Who governs? An analysis of 1,101 governing roles on Merseyside

Dave Ellis, 12 October 2011

Last week, Democratic Audit published new research into the governance of Merseyside, compiled by Alex Nurse, Stuart Wilks-Heeg and myself. The research was undertaken to inform our ‘Who governs Merseyside?‘ project, organised in conjunction with the Bluecoat, a Liverpool-based arts centre. Published as a new Democratic Audit report, the research examines the scale and organisation of the public, private and voluntary sectors on Merseyside, as well as the role of the local media. It forms one part of the wider project’s attempts to identify who has the power to shape and determine public policy on Merseyside.

Who governs? An analysis of 1,101 governing roles on Merseyside

As part of our inquiry, we compiled a database of the individuals who occupy formal governing roles in 57 Merseyside-based organisations. These included, among others, the five elected local authorities (Liverpool City Council and the Metropolitan Borough Councils of Sefton, the Wirral, Knowsley and St. Helens), 12 NHS Trusts, 10 Housing Associations, eight Further Education Colleges, four universities and five Chambers of Commerce. From this sample, we were able to identify a total of 1,101 places on governing boards across the city-region (see the link at the end of this article to download the full dataset). Inevitably, the organisations concerned are primarily those delivering public services and do not represent the sum total of governance structures in the region, but the analysis nonetheless provides some useful indications of how these key governing roles in the city-region are distributed.

Local Authorities

There is a combined total of 333 councillors on Merseyside’s five elected councils. The leaders of the five councils are: Councillor Joe Anderson (Liverpool), Councillor Peter Dowd (Sefton), Councillor Ron Round (Knowsley), Councillor Marie Rimmer (St Helens), and Councillor Steve Foulkes (Wirral). All five council leaders represent the Labour Party, although Labour does not have a majority on each council.

Figure 1: Percentage of females and males represented on Merseyside councils

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Figure 1 shows the percentages of female and male councillors on each council. As is shown, only 35.7 per cent of Merseyside councillors are female, whereas 64.3 per cent are male. All of the councils on Merseyside have a majority of male councillors, but there also some clear contrasts between them. Out of the five councils, Liverpool has the most equal gender distribution – 46.7 per cent of Liverpool councillors are female, while 53.3 per cent are male. Sefton has the most unequal gender distribution: 27.3 per cent of its councillors are women, compared to 72.7 per cent men.

The political balance on Merseyside’s councils is strongly skewed towards the Labour Party, with 64.3 per cent of all councillors representing Labour and all the other parties combined making up the remaining 35.7 per cent of councillors. However, there are again clear contrasts between the five local authorities. While the councils of Liverpool, Knowsley and St Helens are dominated by large Labour majorities, Sefton and Wirral are more balanced with Labour having only a plurality of seats ahead of the Liberal Democrats in Sefton (42.4 per cent compared to 36.4 per cent) and the Conservatives on the Wirral (45.5 per cent compared 40.9 per cent).

Governance roles

A total of 951 different people occupy the 1,101 governing roles we identified across the 57 organisations studied. There are 115 people who occupy more than one role, of which 18 occupy three or more roles. Of those individuals who have three or more roles – 16 of the 18 are councillors and the gender balance is relatively even (10 men, eight women). Among the 115 people with more than one governing role, councillors predominate, making up 72.2 per cent of the total. As a result, councillors occupy a total of 443 (40.2 per cent) of the 1,101 governing roles we identified on Merseyside.

However, when we exclude the role councillors play in their respective councils, the balance between councillors and non-councillors changes significantly. Councillors occupy only 110 (14.3 per cent) of the 768 governing roles in organisations external to local authorities. The gender distribution of the 1,101 governing roles is split between 35.6 per cent female compared to 64.4 per cent male. Excluding the councillors’ roles on the five local authorities leaves the split virtually identical, at 35.5 per cent females compared to 64.5 per cent male.

When the governing roles on organisations external to local authorities are divided between councillors and non-councillors, however, there is a significant difference. While the gender distribution of councillors in these governing roles is split between 28.7 per cent females compared to 71.3 per cent males, the gender difference is slightly reduced for non-councillors with 36.7 per cent of roles occupied by women and 63.3 per cent by men. Furthermore, if we look back at the total gender distribution of local authorities in Merseyside (see figure 1), it would suggest that a higher proportion of male councillors take up governing roles in external organisations than female councillors.

Figure 2: Party political balance of councillors taking up governing roles outside of local authorities

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Finally, by looking at the political representation of those councillors who take up governing roles outside of their local authorities in figure 2, we can see that representatives of the Labour party occupy 76.9 per cent of the ‘external’ roles taken up by councillors on Merseyside. However, when compared to the overall political balance on Merseyside, we can see that this figure exceeds Labour’s total 64.3 per cent representation across the five local authorities. Therefore, both the Liberal Democrats and the Conservatives are underrepresented among the councillors who hold governing roles outside of the local authorities.

As our briefing points out, there are very good grounds to argue that at least some of those with the greatest power to shape policy decisions on Merseyside are not even based in the city-region and that some will not even have formal governance roles. This conclusion was echoed by both panel and audience members at our first ‘Who governs Merseyside?’ event last week. We also need to recognise that the way in which Merseyside is governed is clearly complex, and is typified by webs of network relationships rather than by any clear hierarchy.

Nonetheless, the question of who occupies governing roles on Merseyside clearly does matter. It is especially significant that, of the 1,101 governing roles we identified in the city-region, 64.4 per cent are occupied by men.  This finding is not especially surprising. It has recently been suggested that public appointments to governance boards at a national level continue to be ‘male, pale and stale’, with women only accounting for 35 per cent of all appointments and reappointments in 2010 (see the recent blog post by Flinders et al.on the LSE’s British Politics and Policy site). However, our research provides yet more evidence, if any were needed, that far more concerted efforts are required if gender parity in governing roles is to be realised, whether those roles are local or national.

Our database of the membership of 57 governing boards on Merseyside is available here to download. We would be pleased to receive details of any corrections or additions to the information it contains.

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