Sadly, whatever problems we might have (and the candidates often agree on those) when the mere implication someone might try something different to solve them is seen as a valid negative attack we have a long way to go.
Fortunately for my son, he’s only seven, so he’s got until the 2028 Mayoral election for things to change.
Imagine having organised the largest campaign in recent (and no-so-recent) memory in Wandsworth and, at the end, you attend the relevant council committee: the opportunity for you to have your say. You’ve filled the public gallery, the overspill room is standing room only and, for the first time ever, the public are filling the council chamber to listen to a council meeting. And after the first resident deputation what is the Tory approach?
To accuse the organisers of lying and inflating their support.
I was ashamed by association. Rather than discuss the issues or concerns the first instinct of the majority group on the council was to attack the people.
It got a bit better as the evening progressed, but the writing was already on the wall. There were five excellent deputations, representing local campaigners, residents, the Friends of Battersea Park and the Battersea Society. I also had my say.
When it came to Formula E’s supporters Cllr Cook maintained a Trappist silence throughout the meeting, as did most of the Conservative side. The managing director and team from Enable, the company with the contract to manage Wandsworth’s parks did most of the talking. The council’s finance director, unable to talk about amounts, gave some hypotheticals, if the income was this much, we could pay this many social workers, if this much we could re-surface this many roads… or if it was £350,000 we could pay off one senior officer I saw one person mischievously tweet.
But it was all largely irrelevant. Despite one hint it would be a free vote (the hinter being one of those who stayed silent throughout) the decision had been made behind closed doors long before it got to committee. The Conservatives followed the whip and voted as a block, recommending renewal by seven votes to four.
I know a few of those voting for Formula E had reservations, and one contacted me afterwards to explain their position: “but what can you do?” They asked.
“Well,” I thought, “you could vote against, I did.”
Last night was my first full council meeting as an independent councillor, and in some ways one of the more interesting meetings I’ve attended, because I could attend and make up my own mind rather an having each of my votes pre-determined by the whip. It was remarkably refreshing, as a councillor, to be genuinely undecided and make a decision on my vote on the basis of the debate.
It is also, effectively, the only meeting at which independent councillors have any formal role, since the Conservative group flexed their majority to give us the most marginal of committee places. They even attempted to bury a question from Cllr Grimston about the proposed Richmond merger down the order, although the Mayor, to her credit, insisted it be put higher on the order.
One thing I thought I would try to do is record my votes. As a general rule votes aren’t recorded at the council although you could generally guess which way people voted based on the vote size (there had never been any real examples of people disobeying the party whip). The agenda is available on the council’s website, there were lots of votes taken—many uncontentious—so this isn’t comprehensive, but my thoughts and votes on those that had some debate or interest.
Shared arrangements with Richmond: I voted with Labour on their amendment. Then voted against the paragraph.
I was undecided going into the meeting, but I had reservations. Richmond is very different to Wandsworth, it doesn’t even run some of the big ticket services that Wandsworth runs. Above all the whole things seems to be be drawn up remarkably quickly, an opportunistic merger after Richmond’s talks with Kingston failed. It might be the right thing to do, but that would be luck rather than judgement: a decision of this magnitude needs to be taken with proper consideration, not when Richmond are on the rebound.
Political Groups and Committee Appointments: Mildly interesting. Essentially the Conservatives deciding on which committees the two independent councillors can serve, with the two of us suggesting something different. Unsurprisingly I voted for the independent proposal. Unsurprisingly it was defeated.
Motion on Airport Expansion: This was a rather dull debate of lots of people agreeing with each other. It seemed half the councillors left the chamber for the duration of it. We debate this subject again and again (I assume because it’s a big issue in key Conservative areas!) but I don’t think there’s ever been a different outcome other than unanimous support.
Motion on Private Renting in Wandsworth: I would have had no problem supporting the motion, but equally found myself having not having any problem with voting for the Conservative amendment which was pretty bland, so supported that and the amended motion. This was essentially about supporting private renters in the borough, a rapidly growing tenure and one that is often characterised by insecurity.
Last night was the final full council meeting before the elections in two weeks time. It was, therefore, possibly my last full council meeting. It was certainly the last time I’ll attend a full council meeting in the current arrangement of six meetings per year.
After the election the number of meetings will be cut by a third. Effectively all the committees and the full council will meet roughly quarterly.
