils.

While there have been few formal complaints of sex discrimination, the research team has uncovered widespread concern among council employees that reorganisation has been to the detriment of women. Many have complained that equal opportunities were largely ignored during the transfer of staff, which has involved thousands of job losses through early retirement, voluntary redundancy and resignations.

There have been allegations that staff who were prominent in women's groups or issues were unsuccessful in winning senior posts, and that while some staff have lost their job status and title, they are still expected to do the same work.

There are claims that there have been particular problems for staff who job-share, have part-time posts or family commitments - predominantly female groups.

"There is no doubt about the broad impression, but is there hard data?" asked Esther Breitenbach of the social policy department. "Reorganisation on the whole didn't offer opportunities for promotion but for retrenchment and men have lost out as well as women. One of the key issues for us is to sort out if there was a differential impact on men and women."

While the restructuring has damaged staff morale, initial data suggests the women have been neither winners nor losers at senior level, and may even have gained at middle management level.

The number of female chief executives in Scotland has fallen from three to zero, while Wales now has two female chief executives where there were previously none. The proportion of women in senior posts appears to have stayed broadly the same, although Fiona MacKay of the politics department comments that this remains "appallingly low" at under 12 per cent in Scotland and under 5 per cent in Wales.

Women seem to have made gains in the big-spending departments of education and social work, but there is no sign that they are making their mark in traditionally male-dominated departments such as environmental health, planning, economic development, plus roads and transportation.

Before reorganisation, women made up around 17 per cent of regional councillors and 22 per cent of district councillors in Scotland, as well as 17 per cent of district councillors and 11 per cent of country councillors in Wales. After reorganisation, the overall proportion has risen slightly to more than 22 per cent, and in Wales to more than 18 per cent.

But Ms Mackay warned that a number of very experienced female councillors, who took a lead on equalities issues, had lost their seats and some interviewees believed these women had been targeted because of their activism.

"We need to look at the real or perceived cost of being identified with equalities work," she said.

There has been a drop in the number of women's or equal opportunities committees in Scotland, while there are still two in Wales. The research team reports that while some women's and equal opportunities officers are cautiously optimistic about their authority's commitment to equal opportunities, others have been sidelined and marginalised in the reorganisation.

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