Councillors: communities, casework, and the crap about cuts (part 1)
There’s an interesting article in Guardian Professional by Tim Cheetham, a senior Labour councillor in Barnsley (and possible candidate in the coming byelection). Tim explores, with a view to developing the understanding of officers, what councillors actually do and why they do it, so that officers in turn might be able to respond to councillor demands more appropriately.
Like Tim, I’m often struck by how little people understand about what their elected representatives are there for, and what they do. It’s not a surprise generally, but it does become mildly irritating when people who call themselves political activists don’t seem to understand.
Hence this little two-parter. Last week the Labour Representation Committee AGM voted through a resolution calling on all Labour councillors to vote against all cuts (I voted against the resolution), and this weekend the National Shop Stewards Network voted to put up/[support] candidates against Labour councillors in Labour-controlled adminstrations who vote through cuts [Ed note: this is said to be incorrect by Sirrontail in comments below. Not sure how, and have asked for clarification, though I'll pick it up more fully in part 2].
In part 2, I’ll come back to why this is wrong both from the point of view of both feasibility and political integrity. (I’ve already done so once but I’ll reprise and add to that argument.)
In this piece I simply want to show that councillors, and most especially Labour councillors, actually have a role much wider, and much more important, than sitting in a Chamber and deciding whether to vote for Labour budgets or vote against them and let officers pass their (worse) budget instead.
I’ll do this by means of copying (below) a letter I wrote tonight to a group of my constituents, who live on the A577 between Skelmersdale and Ormskirk. It’s a perfectly ordinary casework letter, the like of which I batter out the whole time, but I publish it here because:
a) it’s not got any confidential information in;
b) it shows the kind of thing a councillor deals with, and the institutional pressures s/he has to face as part of the daily routine;
c) it shows how Council politics isn’t just about the big speeches and the big votes, but about getting stuff done through a process of attrition and attention to detail.
But perhaps the most important point is that it the kind of letter which will generally only ever be written by a Labour councillor (and perhaps the odd good Green or Independent) because it is infused with the willingness to challenge institutions and the status quo.
It’s a local letter, and it’s unlikely you’ll bother to read it to the end – even I was bored by it and I wrote it – but I hope it’s enough to get a few lefties rethinking their preconceptions about the role of Labour councillors; most of what we do is nowhere near the formal political setting, and nothing to do with budget cuts, but to do with representing the interests of the people we serve as best we can.
Here it is……
A577 Road Safety Scheme
I am writing with a further and fairly full update on the long delayed A577 scheme as it relates to the multiple junction covering Lyelake Lane, Wigan Road, Dickets Lane and Plough Lane.
As you will know, this saga dates back to early 2007, when the (now disbanded) Lancashire Local meeting took on board our local campaign for safety measures at these junctions in the light of repeated accidents and damage to property, especially on the sharp Wigan Road/ Dickets Lane bend. The scheme was later expanded by the County Council to th whole length of the A577 between the Ormskirk and the Skelmersdale borders.
Initial suggestions from County officers were that the Wigan Road/Dickets Lane junction merited physical traffic-slowing measures, including the possibility of a roundabout or min-roundabout. There then followed a long period of inactivity as the scheme ‘queued’ in the resource list, despite repeated reminders to officers and councillors of the importance of th4e scheme given the continuing accidents.
Unfortunately, when plans were finally produced in early 2010 no such measures were identified, and investigations with officers indicated that this work had been disregarded on cost rather than safety grounds. In general, the plans that I then circulated to residents in the area (having been denied access to them myself initially) did not find favour. I submitted a paper covering both my own and residents’ concerns about the proposals to the County Council, and some residents provided their own views separately.
Subsequently, after a delay prior to the new government’s ‘emergency budget, when all capital expenditure (and apparently all decisions relating to it), the Cabinet member for Highways decided that our concerns expressed by myself and residents had no validity, and ordered that the works proceed as set out in the plans you saw in January 2010. There is no evidence that a site visit was made.
In response, I initiated a Councillor Call for Action process using a new power open to me under the Local Government Act 2007, under which I am able to call for appropriate action through formal committee process in cases where all other reasonable alternatives have been exhausted. This needs to be agreed in advance by the Committee chairman. This was achieved and at a Corporate Overview & Scrutiny meeting on 25th November I set out my case for a formal review by the County Council of the Cabinet Member’s decision, which I was argued was made unreasonably. I noted that there was no need to hold up works on the rest of the A577, which were then reported to be ‘on order’ but that there was a need to review your section of the road in light of legitimate safety concerns and the fear that these had been overlooked in the interests solely of cost reduction.
My resolution, that Borough Council officers write to the Executive Director for the Enivronment at the County seeking a review of the decision was unanimously agreed, in a rare moment of cross-party agreement, and the requirement for a review thereby became that of the whole Council committee, rather than mine alone.
Having chased the matter, the appropriate letter was dispatched in early December. Having chased the matter again in early January, a letter from the Executive Director was finally received by the Council, and copied to me, on 7th January 2011. Disappointingly, this letter simply reiterated the decision of the Cabinet Member and that the works were on order, although there was a promise to monitor the effectiveness of the works planned (a promise that will need to be kept on file for future use). Her letter took no notice of the fact that the concerns expressed were now, under the provisions of the Local Government Act 2007 (see above), now those of a formal Council committee and therefore required a different response than the one already provided.
I wrote back immediately to the Executive Director pointing out the problems with her reply. To date I have had an acknowledgment but nothing more, and as it stands.
This is, in my opinion, a highly unsatisfactory state of affairs. It is my intention to make another Councillor Call for Action at the next Corporate Overview & Scrutiny, focusing this time on the fact that the legal powers accorded to the committee have apparently simply been ignored by the County Council. However, it is possible that party politics may play a part in whether I gain acceptance on this resolution.
Clearly, I am disappointed that I have not been able to achieve more in respect of your legitimate concerns about the road safety in your area, and I will keep trying to get a resolution. In this letter I simply wanted to spell out in a little detail the efforts made, and the fact that institutional inertia and obduracy have been against me, as well as giving an idea of what I think the next campaign steps should be.
Please do not hesitate to contact me to discuss this matter (via any of the methods set out above beneath my address), or to see copies of the recent documentation.