I’ll begin by pretty much ignoring the letters to the South London Press on the subject. Both correspondents, in their unseemly haste to make political points, fail to appreciate the very point I was making is that I do actually engage in many other ways (including sessions on the doorstep once or twice a week) and that surgeries might just be a little outmoded. Luckily, I know readers of this blog are a far more literate bunch.
So instead, I want to continue the discussion by referring to a comment left on my blog last time I discussed it, and with a post over on The Local Government Officer to which I’ve linked a few times before.
I’ll take them in reverse order.
The social working MP
My contention is that councillors’ surgeries just aren’t working. People aren’t using them. If I were to nail my colours to the mast I would say that we should just get rid of them because there are so many better ways to provide the same service. The post on The Local Government Officer suggested that one of the reasons councillor’s surgeries might be failing is because people are going to see their MP instead. And I’ve no doubt this is part of the problem.
I don’t know exactly what attendence at Martin Linton’s surgeries is like, but I know it’s better than at the councillors surgeries. I’d guess there’s a fairly high proportion generated by housing matters, a significant amount generated by social services and education related matters and goodly number on other issues in which the council has a say, like anti-social behaviour.
So why do people go to MPs’ surgeries rather than councillors’ surgeries. My instinct, backed up by conversations I’ve had with people who’ve made that choice, is that it’s driven by a belief all government in this country is central government, therefore, and elected politician’s power and ability to help is directly proportional to their distance from Downing Street or Westminster. A councillor at the town hall down the road cannot possibly match the might of an MP who occasionally sits in the same room as the Prime Minister.
But that’s wrong. On council matters the councillor is the one who will have direct access to the relevant officers, he or she might even be the one with executive responsibility. This isn’t to say the MP can’t help, or won’t be able to take up your case, but they won’t be the most direct way to get it addressed.
Communication. Communication. Communication.
And that brings me on to the comment, which suggested that lack of communication is the problem, “there is not enough communication on the work of a councillor,” it says, before continuing “not enough communication on where to meet with them. Not enough communications on the issues of the ward. I would be very interested to know how many people out of 20-50 you stop in Lavender Hill can name their councillors.”
I would disagree. While the egotist in me rather likes the idea the council should put out more information about me and the work I do, perhaps using tax-payers money to print and delivery glossy leaflets in which I smile benevolently and detail everything I do. But the rational side of me knows there are probably much better things to spend your money on. And actually, there’s quite a lot of publicity already.
There’s Brightside, which lists all the councillors after the election and features councillors in every issue. There’s the council directory, delivered to each household listing useful numbers and details of the councillors. Every two years we hold a report-back meeting (which is never that well attended, if I’m honest) and every household will get a leaflet with a lovely picture of me and colleagues and what we’ve been doing. If you walk past Battersea library there’s a poster outside detailing the dates and time of the surgeries. There’s another inside. If you go on the council’s website there’s plenty about the councillors on there with contact details and more details of the surgeries. There’s plenty of leaflets about who we are and what we have been doing pushed through your doors by the political parties. And I can’t not point to this website or my Twitter account.
I think there’s plenty of communication going on. But, it’s competing with the perception that the people at Westminster are the important ones. I won’t pretend that I’d get high name recognition on Lavender Hill. But councillors are the bottom of the pile. Everyone might be able to name Gordon Brown, fewer Alistair Darling, fewer still Martin Linton and probably hardly anyone their councillors. But then again, isn’t that the same with anything? When you are on a Virgin Atlantic plane, you probably know Richard Branson heads the company. You might have remembered the name of the captain. But do you know the name of the stewards and stewardesses bringing you food and drink and most directly responsible for your comfort?
There are two issues. First, people are either going to the wrong place with their problems, either through choice or because they are unaware of the right place. Second, the communication we are putting out isn’t getting to everyone.
I’m not sure the solution to either lies with the council. We cannot control people, we can inform, perhaps guide, but we can’t oblige them to attend surgeries. And while we are responsible for the communication, exactly where do we draw the line? We can pump thousands of pounds into leaflets, posters, websites, carrier pigeons and smoke signals – but I’m not sure we can justify that extra expenditure.
The fact is that while there is such a strong perception that central government is the only tier that matters however much we spend communicating our work it’s going to be impossible to counter that view. And to address that we need a government that actually believes in a truly localist agenda – and that means a Cameron-led Conservative government, whatever his views on Twitter.