06/24/2014 12:56 EDT | Updated 08/23/2014 05:59 EDT

Can Surrey Learn From A British System Of Local Government?


Surrey Councillor Barinder Rasode's idea of a community hub is a brilliant idea moving our city in the right direction. It is very similar to the British ward system of local government.

I was born in Gravesend, Kent, England. Many years ago I volunteered for a local government election in Gravesend for a councillor running for a seat on Gravesham Borough Council.

Gravesham Borough Council has 44 elected councillors divided into 18 areas called wards. Every community is represented on council. Elections are held every four years. I think in Surrey civic elections are still held every three years but this may be changing.

The home address and phone number of every elected councillor in Gravesham is provided on the Gravesham Borough Council's website. Citizens can also view their local councillors' attendance record on council.

Interesting, when I was visiting Gravesend, my local councillor had "surgery hours" in her home when she would meet with local citizens to discuss their concerns and issues, hence the similarity to Councillor Rasode's community hub idea.

It is important to note that these British ward councillors did not receive a salary or wage for being a councillor; it was considered a civic volunteer position.

The mayor and deputy mayor of Gravesham are elected by the council which means they hold the majority support of the council. This is in stark contrast to what sometimes happens in Surrey when the mayor may not have the support of his or her council.

For example, former mayor Bob Bose was elected three times to lead the city but he did not have majority support on city council. One of the reasons Dianne Watts was so successful as mayor of Surrey was because she brought city councillors from different political parties together under one banner and this guaranteed her majority support and cooperation on most issues.

What else is interesting is that Gravesham has 44 councillors for a population of 102,000, while Surrey has nine members of council for a population of 469,000. I am not saying that bigger local government is better but I feel Surrey is definately underrepresented.

A city councillor in Surrey represents more people than an MLA or MP. No wonder it takes months to hear from the mayor or council in Surrey if you write to them -- that is if your lucky enough to even get a response.

Democracy and governance in Surrey is essentially at a crisis. It is not very responsive to the needs of the citizens and the system is becoming less and less accessible for the average citizen.

So what is a potential solution.

The citizens can elect the mayor and three councillors at-large to represent the entire city, while seven city councillors can be elected from each of Surrey's seven town centres, including Surrey City Centre.

This would make a total of 10 city councillors, and with the mayor there would be 11 voting members of Surrey City Council. This would provide Surrey with the same political representation as Vancouver, which is more than appropriate considering Surrey's growing size and stature.

So what are the benefits of a mixed system of local government? Residents would know who their city councillors are, and who to turn to for help. If a resident didn't like their local councillor they would still have three other at-large councillors and the mayor to turn to. The ward councillors could focus on local issues in their town centre, while the at-large councillors could focus on major citywide issues.

It's basically political specialization at work and it's a better distribution of the political workload.

This mixed system would also be more democratic. Potential political candidates would not have to raise thousands of dollars to run a citywide campaign. Independents would have a good chance of getting elected. Most importantly, there would be equal representation from all parts of the city.

Alex Sangha is an award-winning author and social worker based in Surrey. He completed a Master in Public Administration and Public Policy from the Department of Government at the London School of Economics in England.