The Councillor won’t see you now – a Whodunnit

Wandsworth Councillor James Cousins (whose blog I am allowed to recommend because he’s opted out of the Total Politics poll) is hosting an interesting little debate on surgeries. Broadly, he thinks nobody is coming to them and they’re therefore not much use. He sets out this case here, and provides an update based on both the discussion and e-mails he’s received here.

I used to work quite closely with a Conservative Councillor who was very forthright about not holding surgeries (in fairness he was very forthright about everything) and whose line was “I don’t need to hold a surgery, my constituents know which pub I drink in, and they can come and see me there if they need to”. I guess that’s one of the advantages of representing a large rural village. I know plenty of urban Labour Councillors who have given up holding surgeries too, and use that time to knock on doors in the area, asking if people have any problems they wish to raise, or deliver a leaflet the night before saying “Please put this in your window if you would like to talk to your Councillor tomorrow”.

So let’s assume for now that traditional surgeries are on the way out. What killed them, and is it an adequate replacement for them? My initial list of suspects runs as follows;

  • E-mail. Going and seeing your Councillor can be a good way of outlining a problem with which you need help, particularly if the alternative is writing a letter, waiting for a reply, then explaining in more detail, and so on. On the other hand dropping an e-mail to someone is quicker, both in delivery and the likely speed of reply, than a letter, and (I think) less intimidating than a phone call. As people lead busy lives and may not be able to make it to a surgery at a fixed time, e-mail is likely to prove an attractive alternative. The growing social trend towards instant gratification means that with a problem arising on a Tuesday, many people may not be willing to wait until Saturday to talk it over.
  • The internet more generally. Increasingly Councils are moving towards electronic systems which put individuals in direct contact with officers working on an issue – this can be seen particularly in the case of potholes, broken road signs, faulty street lights, and so on. Systems like Clarence, or websites like FixMyStreet, mean there is no need for Councillors to be involved. This may be less true of problems with, say, meals on wheels, but even there the drive towards choice and personalisation may mean negotiation is more frequently done with Council officers directly, rather than via an intermediary. The reformation coming to local government, 500 years after Martin Luther? Sorry, I just compared myself with God there didn’t I, must be more careful.
  • Councillor Disempowerment. In line with the above, there is perhaps less to be gained now from seeing your Councillor for many problems. Certainly the day when befriending your local Councillor was a good way to move yourself up the council house waiting list are (rightly, I would suggest) gone – although Councillors increasingly have devolved budgets to spend on small projects in their local area, so a surgery may be a good way to raise the profile of your proposed project in advance of that decision.
  • Social Working MPs. The late Tony Banks complained that the job of an MP was often to act as “a high-powered social worker”, and while many MPs might sympathise with his view that “It’s 22 years of the same cases, but just the faces and the people changing. I found it intellectually numbing, tedious in the extreme”, they will continue to do the work, as it’s a good way of gaining favour with their constituents who are helped. While it may be tedious, it’s also a good way of keeping MPs in touch with the problems faced by ordinary people. It would still be good, though, if Councillors were able to solve more problems, and MPs able to devote more time to debating and amending laws, and holding the Government to account. As matters stand (and I have been on both sides of this) Councils are undoubtedly more ‘scared’ of MPs, and a letter on behalf of a constituent from an MP will almost always carry more weight than one from a Councillor. I have no recent evidence, but I bet most MPs get people at their surgeries.

You can probably add reasons of your own, but I think the more important question is “Does this new scenario deliver the level of support in dealing with the authorities that people feel they need?”. I suspect there may be an excluded middle going on, and that problems are either simple enough that people feel they don’t need a Councillor’s help (broken street lights) or so complicated that even a very experienced Councillor may not be able to help very much – child protection may often be in this class.

Over to you.

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5 responses to “The Councillor won’t see you now – a Whodunnit

  1. I think your post sums up the problem (and I do think there’s a problem) quite well. To my mind the biggest culprit is the Social Working MP. However, I’d like to add the Disengaged Councillor as a contributing factor as well. It appears to me that many local councillors don’t really want to engage in any meaningful way; they’ve accepted the status quo and appear wary of upsetting it. Surgeries could get in the way of this. Perhaps I’m being harsh, perhaps in their “disempowered” state they don’t want to-upon hearing complaints during a surgery visit- overstate what they can do, fail and thus attract the ire of local voters.

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  4. I’m running the risk of filling your comments with pingbacks (and intend to do it some more soon) so it’s about time I posted a real comment.

    You make some good points. People definitely prefer to use other ways to communicate now – not just with councillors, but even with each other. And that has changed the way society works. It wasn’t that long ago that if you were meeting someone you had to be there, and be there on time. There was no option of a call or text message apology.

    One which particularly resonates is the social working MP. There is absolutely no doubt that a lot of what should be councillor casework goes via MPs (though I would disagree that officers give more weight to MPs than councillors, it’s certainly not the case in Wandsworth). Indeed, I’ve even had people referred to me by my (opposition) MP.

    Now how this is addressed is a different matter. There is a clear hierarchy in people’s minds when it comes to power or politics – and I suspect that proximity to Downing Street or Westminster is seen as proportional to that power. The MP who sits on the benches at Parliament is therefore perceived to be more powerful and able to help than the councillor at the local town hall – even though it might well be that councillor leads the service you are complaining to your MP about.

    One of the comments on my blog suggested that there isn’t enough publicity given to councillors – most are anonymous and there isn’t enough communication. In fact, I think the problem is largely one of understanding. When you consider the current debate about councils spending too much on communication and the argument – which I believe is false – that local papers are suffering as a result you have to wonder if anyone would welcome more newspapers, leaflets and websites about their local council.

    In fact, what we need to change is the perception that all government is central government, and I’ve no easy answers on that one.

    • thelocalgovernmentofficer

      Agreed, and pingbacks are obviously fine! With luck I’ll write something more worth pinging soon, though the only posts I have in mind right now are ones I suspect many people will find tedious. Still, a couple of days off and nothing exciting to do with them, inspiration must surely strike.

      Is there a way through this which presents a halfway house between “here is a Council leaflet and website” and “here is a website that will solve your problem for you (fixmystreet)” that classifies people by problem and location, and encourages them to make contact with the most relevant person at the correct level of government?

      More publicity to Councillors is all well and good, and I’d support it, but the moment you do it on any serious scale you’ll get stories about spending taxpayers’ money on your re-election campaign. In a lot of places I think it really is about knocking on doors and being known in the community, but I appreciate that’s much harder in an area with a lot of secure blocks, a lot of in and out commuting, and a high turnover of population.

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