I was reminded of how difficult a job it is to be a councillor, and hence this blog entry, by reading the social media comments made by some of the public in response to a contested local planning issue about a Waste Transfer Station in Milton Keynes, where I live.
I had a day off work and was idly sitting on my sofa surfing local news and then read a stream of comments criticising the councillors on the MK Council Development Control Committee who had voted to approve the development. What incensed me was not the criticism of the decision, but the fact that it was very personal, attacking the integrity of the councillors–with allegations of corruption and offensive personal insults. I then ended up in an online argument in defence of the councillors and the decision-making process.
Nationally an IPSO Mori Poll conducted in January last year found that just 16% of Britons trust politicians to tell the truth compared with 22% trusting estate agents and 31% who trust bankers, so social media abuse unfortunately isn’t surprising. Social media has created amazing opportunities for councillors and councils to improve engagement with local residents (see blog here about how councillors are using social media https://johnpopham.wordpress.com/2016/02/19/councillors-and-social-media-could-they-be-youtube-stars/). Yet social media also makes it more obvious and visible that a real lack of trust exists.
I’m not a politician. I just work with them and wanted to share some of my own observations in defence of councillors.
3 Myths about local Councillors
- They get a massive salary funded by the taxpayer—wrong. Councillors don’t receive a salary. They get a basic allowance to provide some compensation for their time which is set locally. For example, where I live each councillor gets under £10,000 a year. This is considerably less than the UK average annual salary of £26,000.
- They don’t do much, just attend a few meetings—wrong. Councillors work long unsociable hours. One of the big differences between me as a local government officer and the councillors I work with is that I can leave the office and leave it all behind. Councillors don’t have that luxury. The public know where they live and have their phone number. Growing up, I got used to my mother, who was a councillor, having to deal with ward issues late into the evening and was trained in taking messages as well as making cups of tea for visitors.
It is hard for councillors to have any time for themselves, as the role is demanding—helping people find solutions and information on accessing services; campaigning on local issues; helping scrutinise decisions by participating in review groups on different issues from street lighting to care for the elderly; and serving on committees such as Development Control (who make planning decisions like the one that prompted me to write this post).
- They are in it for themselves, the status and glory—really? So, we have established that there are no excessive financial perks from being a councillor; we have established that the general public don’t have a high degree of trust in politicians; and that the role involves working anti-social and possibly long hours.
I have worked with many councillors, from all parties, and all carry out their role in slightly different ways depending on many factors such as personal style, expertise and interest. Some councillors focus their energy on specific campaigns or local issues; some on strategic issues such as joint working with the health sector or improving overall value for money; some on scrutinising policies and performance; some on doing the best they can to help individual residents in their local area—or some doing all of the above.
There is one thing that all of the councillors I have had the privilege to meet and work with, despite their differences, which is that all have had a passion for making a difference to help improve their communities.