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.

My usual end of week wrap-up of bits and pieces I want to highlight or didn’t post about at the time.

Pre-summer council meeting
Wednesday saw the council had it’s last full meeting before the summer recess. Of course, the council doesn’t take a holiday in the same way that Parliament does, but there’s a break in meetings during August before starting again in September. And, like any large organisation, things get a little quieter because of holidays.

The July council meeting always seems to reflect a pre-summer lethargy. I’d always blamed the bad ventilation in the Council Chamber, which made it hot and stuffy in July. But following the collapse of the roof and our move to the Civic Suite I discovered that July is a flat meeting for other reasons.

The debates lacked spark (despite some excellent contributions on our side) and the meeting was other remarkably quickly for a full council.

Of course, there’s also a slight lull because everyone knows that a general election is coming and whatever there are going to be major spending cuts, but politics means that neither party can really address these. Hence the ridiculous language of “0% raises” from Gordon Brown and endless offers of cash that, mysteriously, end in 2010/11 (thus making the next guy seem like the scrooge).

This affects councils of every political complexion, not just Conservative, and while it might make for interesting politics, it’s not the way a country should be run.

I can’t not mention the debate, opened up by the BBC, on CCTV cameras. It is definitely an interesting one; but what I found fascinating (as well as a little reassuring given my feelings on civil liberties) was the common ground I had with Shami Chakrabarti on them when I did BBC Breakfast. It might be a strange alliance, but I think it was something of a victory for common sense. As is often the case, it’s not the sensationalist headline, but the detail behind it. It doesn’t really matter how many cameras any organisation has, it’s the controls behind them that counts.

Another bit from the last week I’m rather pleased with is the discussion started on this blog and continued here, here and elsewhere, about surgeries. Yes, it might seem a minor issue – over the course of the year it’s only 150 man-hours in Wandsworth – but it’s good to see that a blog can start a little debate which, I hope, might lead somewhere.

Meeting the police
This week also saw one of my more formal meetings with the police. While I seem to see them fairly often, one way or another, I do have a regular session with the Borough Commander, Chief Superintendent Stewart Low so we can both catch up with what each side is doing.

Obviously a lot of the meeting is not for repeating here. However, one thing did come across clearly (and shows in the crime maps on this site) is that the recession is having an impact on crime. This is not just a Wandsworth phenomenon, it’s happening across London and the rest of the country.

Burglary is one of the crimes that really seems to be on the up. While the police are doing a great job there’s still a lot we can do to avoid becoming a victim of crime. The Met’s crime prevention pages and the Council’s Community Safety Division both suggest lots of ways you can make yourself safer.

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.

As usual, my end of week post detailing a few bits and pieces I want to highlight or didn’t post about during the week.

Council surgery
I’ve been fascinated by the response to my post on council surgeries not least because I’ve still to have any feedback suggesting the current surgery system works. Given the medium I used to tackle the issue (a blog) it’s not surprising most people would agree surgeries are an anachronism – but I still didn’t expect total agreement.

Eccles Road meeting
The issues around Eccles Road rumble on (see here, here, here and here). I had a small meeting with some of the residents there on Tuesday. I didn’t give it a substantial post, since it was a fairly low key meeting and a lot of the issues remain unresolved.

The meeting covered a number of issues that had already been raised, but also the prospect of permanent road closure. This is an incredibly complex issue, since no road can be considered in isolation – any road closure will impact on other roads and in the case of Eccles Road we would have to consult with Transport for London.

However, the biggest factor will be the results of a traffic survey the council conducted in the road. We are still awaiting the analysis from our contractors which, when done, will give an indication whether traffic volumes and speed are at a level which will justify closure or other traffic measures.

Junior Citizen
I visited the council’s Junior Citizen scheme this week. The scheme exposes children to a series of safety scenarios, hopefully meaning that if they face those scenarios in real life they will be able to deal with the successfully. I’d love to be able to have taken some photos to show how good the scheme is – but it is difficult to do it any justice when you can’t get any children in the photo!

The scheme received accreditation from the Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents last year (in it’s 20th anniversary year) and was visited by officials from the Department of Children, Schools and Families while I was there who seemed impressed at what we are doing.

Lavender Hill
Because I’m a sucker for a photo I popped along to Lavender Hill to see some of their new planters. The idea came from traders, supported by the council’s Town Centre Improvement Scheme, to use planters to add colour and advertise their shops (rather than using standard A-boards). The effect when they are all out really is quite something.

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?