Joining the dots? No, smudging them

I’m often asked what it takes to be a local councillor.

First off, I answer with what the minimum commitment is. All a councillor HAS to do is turn up to a council meeting once every six months.

That’s it – no other attendance is expected, no phone calls answered, no e-mails replied to, no newsletters, no meeting residents on the doorstep. NOTHING, as long as once every 6 months, the councillor turns up to some council meeting or other, that’s fine – they can sit back and receive their monthly allowance.

But that’s not me – I want to get involved with my city, my ward and my community.

So what do I think the role of a councillor is? It splits down into several elements

1) Casework
This is the element that local residents hold dear. Here in Cowick, the local councillors probably initiate as much casework as is laid on our plates

2) Community Engagement
In Cowick this usually takes the form of councillors attending the local coffee mornings, but stretches to holding councillor surgeries on buses, doorstep/street surgeries and a recent public meeting, attended by over 70 residents, to discuss the route of the local bus.

3) Community Leadership
With very few community facilities within Cowick, and many residents believing they love in Higher St Thomas, it is up to us ward councillors to help engender a feeling of community, whether by advocating for better facilities and resource, helping residents to move towards setting up formal residents’ associations, or by being innovative in discovering the hidden communities and developing them with small ward grants.

4) Council meetings
Preparing and attending meetings takes up an enormous amount of time, much of it invisible to the general public.

5) Communication
We aim to publish and distribute at least 4 ward newsletters a year in a non-election year – but for Cowick that means 3 out of 4 years. in elections years, the amount of print probably doubles.

We also deliver street letters on street/area specific issues, be it speeding or residents’ parking
On top of that, I do a lot electronically on social media – this blog, I tweet as @Paul4Cowck, i quite often storify interesting conversations and contribute to the Cowick Labour Councillors facebook feed (mainly run by my Cowick co-councillor, Heather Morris).

6) Political activity
Of course, all the above would be nothing without the strong belief in socialism and co-operation that is my main motivation. And at all levels – Branch, CLP, South West Region and nationally.

But it also strays into the green agenda (i describe myself as RED and Green, and was initially attracted to the ecological and environmental aspects of campaigning before I joined the Labour Party in 1986).

Other areas of interest include sustainable transport, bedroom tax and other areas of welfare reform and,  of course, arts and culture.

All these points resonate closely  with a report I’ve just discovered,  the Joseph Rowntree Foundation‘s report “Ward Councillors and community leadership” a future perspective”, published in November 2007.

Councillors could do no better than to try to live up to the definitions contained within the report.

So is that it?

Over the past week, I’ve attended a range of meetings
1) North, East and West Devon Clinical Commissioning Group on the future of Exeter’s Walk-In Centres;
2) The first event in Labour’s “One Nation Arts” tour led by Harriet Harman and Dan Jarvis in Bristol;
3) Introductory training session for prospective Governors for the Royal Devon & Exeter NHS Foundation Trust;
4) School assembly by St Thomas Primary School sharing some of the outcomes from a local Intergenerational Project funded by one of our ward grants;
5) Ward coffee morning
6) Garden Party hosted by the Vice-Chancellor of University of Exeter; and
7) A launch event for Exeter Trails, bringing together 101 independent traders across the city to publish 5 trails

No silos, there – a strong case of horizontal rather than vertical thinking.

I was asked at the NEW Devon CCG community engagement even why was i there? it felt like a challenge. I replied “to join the dots”.

Damie Hirst: Zinc Sulfate (2008)

But as the week developed, I’ve decided it’s more than that. I want to smudge the dots.

Horizon Smudged

it’s not individual elements that matter, everything we do as councillors interacts.

1) The GPs at the NEW Devon meeting were interested about my thoughts about how arts can help with well-being and prevention
2) Theatre and dance practitioners talked about their dance classes for those suffering from Parkinson’s Disease, and I highlighted using ward grants to support creative and cultural sector with in-school work and trips to theatre
3) A chance to mention Exeter’s own Health and Wellbeing Board, which we’ve set up since devon County Councl wouldn’t give us a place on their own HWB board.
4) The head talked to me about threats posed by major changes to the National Curriculum, and I was only there after providing a community grant
5)  A rambling series of conversations that covered bus routes, part night street lighting, cycle lanes, but eventually revealed that staff at one of Exeter’s Walk-In Centre had been told that their job was safe for another 2 years.
6) Yet another chance to talk about arts and health, plus another chance to promote Exeter’s own HWB board.
7) If each of the 101 traders involved has 4 workers, then this sector is bigger the John Lewis store on the High Street.. Oh, and one of the leading lights told me he relocate dot Exeter because of the cultural offer of the city

A typical week for a councillor? Yes and no, as there is probably no such thing as a typical week for a councillor.

But one that’s reminded me that it’s good to smudge the dots.


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