Someone came to my surgery on Saturday, though not as a result of my post (at least they didn’t mention it, if it was). I’m afraid that it doesn’t change my opinion on the value of surgeries, it’s still the first time anyone has attended a surgery session I’ve run for the life of this blog. And while looking through the surgery log it still seems to average about one attendee per session, I still think we could be more imaginative about the way we do these things.

But what really struck me on Saturday was the realisation that I’ve probably had to tell most of the people I’ve seen in 12 years of surgeries that I’m sympathetic, but just can’t help. Why? Not because I’m lazy or unwilling, but because I’d guess the bulk of my visitors at surgeries (like Saturday) are about re-housing. We have well-defined rules and policies when it comes to deal with housing applications, and obviously these can’t bend to suit the will of a councillor. I can check they have been correctly placed in the housing queue (make sure medical conditions or overcrowding have been correctly reflected, for example) but can’t do anything to get them a home any quicker.

What really struck me on Saturday was how the current housing system of secure tenancies fail the people who need them. I’ve touched on the subject before and – without breaking any confidences – the case I saw on Saturday was typical example of how those in need are let down.

It was a family in severely overcrowded accommodation. And, realistically, their only option was to sit and wait.

We know we have properties that are big enough, but we also know that people are reluctant to leave them, even when they don’t need all the rooms, all the time – often they want to keep spare rooms for when family visit. We therefore end up ‘buying’ rooms by offering an incentive payment for people who release a larger property.

The family who are waiting could look to the private sector. But that doesn’t have the same security, and they will inevitably move further down the queue for the large council property they want, so there is little incentive to take the risk. As a result people who do want a smaller property lose out because that hasn’t been freed up.

I’m not sure I have the answer. The council has an important role as a provider of housing, it is de facto the landlord of last resort. But it seems wrong that the secure tenancy means that the system moves so slowly that people can spend most of their life in a home that is the wrong size – first in an overcrowded house, then a few years in a house that’s the right size, then as children leave the home the rest of their lives in a house that’s too big!

I can see why people need to have security. But surely the balance is wrong when it leaves so many people without the home they should have.

A proportionate montage of what a Battersea councillor might have been spending their time on over the past few months.

One of the questions I’ve been asked a few times recently is what a councillor actually does. I don’t think I’ve ever given a satisfactory answer. However, it does provide an excuse to post this.

While I was sat in the library with no-one showing up for my surgery – again – I made a note of the numbers and categories of attendees at previous surgeries. It rather left thinking that my two year run of no-shows was personal, since the average Battersea surgery in the fifteen weeks in the log book was attended by just over one person (just over two if you include the councillor).

I hope I’m not treading on colleagues toes in publishing this (I’m only interested in the attendees), but felt it was vaguely interesting.

Taking the broad category of complaint the numbers broke down as follows:

  • Housing: 6
  • Transport/parking: 3
  • Financial: 3
  • Crime: 2
  • Planning: 2
  • Education: 1

It holds up my theory that housing is the biggest generator of casework for councillors, although it seems, for the Battersea area at least, it’s not quite as big as I thought.

Of course, those broad headings can cover all sorts of cases. And although there’s a fairly clear set of topic categories and sub-categories (28 in total) there’s obviously a lot of grey areas between some of them. For example (and off the top if my head, I don’t know the details of the specific cases above) the ‘crime’ category includes anti-social behaviour, some of which can also be covered by environmental services, for example noise nuisance and might be categorised differently.

I still don’t think it answers the question. But it gives a little flavour, at least.

[Two of the images used were released by their owners under a Creative Commons licence. The money by HowardLake and the plans by MarkyBon]

I was emailed yesterday about a post from over a year ago (although coincidentally referenced only a few days ago) on council surgeries and asked – without going into details – if I had any further thoughts that might help another council who were looking at their surgeries.

In the spirit of openness (I have been thinking I don’t so enough thinking, or blogging, out loud on here) I thought I’d post my response.

The short answer is that I still think surgeries are useless. I cannot accept that so many hours spent seeing no-one is a good use of time. I’ll stress this isn’t because I don’t want to see residents, but because I’m not sure who has their life improved by having councillors sat seeing nobody for an hour every Saturday.

The more I think about it the more I’m beginning to think the problem is with the surgery format. It is from a different age and in the twenty-first century people want to access their democratic representatives differently.

Looking back to my original post I mentioned how we’d changed from a ward to a central system. However I didn’t touch on some of the discussions around that change.

It was recognised that people weren’t using surgeries in any great numbers. But the reason was deemed to be things like location and timings rather than format. It was a perfectly reasonable assumption. Every ward ran it’s own surgery in various locations, at various times. I understand my own ward of Shaftesbury held one on something like the second Wednesday of the month two wards over off Battersea Park Road. Quite what the logic was when these were established is beyond me. The second Wednesday of the month is not an easy date to remember (most people would need a calendar) and why on earth were we expecting our residents to traipse half-a-mile down the road to an area we didn’t even represent?

But having made the assumption that it was venue and time the new system was never going to be radical, but an evolutionary, change. The replacement (and it still exists) is better, the time is fixed, every Saturday between 10 and 11am, and the venues central, each of the town centre libraries.

But there was never a question about the format. It was only ever a question about the venues. Even the most ‘radical’ option of using video conferencing was basically the same format: people turning up at a set time and place to talk to a councillor, just that the councillor wouldn’t physically be there, but would be covering several venues from a single location. An interesting idea if only because it already had made the assumption that surgeries wouldn’t be well used and one councillor could safely cover several venues.

But after several years of running I can’t help but feel the format is slightly arrogant. If you have a concern or problem you can come to a venue we’ve chosen at a time we’ve chosen and talk to us about it.

In fact, when people have a problem or concern they, quite rightly, want it resolved. Can you think of any other sector that behaves in that way when it comes to problems? Even those that require you to make an appointment, like the dentist or a garage, aren’t prescriptive, they don’t offer a this or nothing session.

And there’s possibly a problem that we’re not going to places that people use. A very quick (and not at all exhaustive) use of Google showed that in April 2009 the UK had about 12.5 million library users. Around the same time there were 18 million users on Facebook (and since then that number has grown to 27 million, I suspect the library usage has remained about the same).

This isn’t to say that we should put everything on Facebook, but it’s a sign that things have changed dramatically. When I started on the council I didn’t get a Wandsworth email address. Even when I did a year or so later, it actually just forwarded to a council officer whose job was to print out the email and put it in the council’s internal post for us. While the world has moved on we are still using a system that has barely changed in decades.

To me, it’s more about signposting availability where people are already, that might be the local library, but it’s just as likely to be the local cafe and even more likely to be Facebook. Then people can choose when they talk to us. It might be that they choose to meet us at a library, and maybe even decide on 10am on Saturday morning, but at least it would be their choice and not ours.