This will be a change. It means that some items that considered by councillors before will no longer go through formal committee scrutiny. I have mixed views on this; there is an issue about reducing democratic oversight, and I’ve no doubt there will be some adjustments to which papers go to committees as councillors re-assess what’s really important. But meetings can be an expensive luxury. Having a committee meeting creates a huge overhead, from time taken by council officers to prepare the agenda, right down to the physical costs of hosting a public meeting. The council surely has a duty to ensure it exercises democracy as efficiently as is delivers any other service.
On a more practical level where are councillors more effective, in their ward or in a committee meeting? I’d be tempted to argue that a lot of value I have brought to the rôle comes somewhere in between, but particularly in the meetings and discussions I have with officers outside formal meetings (I won’t deny a twinge of sadness at the end of one such meeting yesterday afternoon when it occurred to me it might be the last).
Thinking back to my time as a councillor since the last election, I am probably proudest of Battersea Buzz. It wasn’t a council event—arguably I, or someone else, could have arranged it as a private citizen. It started not in a committee room, or even a council office, but over a coffee in Costa on St John’s Road. From there it took off and brought together hundreds of people who made connections and came up with ideas that are still having an impact today.
I mused about all this while I sat in the council chamber last night. While the debates were a discordant mix of demob-happy and electoral passion, it occurred to me that no-one outside the council really cared that much. Road repairs, education, health services and—yes—even Europe come up when canvassing. Not a single person has raised the machinery of local government with me on the doorstep.
Entirely predictable. But it does make me a bit sad.
Is this an annual report? I don’t think so really, not by any stretch of the imagination but last year I posted on my attendance rate at Wandsworth Council meetings. I’m not sure how useful it was, personally, I think rating councillors according to town hall meetings is a poor indication of their effectiveness: would I be better going to 100% and achieving nothing, or just 25% of meetings and getting something out of them?
However, I record the data and I rather like playing with numbers. So, a breakdown of my 2011–2012 council year.
I’m including only some of the meetings I attend, basically the ‘public’ meetings. These represent only a fraction of the meetings I attend, but they form those which are part of the formal decision-making process or those I am appointed as a council representajtive.
Overall I managed to attend 81% of meetings, missing nine out of 48. This is remarkably similar to last year, when I also managed an 81% attendance rate (missing eleven out of 58). The numerical decrease represents a change to a much less diverse portfolio, indeed, a number of the meetings at the beginning of the municipal year were ‘hang-overs’ from my old job. (One, the hate crime forum, still lingers, but more on that later.)
2011–2012: 89% attendance (eight out of nine meetings).
2010–2011: 90% attendance (nine out of ten meetings).
This is an odd meeting since only a tiny part of my current role sits within the OSC’s remit (and arguably also sits within another committee’s remit too). I only attend when relevant items are on the agenda which doesn’t happen that often.
Hate Crime Forum
2011–2012: 50% attendance (two out of four meetings).
2010–2011: 100% attendance (three meetings).
This is a lingering meeting from my old council role. I’ve retained the chairmanship of this while it – hopefully – moves to a self-sustaining community-led format. My poor attendance was down to bad luck, with a nasty chest infection and a bout of bad ’flu coinciding with the meetings.
Again, a hangover meeting which I attended while my role was dismantled and a suitable replacement council representative found and formally nominated to the membership.
Nine Elms Strategy Board
2011–2012: 80% attendance (four out of five meetings).
2010–2011: not a member.
A new meeting for this year. I missed one because it clashed with my holiday, which had already been booked before my appointment.
Shaftesbury Park Governors
2011–2012: 67% attendance (two out of three meetings).
2010–2011: 0% attendance (none out of three meetings)
I had a shocker with this last year, every meeting clashing with something else. My diary was a lot better this year, I missed one meeting because of a clash, but was able to attend the other two.
South West London NHS Joint Boards
2011–2012: 50% attendance (one out of two meetings).
2010–2011: 100% attendance (two meetings).
Another one of those hangovers. I gave apologies to a formal meeting that was merely convened to ratify the accounts.
Strategic Planning and Transportation OSC
2011–2012: 100% attendance (five meetings).
2010–2011: did not have a relevant portfolio.
This committee’s remit covers the lion’s share of my current role.
Wandsworth Employment and Skills Partnership
2011–2012: 100% attendance (four meetings).
2010–2011: not a member.
Another new meeting.
