Councillors have been accused of bullying in more than half of all town and parish councils, an interim report has found.
The findings also show an imminent loss of expertise amid a shortage of younger clerks and a marked increase in the number of local councils run on party political lines.
Led by Professor Steven Griggs and academics at De Montfort University, the report will be the first of its kind in three decades after the lack of any equivalent audit from the Local Government Association or the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities.
Prof Griggs and his team found that over half of all councils had experienced behavioural issues from councillors, including bullying and disrespect towards other representatives or clerks, according to the early findings from their survey of hundreds of clerks.
Inappropriate behaviour in local authorities was thrown into sharp relief last year by a viral video of a parish council meeting in Handforth, featuring councillors shouting at one another and at acting clerk Jackie Weaver.
'Reset and prioritise standards in public life'
Jonathan Owen, the chief executive of the National Association of Local Councils (NALC), said councils were doing "brilliant things to build strong communities" and address challenges including health policy and the cost of living crisis.
"Research consistently shows the vast majority of local councils are well run with few behavioural issues and take their roles and responsibilities seriously," Mr Owen told the Telegraph.
"However, NALC is urging the new Government to reset and prioritise standards in public life and introduce sanctions such as suspension for the minority of councillors who behave poorly.
"It should also empower local councils through the promised review of neighbourhood governance to help local councils level up their areas and boost prosperity and pride in place."
'Imminent loss of retiring expertise'
Meanwhile, only five per cent of the clerks who responded were aged between 31 and 40, while two in five (39 per cent) were 51 to 60, representing "an imminent loss of retiring expertise".
The number of local councils run on party political lines has increased almost sixfold in the past three decades, with the number controlled by national parties rising from four per cent in 1991 to 23 per cent in 2021.
And almost half (45 per cent) of local councils now have councillors who are "dual-hatted", meaning they take on more than one role as part of their portfolio.
Dr James Derounian, a visiting professor at De Montfort and a teaching fellow with the Society of Local Council Clerks (SLCC), said: "The 2021 portrait is of a varied sector – from the very professional good, to the moribund and dire.
"This survey provides evidence of work that still needs to be done to improve the performance of the sector."