This section offers a few case studies exploring different aspects of the councillor role
As a councillor it’s very easy to foster dependency as you can broker contact with relevant officers or write on people’s behalf. People appreciate this. If the councillor rings, they get an answer, if they ring they might not get an answer at all. If there are recurring issues, then it helps to get everyone working together around those issues to find common themes and encourage people to think about community issues rather than just their own issues.
The councillor role becomes that of facilitator at ward level to:
- meet with all local voluntary and community groups in an area to see what the common issues are and support people to work together
- listen to the insights they have and discuss how they can be more proactive
- come up with some common solutions and ways forward
This councillor is seeking a way of using the fund allocated to councillors to spend in their ward as a way of getting groups to think about what they collectively want to achieve in the ward – to be a bit more strategic.
…..very small fund…lots funding applications…the more general view of the councillor deciding how to spend the money is a reactive way of doing things…got £s……they ask what do you want to do with it, rather than…. what do we want to achieve across the ward?
There are always risks to ‘empowering’ people to find their own routes – this could have negative consequences as you may be seen as not immediately helpful…it’s about managing expectations.
Sitting on Boards
Councillors can bring information, expertise and useful contacts into the heart of an organisation. They can assist in making the organisation more influential. Councillors can give organisations an idea around future policies and help smooth the way. As well as being advantageous though, this can also have detrimental effects if other voluntary organisations feel that there is an unfair advantage.
Many councillors report that they sit on the local Boards of disability or health related organisations as these often feel like ‘worthy’ causes. Association with these organisations often goes back years and has a personal trigger.
Councillors have to choose who they work with carefully and be clear about the role they play in that organisation. It might be a good idea for councillors not to attend business meetings but to act as a critical friend at a distance for several organisations in their area.
When councillors sit on local neighbourhood structures, such as Local neighbourhood Partnerships, it’s wise not to get too involved as some residents worry about them taking control of the agenda and the meeting.
Councillors and Community Led Planning – Neighbourhood Planning
Councillors can play a useful role – they bring representative democracy into direct association with groups / networks to draw up priorities and plans for the area. The role of the councillor is to educate, ask questions, involve people and challenge the process to be as equal and inclusive as possible. It’s important for someone to champion the area and the community in order to recognise and work with the assets and strengths of an area rather than focus solely on issues and problems. The councillor is ideally situated for this role.
Finding funding for ‘good works’ in the community is one way that some councillors choose to support community and voluntary groups / organisations; they feel this makes a tangible difference. This, of course, raises their profile as it is very visible activity, which may be no bad thing come election time. Councillors understandably have an eye on elections.
A potential risk to this way of supporting communities is that the councillor is viewed as biased towards particular causes and groups. It is helpful to consider changing beneficiaries from time to time.
It can also be extremely time-consuming on top of the other necessities of the role. It can take a personal toll especially if the funding comes from sponsorship for physical feats such as running marathons. It is useful to manage expectations so that groups do not expect or come to rely on funding raised in such a manner.
This approach is not particularly about supporting groups to become influential or involving more people.
Using what there is to get more
In order for people in communities and neighbourhoods to be part of the conversations and dialogue about the future of where they live, there has to be some kind of community infrastructure in place – some way for groups and people to meet, agree priorities and liaise with relevant agencies and decision making structures.
One councillor told us of their plan to start going to the local Friends of the Park group as this is the only community group he knows about in the area. Once he has established a relationship with the group, he will encourage them to work with him to bring local people and any other groups together.
Councillor as enabler and empowerer – improving people’s lives
In an area of extreme deprivation with few community facilities, one councillor saw her role as bringing new ideas for people to try, with support. She wanted to work with people around healthy living, thinking that it would be great if they grew more than fridges and sofas in their gardens! She worked with a small group to identify land for a small community garden and allotment and found funding for a food coop to operate out of the tiny community centre – which is an ex-store room!
She sees her role as anticipating issues in advance and encouraging community cohesion. She is wary of councillors pleasing one or two groups and she tries to keep an overview of the area and recognise the smaller groups. She focuses on the big issues that face people living in her ward – one example being the plight of children living in disrupted and dysfunctional families linked to drug and alcohol use. She worked with another small group of residents to start a kid’s cycle project, giving these children a bike as a means to remove themselves quickly from the home situation if it grew too volatile.
…its about sorting real social issues rather than tinkering
…show people how to do things, and if they can, they become empowered…
One councillor worked with a small residents’ association in his ward to take on responsibilities for restoring and managing some local green spaces that have become derelict. He sees his role as providing guidance and helping to steer the proposals through the Council bureaucracy. He also sees his role as one of stimulating a new and non-institutionalised form of community action; this does not mean dragooning residents into forming committees or joining established organisations, but encouraging neighbours to come together for a limited common purpose – that of improving and maintaining their local environment. The method suggested is as follows:
- Identify a group of contiguous streets with some green spaces and possibly play areas in common.
- Leaflet all the houses explaining that we are introducing a project to improve the local environment with the help of local residents and invite them to a meeting to explain the scheme.
- At the meeting ask residents to identify two or more projects which would materially improve their area, these could range from clearing scrub areas, cleaning out ponds, cutting hedges to maintaining play areas and removing trees and undergrowth and discuss the obstacles to getting them done. Register all those who are prepared to support the scheme.
- Identify what support they would need to carry out the project; this could involve tools, equipment, storage facilities, containers, skips etc. but not money.
- See what equipment could be provided directly by the residents themselves and what needed to be obtained from outside sources. Make arrangements to provide the latter on loan.
- Agree a time scale for completing the project(s) and a follow up meeting to celebrate their completion perhaps with refreshments. Use the follow up meeting to identify further communal projects/activities that might be undertaken by the neighbourhood.
- Use the County website and social networks to keep residents in touch with each other and informed as to what is going on, through a locality based network to be used as an alternative to traditional meetings. This could become a forum for use by other public service bodies wishing to provide local information.
- Roll the scheme out to include other areas but only always on the basis of a few streets at a time. As the roll outs gather pace there could be a local competition for the best kept neighbourhood with a suitable reward attached.
You might want to take a look at these posts:
There is a lot of expertise amongst councillors and there should be more opportunities to share that experience and knowledge.
Now have a look at How others see the councillor role