Wandsworth Local Strategic Partnership
2011–2012: 100% attendance (one meeting).
2010–2011: 75% attendance (three out of four meetings).
An easy 100%, only one meeting to attend! I am still formally a member of this (I think) although it has not met for some time and I suspect will either be wound up or have a much different role in the future.
Wandsworth Police Consultative Committee
2011–2012: 0% attendance (missed one meeting).
2010–2011: 60% attendance (three out of five meetings).
Given that I got a few 100%s from single meetings, it’s only fair I should get a zero somewhere. Another hangover meeting, related to my old portfolio. It clashed with another meeting.
And in conclusion…
Do you have any better idea of what I do as a councillor? Or whether I’m any good at it?I’m guessing no. But what would help you answer those questions?
I worry that local government and transparency interest me so much. There are better things for a man of my age to be interested in, surely. But this example of how not to do it from Wales and now on YouTube intrigued me. (Which I found via Richard Wilson’s blog)
To give a short version:
Member of the public starts filming council meeting
Chairman asks her to stop, she refuses
Chairman adjourns meeting and calls the police, she is arrested.
There is clearly history between the council and the campaigner, and I don’t think I’m being unfair in saying that she probably could have handled it better (ultimately, you have to respect the chairman’s decision: it’s the way meetings work). But it’s so contrary to common sense to stop someone unobtrusively, but not secretly, recording a public meeting of democratically elected members.
As far as I’m aware no-one has bothered recording a Wandsworth council meeting, but I hope we handle it a lot better if they do.
Correction (of sorts): Dafydd Vaughan has pointed out that Eric Pickles has no jurisdiction in Wales, as it’s a devolved matter. It’s perhaps a reflection of a London-centric view that I hadn’t thought about that when originally writing. However, it’s also true that Pickles doesn’t have jurisdiction over English councils on this matter; and I think the moral pressure his statements represented are as applicable in Wales as they are in England.
They don’t seem to have it on their website, but it essentially restates my belief that they are a waste of time – under a picture of the library, me, Labour leader Tony Belton and Samuel L. Jackson (yes, Samuel L. Jackson, I’d told the journalist I whiled away a few minutes reading a children’s biography of him).
Cllr Belton was on there as they approached him for a quote – and I think there’s some movement here – he admitted that few people attended, but continued, “I wouldn’t say to scrap them as it’s only right that people who feel strongly about something can come and lobby their councillor. The trouble is, they don’t.”
Argh. So close. That’s the crucial point. I’m not suggesting for a second that we remove the opportunities for people to see their councillors, but I just don’t see any point providing opportunities that people aren’t taking. It is that adherence to a system that was put in place for good reasons, but has stopped working, of which I want to be rid.
I need to respond properly, because there are some interesting points raised in the post. But one I would pick up on is the idea, put forward by Tony Banks, that social workers are MPs. I know from my experience in Wandsworth that MPs do get people along to their surgeries. I also know that a lot of their casework revolves around council issues; housing, social services and education are probably the big ones. In Wandsworth the best elected representative to take up those sorts of issues are councillors (indeed on occasion Martin Linton has even forwarded casework to me) but people – for whatever reason – choose to visit their MP, I assume mainly because MPs have a far higher profile than most councillors.
And maybe I’m taking the wrong angle on it. It isn’t a case of changing the way we provide a service, but instead trying to educate residents on where responsibility for particular services lie – so they know exactly who to approach when they have a problem.
As ever, I’d love to hear your thoughts and feedback.
There are a few comments on the blog, I’ve had a few emails and the South London Press called to chat about it for a story (which makes me nervous, because I know this can be portrayed negatively). I’ve even had a councillor from another borough (not even London) send me a message saying I was absolutely right – but they couldn’t say so publicly!
What I’ve not had yet it is anyone saying I’m wrong. And that surprises me. While I’m clearly of the opinion that we can do better, I expected some people would say they are important and should be retained as they are (and they might still say that).
I’m really pleased that it’s started a discussion about what we want to do and how we can best do it. And I’m really pleased that it hasn’t turned negative. Quite frankly, if we have the debate and it’s decided that spending an hour on my own in the library is the best way to serve people, I’ll happily do it. I just think councillors can probably do a lot more good with that hour in other places and in other ways.
And to illustrate this, I’d like to share a quote from a parish council newsletter I was sent. The newsletter is a couple of years old, but illustrates the point that we often find ourselves doing things not because they do any good, but because we feel – or someone tells us – we should.
