It was with some nervousness I went along to The Goat last night for the Tweet-up.  I left having had a glass or two of wine too many but having spent an excellent evening in a fine put with good company.

Having never been to one (which really put me at a disadvantage for organising one) I wasn’t sure what to expect – or even how many people.  But in the end there was a good crowd that mixed well.

Ingrid Koehler, who works at the Improvement and Development Agency blogged about it this morning, referring to my little spat over surgeries.  (That post was followed by a Lambeth Labour councillor using it as an excuse for a bit of political knocking. Rather disappointingly I responded in kind rather than rising above it.)  I hadn’t particularly thought about it as any type of engagement – although I did end up talking a bit about the council with some of the people there – it was really prompted to have an excuse for a beer and by a bit of jealousy of SW15.

Obviously I’ll take any credit going.  But I think the key thing was that everyone enjoyed themselves – judging by the Tweets afterwards it seems that everyone did.  I certainly hope there will be more to come.  But for the time-being I would like to use this post to say thank-you to Bell Pottinger for their sponsorship, but most of all to the people who came for making it such a great night.

I’m sure many are getting bored with my council surgeries and engagement obsession, but sadly for those that are it’s my blog – and if a blog has any point it’s surely to allow the blogger an outlet for all those thoughts and ideas which he worries bore his wife far too much – so I’m going to have one last post on the subject.

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?

The solution?
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.

If I have wittered on enough about surgeries the South London Press have prompted me to witter on even more by publishing a story sparked off from the original blog post.

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.

Meanwhile, another blog I read The Local Government Officer posted some of their thoughts on what have killed off surgeries.

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.

I’m really rather surprised at the response I got to my post on council surgeries.

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.

No-one came.

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…?
Simple: politics.

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?

Yesterday I opted out of Iain Dale’s blogging poll. The poll, which he runs every year, produces various top 10 style lists – all of which come with a button that you can use on your blog to advertise your success and link back to his Total Politics site. I reckon I was in with a good shout of placing well in the ‘Conservative Councillors called James’ category.

I would hasten to add I’m not participating in any boycott. While I don’t read his blog or follow him on Twitter I can’t say I share any of the dislike of his politics or personality that seem to motivate some of them. My opinions of him are, well, non-existent.

Instead, I just dislike the rather self-congratulatory nature of these things. They lend themselves to hubris and focus on entirely the wrong aspects of blogging. Over the weekend during some casual surfing, I came across one blogger who, having got hold of a top 100 list in which their blog featured managed to sub-categorise and slice the list to ‘prove’ that they were among the top 10 most influential blogs in the country.

I don’t really want to be part of that.

Yes, it’s nice to know that people appreciate what you are doing. And perhaps if it were a Wandsworth based poll I might think differently. But I’m not blogging to do well in some league table. I’m blogging – primarily – as a councillor. My focus shouldn’t be, and isn’t, on getting Iain Dale’s attention. Instead, it’s here to provide something of a service to residents.

So, feeling smug about my decision fate mocked me when I discovered that Andrew Beeken, the web manager at Lincon City Council, had used me as an example of good practice in a presentation to councillors there. From further conversation, I discovered that I’ve even been cited in Australia.

Flattering, ego-massaging stuff. And fate giving me a ticking off for being pompous earlier.

It might be a bit different being used as an example of how a councillor can engage to featuring in an arbitrary poll but what really matters is that I am, I hope, providing a good service to people in Wandsworth – if I can entertain a little or get a wider readership outside then so much the better.

Which begs the question – which I ask from time to time – is there anything you want to tell me, ask me or berate me about my online engagement? Anything you want to see more of, less of or even nothing of? Something you’d like to see on here that I’m not doing already? Just let me know, because at the end it’s not about me, my ego or arbitrary rankings – it’s about you and how I can better serve you as a councillor.

Feel free to comment, email me at or send me an @message on Twitter.

One of the suggestions when I asked for ideas for the blog last week (and I’m still looking for ideas or suggestions, feel free to add a comment or email was a regular ‘report’.  Of course, reports can take many formats, but I thought I’d give it a go.

I’m going to trial this for a few weeks to see how it works.  I will state from the outset that I’m a little sceptical about the value and have some caveats.

The main reason I’m sceptical is because it just cannot be exhaustive.  Using the example of meetings, while I can list the meetings I’ve attending, some are confidential or will have confidential parts.  Indeed, even where those meetings aren’t explicitly confidential I feel that, unless they are public, it would benefit no-one if they felt anything they said would end up on a blog.

Moving on to work in the ward, again, the confidentiality issue rears its head.  Casework often involves highly personal matters that I simply cannot disclose.  Even when dealing with broader issues residents expect a degree of discretion because of concerns about relationships with neighbours, for example.  Earlier this year I privately started mapping my work in the ward but decided it was not suitable for publication because there were so many privacy issues involved.

More fundamentally, there’s the question of what merits inclusion.  To give an example I started the week spending a lot of time working on the launch of our Neighbourhood Watch strategy for next week.  I’ve also spent time trying to organise a meeting for residents of Eccles Road.  While the launch and meeting would probably be reported when they happen, is the preparation of one more worthy of inclusion than the other?  My instinct is to include Neighbourhood Watch because it affects the whole borough, but an Eccles Road resident might well think I’ve made the wrong call!

