Local politics was never something I paid much attention to when I was younger. Although I grew up in a household where national politics was discussed around the dinner table, I had only the very vaguest idea what local government does. As a young adult, my main experience of actually interacting with my local council was paying council tax and an occasional parking fine.
That all changed when I was launched (half jump, half push) into the deep end sometime towards the back end of 2018 when I agreed to stand as a candidate. After the whirlwind of the campaign, I found myself on the 3rd May 2019 in a sports hall in Solihull, slightly dazed and bewildered, watching as the votes were counted and I was announced as the new duly elected borough councillor for Shirley West.
What followed was an incredibly steep learning curve as I spent the next few months getting to grips with the various roles and expectations of a councillor. There are some initial training sessions for newbies, but mostly it was a case of learning on the job, and asking other more experienced councillors for help and advice.
So, what is it we actually do?
As with MPs, there are a number of distinct roles that local councillors play. One of the most fundamental, and rewarding, parts of the job is dealing with individual problems and concerns from the residents in my ward.
For people struggling to navigate what can sometimes be a frustrating system, their local councillor can be a (hopefully) friendly and sympathetic guide who knows their way around and the right people to talk to. I sometimes describe it as being the human face of the local government machinery.
This kind of casework can range from reporting potholes, listening to concerns about bin collections or petitioning for a much needed road crossing near a school, to helping someone in difficult individual circumstances get the right support for themselves or their family.
Here’s just a few examples of things I’ve worked on in the last few months.
- Asking for overgrowth to be cleared in an alleyway.
- Talking to a couple of residents about road flooding that affected their driveways, and discussed this with council officers to make sure that the drainage issues were being properly addressed.
- Contacting local police on behalf of a resident following a confrontation with an aggressive driver that left him feeling shaken and worried about his safety.
- Raising residents’ concerns about antisocial behaviour with the council and police, and asked for them to be investigated.
- Arranging a meeting with one of our local GP partnerships to discuss the problems some patients were having in getting to see their doctor.
- Talking to council officers about bringing in a more user-friendly system for graffiti reporting.
- Helping residents to submit feedback on local planning applications.
- Collecting feedback on the design of a new local skatepark.
- Asking about a speed survey that was due to take place on a notoriously busy road where there had been recent accidents, communicating the results with residents and arranging a meeting with officers to discuss next steps.
- Helping a resident worried about her mother’s social care needs to get the right information and support.
Many people think we have more power than we do. We can advocate for our residents if they’ve been treated unfairly or aren’t sure where to turn, and we can highlight issues of local importance; but we can’t actually bend the rules for people (and frankly, it would be wrong for politicians to have that power). Many of the rules local authorities have to follow are determined nationally; and even when decisions are made locally, they are made by the administration in power rather than on the whims of individual councillors. We can campaign and lobby for outcomes that are in the interests of those we represent: sometimes this is successful, and sometimes it isn’t. On these occasions, we’re often left as frustrated as the residents who write to us. There’s a difference, though, between power and influence; and whilst our powers may be limited, there are many opportunities to use our influence to help our residents.
Over the last few years, I’ve often thought about how many times in my life it might have been helpful to contact a local councillor; if only I’d understood more about what they do. We represent far fewer people than an MP, and as such, we’re often the easiest elected politicians for people to get hold of and the ones most available to pop round for a chat and to look at a problem. This is something I wish more people knew about.
When I talk about this to people, the response I often get is “I wish my local councillor was like that – I’ve never seen them”. My advice to them comes in two parts. First of all, if you haven’t tried getting in touch, then definitely give it a go. Regardless of which party they represent, most people get into local politics because they want to do (what they see as) the best for their local area. You may disagree with them about who to vote for – but when it comes to getting help with your particular issue, you might find yourself pleasantly surprised. But if you’ve tried, and didn’t like the response – then vote them out at the next election. The elected politicians will only improve if voters insist on a higher standard. Failing that, you might even think about standing as a candidate yourself. The last three years has certainly had its fair share of ups and downs, but (although you might not catch me saying this on one of the more difficult days) it’s still been an incredible, educational and rewarding experience.
Thanks for that insight into what councilors actually do. Like most people, I suspect, I’ve rarely given a moment’s thought to them. Where I live they are mostly Tories and we’re surrounded by NIMBYs who get a sympathetic ear from them. You make the job sound as much like being a counsellor as being a councillor. I’d imagine that you’re good at that.