Home > General Politics, Labour Party News, Law, Local Democracy > Councillors: communities, casework, and the crap about cuts (part 1)

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……

Dear resident

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.

  1. sirrontail
    January 26, 2011 at 2:04 am

    “this weekend the National Shop Stewards Network voted to put up candidates against Labour councillors in Labour-controlled adminstrations who vote through cuts.”

    No it didn’t. Be nice if an article which starts by decrying political activists for being ignorant did a bit of proper fact checking. #justsayin

  2. Oliver
    January 26, 2011 at 3:32 am

    “I’m often struck by how little people understand about what their elected representatives are there for, and what they do.”

    I think what’s interesting about this criticism is that something similar could just as well apply to you and your relationship with constituents in terms of your understanding of them.

    The letter above, and I did read it all the way through, contains a large amount of jargon (”queued’ in the resource list’), overly complicated language, names of organisations and departments few will know of let alone know what their function is, and some very long sentences. This kind of communication might be appropriate for internal communications but I doubt many constituents have half a clue about what you’re talking about.

  3. paulinlancs
    January 26, 2011 at 8:41 am

    Sirrontail: Fair enough criticism if I’ve made a mistake. That bit was a bit quickly written (as it’s really part 2 stuff). What should I say? “support candidates” instead of “put up” (quite happy to do an edit) or are you saying that the report taken from Phil at AVPS is substantially wrong?

    • sirrontail
      January 26, 2011 at 5:00 pm

      The report Phil published is relating to TUSC, which as an electoral coalition will obviously be standing candidates in this May’s elections.
      When discussing setting up the anti-cuts body in the NSSN’s steering group meetings, the majority (including the SP) decided not to stand or support anti-cuts candidates in the interest of “unity”. Which is why you wont find mention of it in “motion 1”.

  4. paulinlancs
    January 26, 2011 at 8:59 am

    Oliver: I think you’d be surprised. This is of course the fourth or fifth update letter over the period, so some of the stuff is recapped. But I think there is too often a tendency to ‘dumb down’ at the expense of the detail people actually want, and where issues are necessarily complex because of the bureacracies involved, then they have to be set out; to do anything else is to drift towards the more patronising leaflet style of ‘working for you’. This is a crucial thing for these residents and most will take time to read and digest. Fair enough if they don’t want to, but at least I’m giving them the option.

    Fair enough point about sentence length in places – I do tend to do that a bit and I don’t edit my letters after writing as much as I should, but overall I still think detail counts, and I know my constituents actually appreciate the respect you accord them by providing the detail.

  5. CharlieMcMenamin
    January 26, 2011 at 12:33 pm

    It ain’t true that only Labour (…’and some greens/independent’)are conscientious caseworkers. The world would be a morally simpler place if it were. I have seen incredibly hard-working Tory councillors, and lazy, shyster Labour (including Left Labour) councillors who seem to think that any ‘non political’ work is beneath them.

    Voting against all cuts is not an option I have yet to decide my view on. But much of the discussion on the Left of this option is shockingly lightweight, and ignores the very real possibility – I’d call it a probability – that the result would be the effective end of local democracy of any sort in the areas thus affected, at least temporarily. Not to mention the fact that services would probably be cut even more in this situation.

    There is a case against voting against all cuts, of course, but I’m afraid it is a case based on Kinnock’s ‘battered shield’ which doesn’t make it particularly palatable for folks on the Left. It can’t be based on some argument about the inherent quality of Labour casework.

    Or perhaps you’re going to prove me wrong in part 2 of this post?

  6. Red Bandits
    January 27, 2011 at 2:23 pm

    So let me understand, your saying that as an elected Councillor of your local community you spend a lot of time chasing up their continuing concerns about local issues, dangerous Rd etc and that you are ignored by the Officers even when you have the backing of the whole Council.

    Well fuck a duck that sounds just like what happens in the Labour Party,

    Indeed havent Labour just come out of a period of 13 yrs in Office with some massive majorities?

    Do you think it might have anything to do with Democracy?

    Do you remember that idae about Democratising Society and Institutions? It was called Socialism or something like that. You know Democracy, that old thing Labour goes on and on about being good for other countries. This usually only happens when Labours inavading the other country and killing and Torturing its civilians.

    Strang when in power Labour forgets about Democratising the UK or indeed its own internal Democracy which now seem deader than a dodo, if throwing 80 yr olds out of Conference is any guide. Labours Conference having been relegated to something like an inquorate Council meeting on a wet Wednesday afternoon in January, sponsored by Billy Smarts Circus, Anne Summers and a favourite Arms manufacturer.

    No Labour seemed to spend its 13 years Govt time shackling Trade Union Freedoms, stifling any dissent, allowing Murdoch to Monopolise the Media, running an Unelected House of Lords and encouraging privatisation of the NHS and Public Services. Oh and encouraging bullying bosses to attack workers pay, pensions and conditions. Thats when Labour was not whipping up racism, xenophobia or scapegoating asylum seekers.

    Labour is a pathetic excuse for a party and the system of Local Democracy it could have introduced and nutured will have to wait for a party that doesnt rat on the poor or collaborate with the Privatisers. Have you ever heard of Lansbury and Poplar?

  7. Red Bandits
    January 27, 2011 at 7:09 pm

    Clicked a link on your blog oh what do I find

    Tuesday, 25 January 2011

    Guild Hall Job Cuts: It Was Labour’s Idea

    On Saturday River’s Edge commented about the swingeing Preston City Council cuts that will mean the loss of 23 jobs at Preston’s Guild Hall.

    What we didn’t realise at the time was that it was, by their own admission, the Labour Party that pointed the cuts axeman in the direction of the Guild Hall. According to today’s Lancashire Evening Post, “Opposition Labour group members say plans to scale down performances at the Guild Hall was an idea put forward by them – with the alternative being the closure of one or more city leisure centres.”

    It’s not true that there was no alternative – the real alternative would have been to fight tooth and nail to resist every cut. That is the only strategy that a party purporting to represent working class people should adopt. Instead Labour are proving that they are exactly the same as the Tories and Liberals. They say slashing the Guild Hall jobs was ‘preferable to the alternative’, for Labour, when the alternative is putting up a real fight against this government, anything is preferable…

    That’s not to say that the other parties fought hard on behalf of the Guild Hall staff, both Tory Hudson and LibDem Shannon made blithe comments about this cut being ‘preferable’ to cuts in other services.

    The reality is that all 3 establishment parties are rolling on their backs and implementing vicious cuts on behalf of the Con-Dem government that will be disastrous for public sector workers, and for the people who use the services they provide.

    Typical gutless Labour.

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