We’ve been running bi-monthly Councillors’ surgeries on Saturday mornings for a year now, and yet we’ve only had one visitor … Some might say surgeries are a waste of time, but the thing is that we’ve got to run them as part of a package of measures necessary to get us Quality Accreditation next year.
I’m going to come right out and say it, it’s a risk, but I’m taking it: I think council surgeries are a waste of time. They are a hangover from a bygone age. And we should look at how we provide them, and even whether we should provide them at all.
I’m going to give you a flavour of what a council surgery is, a little video I shot during my surgery session last Saturday.
I recently discovered that my site is getting more visitors than the ‘Be A Councillor’ website, so I see this as my contribution. Not everything about being a councillor is glamorous, exciting, or even – as in this case – vaguely interesting.
What is a surgery?
Basically, in a surgery session, you sit in a public building and, hopefully, people will come to you with their problems. You can listen, offer advice or take details and look into the problem. It’s seen as one of those things that elected representatives do. But unfortunately not many people attend.
I vividly remember my first councillor surgery in 1998. I’d been elected less than a month before and had barely started getting to grips with how the council worked and the people I needed to know. I was incredibly nervous, wondering who would turn up, what issues they would raise and how on earth I would deal with them.
And that’s fairly standard. It’s been over a year since I met anyone at a council surgery.
And it’s risky to say this because…?
A few years ago the Conservative council introduced the centralised surgery system. Previously each ward would organise their own surgeries, typically once a month. The centralised system was intended to be advertised, simple and consistent, every Saturday between 10-11am there would be a councillor in Battersea, Putney and Tooting libraries. You didn’t have to work out which ward you were in, or when the first Thursday after the new moon was, you just popped along to see the councillor on duty on any Saturday.
A great idea. But no, this was attacked by Labour. We were removing accountability, hiding from the public, acting anti-democratically. That no-one was using the surgeries didn’t get in the way of a convenient vehicle to attack the Tories.
So why raise it now?
Because I don’t think surgeries are the best way to provide a service anymore, and because I think things have moved on and we can have a sensible discussion about how we communicate with people. I believe people value honest debate over political point-scoring.
While I was sat in the library last Saturday I looked through the log-book. As I said, it’s over a year since I had a case raised at a surgery (the log book only went back to June 2008) and I’m not the only councillor in that position. Looking through it’s hard to detect a pattern for people coming to surgeries. It certainly doesn’t appear that certain councillors always attract attendees. Nor does it appear that people would attend for a particular political party, I know Labour councillors do attract casework from people who specifically want to deal with a Labour councillor but the logs suggest this isn’t through surgeries.
It simply isn’t an issue about the people, or the political parties, involved. It’s an issue about a system that was an important part of democracy, but has been made increasingly irrelevant by the new ways we communicate.
And if you have a problem with the council…?
Frankly, if you have a problem and want a councillor to take it up – you shouldn’t have to wait until that one hour slot on a Saturday morning when a councillor is sitting in a library. You should be able to raise it straight away.
That’s why you can get my contact details – email, home phone, Twitter and I’m currently looking at some other options to add – from the contact page. If you want, you can even get my home address from the Town Hall so you can write to me!
Yes, there are some people who don’t have email, or might not want to call, and there are a number of people who are regular attenders at surgeries. We need to make sure they aren’t lost by any changes. But I do not think Wandsworth is any better because a group of councillors sit in libraries every Saturday reading the paper or looking out the window. Rather than keeping a system that doesn’t work because we’ve always had it, we should be finding the best way to serve Wandsworth residents.
So what do you think? How do you want councillors to make themselves available? Have you ever been to a surgery? Can you think of a better way?
Twittering is a form of microblogging which, along with this blog, I started as a bit of an experiment. I will freely admit that it hasn’t taken the course I expected – but there are some fascinating conversations taking place on there, especially around subjects of democratic and social engagement, so it is something I will definitely be continuing.
Wandsworth Council is now twittering, so if you are already on twitter (if you aren’t, you can get an account for free at twitter.com) you can follow the council – @wandbc.
My tweets are featured on this blog, although over Christmas I’ve spent too much time on the sofa and doing my ‘real’ job, so they have been a bit light of late. Feel free to follow me, @jamescousins, if you want to find out what I’m up to or, like today, my thoughts on Karate Kid III!