Above all, I wonder how useful it will be to a Shaftesbury or Wandsworth resident.  I already use the blog to mention particular meetings and events and where casework has wider implications or raised by a few people independently I tend to write something about it here like I recently did in dealing with foxes.  It might be the ‘report’ is little more than a summary of the past week on the blog, with details of a few meetings here and there.

But I am also a public servant and you could argue any report, however imperfect, has to be better than no report.  So on that basis I’m going to provide them for a few weeks to see how they develop, how well they are received and then assess whether or not they are worthwhile.

After I asked for suggestions on where I might take the blog yesterday one of the comments expressed disappointment that it wasn’t asking what issues I might take up!

So now I’m asking, are there any issues, concerns or problems with which I can help?

I make the offer from time to time and usually get a few responses as a result, but it’s a standing invitation.  You can get in touch at any time.  Full contact details are on my contact page, but, to save you going there you can email me at, find me on twitter as @jamescousins or, if you want, leave a comment below.

But please remember, you don’t need to wait for an invitation!

This blog is coming up to its half-birthday.  Well, sort of – there are all sorts of dates I can use, for example the blog went live on 17 December, a great time when everyone is thinking about Christmas and no-one gives a stuff about a mere councillor blog.  However, before it went live I had it as a private blog to see if I could actually keep the posting momentum going; I don’t think there’s anything sadder than an abandoned blog.

The earliest of those blog entries I’ve kept was from 24 November, in which I questioned the value of the VAT cut.  So merely for my convenience I’m using that date since I can then say six months is a good time to re-assess the value of the blog and my Twittering.

First of all though, thank-you.  I want to say thank-you to all those who read this little effort at blogging.  Thank-you to all those who comment, and thank-you in advance to all those who will comment (seriously, just write something, no need to register and you can use a fake email address if you want – comments are there for discussion, nothing else).  And while I’m at it, thank-you to everyone who follows me on Twitter.  I was genuinely flattered, when I was openly thinking of quitting Twitter, to have people tell me I should stay and was adding value to it.  I should, of course, thank all sorts of other people, like my parents, or Mrs Robinson (my English teacher who never seduced me) but I shall refrain.

But most importantly I’d appreciate some feedback on the blog and my efforts, and don’t feel you have to pull punches.  I started off blogging and using Twitter as a way of engaging and would like to know how you find it.  Are there elements you don’t like?  Are there things you think are missing?  Is there anything you think it particularly good?

And there are two questions that I have been thinking about specifically:

  1. Should I keep the content solely to politics and the council?  While I know that is why most people come here I do have some (not much, but some) life outside of the two and wonder if possibly letting some of that on here would provide a bit more flavour and balance.
  2. Should I start using other media?  I really want to have a play with AudioBoo and have been toying with Vimeo and YouTube as well.  Would they add value, and what sort of content would you be interested in seeing?

So it’s over to you; either that or tumble-weed blowing through the comments while a bell tolls, slowly…

An, as yet, unfilled audience for the Open Forum
An, as yet, unfilled audience for the Open Forum

Last night’s Open Forum organised by the Balham and Tooting Community Association was an interesting and, I think, useful event.  It was fairly well attending (I’m hopeless at judging numbers, but I’m guessing at least 50 or 60 people) and there were some good questions and useful points made.

Perhaps unsurprisingly a lot of the discussion was about young people and crime, but even then the main thrust did not seem to be about a lack of facilities.  You will commonly hear the complaint that ‘there aren’t enough youth clubs’ when actually there’s one just around the corner and the problem is that it isn’t being used by the perceived problem youths.  Instead, the complaint was about the type and quality of provision.  One comment made a few times was that kids have XBoxes, Wiis and PS3s at home; putting them in youth clubs isn’t that constructive!

A valid point, but I know that council officers would contend that without them, people just don’t attend youth clubs and they serve the purpose of ‘bait’ which gets young people into the youth club so they can try and engage them more creatively and constructively.

A second point was the cleanliness of Tooting.  Again, however, it seemed incredibly constructive and was directed more towards how everyone can work together to improve Tooting.  Indeed, when one person tried to blame the council they got very little support and I seemed to be speaking to nodding heads when I explained that Tooting currently gets more cleaning than any other town centre and at some point we have to look at how rubbish is getting on the streets and who is putting it there.

I was shocked to learn recently that over 100 businesses in Tooting did not have Trade Waste Agreements.  Legally a business should have an agreement with a refuse collection company to collect the waste they produce.  When council officers visited businesses in Tooting to explain the introduction of time-banded collections (refuse collections now take place at specific times, and refuse should not be left out for lengthy periods before) they discovered a huge number of businesses had simply not bothered making arrangements.

Effectively these 100 businesses were fly-tipping Tooting on a regular basis.  While I accept Wandsworth Council has a duty to clean our streets, I also believe that our residents and businesses have a duty not to litter them.  Having said all that when I left (at around 10pm) I took a quick stroll around Tooting as I’m rarely in the area that late at night, and was impressed at how clean it was.  The new time-banded collections have obviously made a real difference.

A number of other issues were raised, including the development plans for Springfield, open spaces in town centres, parking, traffic management and use of the markets.  I know I will have missed some.  The session lasted over two hours and I’m sure could have lasted another two without running out of steam or value.

I asked the organisers to let me have a copy of any notes they captured from the evening so I can arrange fuller responses and consideration by the relevant council departments.  I’ll report back on that here if appropriate.