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‘Cancel the rest of your life’ new councillors told

Guest blog by Cllr Joanna Biddolph

‘Cancel the rest of your life’ new councillors told 23 July 2018

A load of old bollards

“What’s your office like? Have you set it up yet?” asked a resident not long after the election. My answer surprised him. Councillors don’t have their own offices. We do have a group office – an odd cobbling together of spaces that lead into each other haphazardly, one a meeting room; another with two sofas, a fridge, a kettle and a patch of desk with a computer on it; a third with several comfy chairs, filing cabinets, stacking trays with our names on them, a small room where our group political assistant works and another for privacy. To say they need a woman’s touch is sexist – and impossible. I tried re-arranging the chairs but they wouldn’t budge. It’s unusual for me to give in quickly but I’m resigned to this mismatch between need and provision. The council moves to new offices next year. We looked round the shell of the block on Thursday evening; it seems councillors have nabbed the best spot – the top floor with a terrace and a great view across west London.

The resident was even more surprised when I explained we aren’t salaried employees, either. We receive an allowance for expenses, and to acknowledge time spent, but if the first two months are representative, I reckon it will work out at much less than the London Living Wage. All councillors receive £9,276 a year. The leader of the council receives an additional special responsibility allowance of £27,200 which contrasts starkly with the leader of the opposition’s extra £2,168. It’s not a get rich quick scheme and, given the hours the role takes up, I’m seriously concerned about how I’ll ever find time to pay the mortgage.

So what of the role? I don’t think anyone could have explained its impact in words that would have made any sense. The workload is unimaginably overwhelming. In 12 top tips for new councillors, sent by the Local Government Information Unit shortly after the election, the twelfth was: “Explain your new role to your friends and relations, ask for their sympathy, and cancel the rest of your life…”.

Like many, I’ve read with cynicism the annual (is it that regular?) big reveal of casework numbers achieved by councillors. Councillor John Todd outperforms many; others drag well behind. There’s a lot of fuss from some near the bottom of the league who say the numbers don’t reflect reality, that they take up cases differently, that not all cases add up. Yeah, yeah, yeah I’ve thought. No more.

Knocking on the door of an elderly resident, spending an hour or more helping them through a long list of issues saved up for months – if they don’t need referral to an officer, they don’t count. Nor do the follow up phone calls or visits.

Tackling a policing issue bypasses the council caseworkometer. So does dealing with any organisation outside the council’s responsibilities – meeting organisers of events in Gunnersbury Park, raising residents’ concerns at briefings, emailing news; visiting residents and businesses to ask about fallout from those events, as I have done today as another 40,000 people stream in for the three day Lovebox/Citadel festival (bad marshalling of roads, terrible litter arrangements, good uplifts in business takings, every business allowing a limited use of their loos despite the many portaloos/urinals that grace our roads).

I’ve discussed pollution with a school parent and governors (much more to be done to protect the health of Chiswick’s children); attended a residents’ association meeting, the annual Age Concern summer buffet (a joyful occasion, the biggest trifle I’ve ever seen), a school fair (no tombola wins for me), discussing a planning appeal with a group of residents and made repeated visits to a shop manager about better waste management (still not solved).

I’ve also spoken at the public inquiry into The Chiswick Curve (just say no), taken phone calls from residents wanting updates, one particularly troubling fly tip … all these important time-catchers are essential and important elements of the role but will not appear in stats. I’m hoping our group leader, Councillor Sam Hearn, will produce a different analysis for the record – there is so much more to being a councillor than the simple score charts show.

And that’s before we’ve set foot in a committee room, the council chamber or surgeries. Time spent on the democratic process doesn’t appear in any click-counter survey. I’m on the planning committee which meets every fortnight with a mountain of paperwork to read, analyse, look for holes in, plus site visits to add proper context; and on the overview and scrutiny committee, another heavy time-consumer, so I’ve been told.

As a former lobbyist, it’s interesting being on the receiving end of representations. Some have been badly targeted (why me? I say as I open the envelope or email); others, shamelessly undisguised PR puffery.

A flurry of invitations has reached my mantelpiece. An impressive new councillor party at Guildhall was fun, not least as I worked there in the 1990s. Thank you to all Hounslow’s council tax-payers for the St Emilion and three-courser at the mayor’s inaugural dinner at the Clayton Hotel (supporting the Chiswick economy) and several buffets at the civic centre.

Our induction training programme, some of which is compulsory, much of which is need to know and good to know, and all of which has proved essential knowledge-building (though we don’t know what we don’t know) has been particularly time-demanding. Spending four out of five weeknights in the civic centre seems to be my new normal. I squeezed in Perfect Pitch at the Tabard Theatre on a Saturday and Gifford’s Circus was sandwiched between answering residents’ emails and a ward committee meeting midweek.

In the spirit of Bridget Jones, I can provide this tantalising tally of life as a councillor: Fly tips removed: 37 (a new one pops up or, rather, is dumped down almost immediately). Graffiti reported: Numerous sprays along one parade of shops, on one bin and several metal structures. Bollards needing replacement: the total keeps increasing. Samosas eaten: over 40. Glasses of red wine drunk: lost count. Calories: I’ve put on all the weight that dropped off during the election campaign.

Am I enjoying it?