England & Wales, Global Communities and society, Democracy, devolution and governance

New councillor? Be prepared for culture shock

This is part of our resources for new councillors. Look out for our briefings for new councillors and primers on key issues. 

I was first elected in 1998, not just the dying years of the last century, but also the dying years of the 19th-century committee system. Over the next twenty years I didn’t just see the procedural changes of the executive system, but also the cultural changes that followed. And I cannot help but turn my experiences into tips. After all, don’t we all know a pompous senior councillor? Or lots of them?

Be prepared for culture shock

When I was first elected I was handed two box files which I guarded carefully until I could open them. What would be inside? Confidential, need-to-know information about the borough? Codes and passwords for access to key areas? Directions to access a civil defence bunker?

No. It was a copy of the standing orders, a selection of basic stationery (in case I didn’t own a pen or notepaper) and delete-as-applicable postcards for residents: ‘Dear Mr/Mrs/Miss/Ms, thank you for contacting me about your housing/planning/amenities issue…’

These shocks kept coming. There was no councillor email address, and wouldn’t be for years (and even then, it was only forwarded to your private address). Each meeting started its municipal year with a discussion and vote on whether it would allow smoking during meetings. And councillors and officers would never refer to each by first name, indeed, the formality was such that over a decade later I was asked by a director during a heatwave if I minded them removing their jacket.

Local government is wonderful, but unlike any other institution. Don’t expect the conventions of your workplace to apply.

Take advantage of any learning.

My training could be generously described as minimal. At the end of it I was aware of the names of council directors, their departments, and responsibilities. Concepts like induction, mentoring, or any member training and development were alien. This was partly a bit of arrogance (we were a flagship council, one old hand told me, other people come to us to learn), but also an old-fashioned approach in which being a councillor was a voluntary activity where we offered our outside skills to the council.

Even at the time I found this bizarre. The skills required to be a good councillor, whether in a community, scrutiny, or executive role, are not skills most people will naturally acquire in their normal life. Most new councillors will find themselves in positions where they have no executive power, but a huge amount of access and influence they can use as local leaders.

Do good and say yes.

I was, frankly, wet behind the ears when I became a councillor and made the mistake of realising my own ability to effect change far too late. I assumed, instead, that the only way to make a difference was through a political group and the council.

One of the consequences of this was that I became very skilled at saying no. I could explain to any residents exactly why the council could not help them, or do the thing they wanted, or why their suggestions were simply not practical. Three or four years later, and I realised even new candidates were absorbing this skill by osmosis. Instead, I should have been saying yes, and doing more to empower the local community.

When I think to the things I am proudest of from my time as a councillor, it is not the votes I cast because I was told to, but the things I did on my own. From publicly supporting residents opposing the use of a park for motorsports, to behind-the-scenes support I gave to get the borough’s first (and still only) parkrun started, or successfully campaigning to get a light installed in a dark park, despite the council’s insistence it was technically impossible.

Any councillor elected now, even if they stay for just one term, will have more chance to improve their communities than most people will in their lifetime. And it’s their position, as elected local leaders, that allows them to do that. Having campaigned to ‘be’ a councillor, now it’s all about what you ‘do’ as a councillor.

First elected to the London Borough of Wandsworth in 1998, James topped the poll to be re-elected four times until, in 2018 he was some distance away from the top of the poll (largely because he was also some distance from his former party). During his time as a councillor he held various executive positions, covering community safety, economic development and the council’s partnership work, as well as being an LGIU associate and an LGA peer member working on a number of sector-led improvement challenges.

One thought on “New councillor? Be prepared for culture shock

  1. I was one of those councillors elected in 2006 serving one term. I did struggle with the system and even after 4 years I was still not really connecting the dots as well as I should have been. Overall I am happy with my achievements, speed reading being one of them. In 2021 I do hope that my fellow councillors just elected (well done to you all) were handed more than a box a diary and some pens.

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