England & Wales, Global

New councillor? Get ready to be cared at loudly

Image by Engin Akyurt from Pixabay

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

Like so many of you, I was inspired to stand for my local council by my personal political hero, iconic City of Pawnee Deputy Director of Parks and Recreation Leslie Knope.

It is her words which will serve you best as you begin life as a councillor.

“These are the members of the community who care about where they live. What I hear when I’m being yelled at is people caring at me loudly”.

You are going to have to get used to people caring extremely loudly at you. 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, 52 weeks a year.  I’d say 365 days a year, but I don’t believe I ever got contacted on Christmas Day (first thing on Boxing Day morning, mind) – but I only know that because I checked my emails on Christmas Day, just in case.

I even did casework from the side of the pool during my summer holidays and later ruined a romantic dinner with my wife by spending the entire night fretting that I was somehow betraying the people of Tow Law by taking a break.

Several years ago, I set out to meet every other Councillor John Hart in England.

Apart from our whiteness, maleness and Johnness (none of which makes us stick out as councillors –more councillors are called John than anything else) we had very little in common, representing very different kinds of divisions in very different corners of the country for different political parties.  One John Hart was a council leader. Another was an unambitious backbencher who only stood as a favour to his son. I was somewhere in between.

But our frustrations and annoyances were the same.

Because here’s the truth. Sometimes, it kind of sucks being a councillor.

You will receive obscene gratitude when really you’ve done very little apart from being the first person in “authority” to make someone feel you were on their side. You will feel like an utter imposter.

You will receive widespread indifference when you’ve done something extraordinary. You will feel like you may as well have not bothered.

Your actual powers and resources are likely to be so limited as to be practically useless. People are less than understanding.

And yet we all keep coming back for more. Every councillor will tell you that this is their last term. When I was elected, the legendary Durham Councillor Robin Todd had been on his last term literally since Lyndon B Johnson was president. But there’s always a reason for “ok then, just one more term…”

Because nothing in your life will ever compare to knowing that you made things better. Anyone can go on Facebook and complain that “we never get anything around here” but only a select few will ever be the one to go out and get it. That’s you – that select few. Against the odds and often against all common sense

Not for glory. Not for recognition. Not for riches. But while most people think of your ward as “the place I think I drove through once” you know that it’s the greatest place on Earth. And it deserves the best. And you are the only person arrogant/daft/masochistic enough to dedicate yourself to seeing it gets it.

You’re amazing.

I’ve been asked to offer my advice to new councillors, and this is what I’ve come up with.

Tip: There’s no election for four years. Even then, chances are you won’t be standing against other councillors.

I know right? Mad. Those other men called John in the council chamber? Chances are you will never ever stand against them in an election. They represent somewhere else.  And they care about it every bit as much as you care about your patch. There’s next to nothing to be gained from picking a public fight with them. And even if you do disagree, there’s not need to be disagreeable – no political party, philosophy or figure has the monopoly on morality, ingenuity or common sense.

There are only 50, 60, 70 of you in the county or city where you live who know what it’s like being a councillor. They’re also reading planning applications, school governor packs and Medium Term Financial Plans when everyone else is watching telly/seeing loved ones/doing a hobby/sleeping only to find someone they’ve never met laying into them on Facebook for being doing nothing for this area because it still doesn’t have a space programme or Olympic bid (And the next ward, 25 metres down the road – they get everything! And did you know that the Council Leader travels everywhere in a chauffer-driven diamond-encrusted hovercraft?)

No councillor got into this to cut services or make communities worse – they just have different ideas about the best way of making things better. And who knows, maybe they’ve got a point?

Do be reasonable! Be nice! I know that my very niche fantasy of an opposition group leader one day standing up when the council has to take an unavoidable but unpopular decision and saying “I won’t pretend we would be doing anything different if we were in charge, so we will vote with you in solidarity” is exactly that, but the very least you can do is:

  • Don’t pretend that budget cuts aren’t necessary if we only reduce the number of pages in the council magazine. As for the council magazine – or any other communications activity for that matter- are your residents telling you that they feel too well informed about what the council is doing? That your authority is too transparent? Are they really?
  • Don’t pretend that having your authority not spend every penny it has every year and instead putting some money aside in case of, say, an global pandemic, is somehow a sign that they don’t care about their communities. It means the opposite is true.
  • Do put all that stuff aside and work together.

Remember your council chamber hysteria, your interminable blog posts, your theatrical outrage in the local paper – none of it makes the other party look bad – it makes all councils and all councillors look bad.

Tip: Try to enjoy it.

I mean. It’s not going to be possible to enjoy all of it. But it goes so quickly. I look at my successor’s social media from time to time (Richard, I’m flattered that us shaking hands is still your profile picture, but it’s probably time to update it) and I’m still jealous that he gets to represent –and develop – the greatest council ward in the World, and that its him that gets to support all the amazing people and groups doing the amazing things that make Tow Law, Sunnside, Roddymoor, Thornley and Stanley Crook such amazing places. The greatest place on Earth, in fact.

I mean, his name isn’t even John.

John Hart was a Durham County Councillor for the Tow Law division between 2013 and 2017. He now works for a Combined Authority and writes in a personal capacity.

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