Wednesday, 16 March 2016

What Does a Councillor Do, Exactly?

Harry Phibbs is one of the Conservative councillors for Ravenscourt Park Ward in the London Borough of Hammersmith & Fulham. He was described by Chris Underwood, author of the original Shepherd's Bush blog (and no fan of our former Conservative Council) as "genuinely good....Top Tory".

Harry writes the Hammersmith and Fulham Forum blog, where he posts regularly about the latest issues and seeks, as he puts it to 'hold the Council to account".

We asked Harry to talk about being a Councillor in Shepherd's Bush, what Councillors do, what life is like in opposition, and what are some of the challenges and opportunities in our neighbourhood.

Ravenscourt Park Ward. Crown Copyright
How long have you been a councillor and what ward do you represent?
For almost ten years now I have represented Ravenscourt Park Ward.

What does a Councillor do, exactly?

A lot of emailing and going to meetings - there is a mix. You can have councillors who work hard but achieve nothing. There are other councillors who are simply rather lazy.

Then there are some, I would say most councillors, who are reactive - they are conscientious about "case work". They do their best to get the individual problems raised by their residents sorted out.

Then there are others who are also proactive - they are interested in policy and the bigger picture, what the council actually does.

But I am afraid that some councillors have rather lost interest in their role and just keep going purely for the money. That is why I would abolish councillor allowances - not just to provide a saving for the Council Taxpayer but to improve the quality of councillors.

How does the experience of being in opposition differ from being in power?
Naturally there is different role for opposition councillors to those in the administration. However, usually councils are run by the bureaucrats, and the administration councillors tend to act as spokesmen.

In Hammersmith and Fulham, when the Conservatives were in the majority, I would argue it was an exception - the councillors took an active role in running the Borough.  But since Labour took over in 2014 that has changed. There have been a few gimmicks and some "virtue signalling" but the substance of government has been left much more to the bureaucrats.

Public housing in Shepherd's Bush
What are some of the biggest challenges in our neighbourhood right now?
Housing is the biggest problem we face today. There are concerns - simultaneously - about a housing shortage and also about overdevelopment.

One way to make more new housing acceptable would be to ensure it is beautiful - but unfortunately much of the new build is not.

The difficulty at present is for the squeezed middle. There is lots of social housing in the borough, and those of us who are fortunate enough to own our own property have found we have become relatively wealthy - at least in notional asset terms.  But for someone on an average income trying to buy or rent privately it is a struggle in our borough.

There are plenty of other challenges. Air pollution is another big one. School standards have been driven up, but ensuring a choice of good school places with a growing population is not going to be easy.

What is our Council getting right, and wrong?
In some areas they have continued with Conservative policies which, of course, I welcome. The tri-borough arrangements with Kensington and Chelsea and Westminster have continued.

But their election pledges have been broken. They said they would block the plans for Charing Cross Hospital. They also promised to continue cutting Council Tax each year. There was a very modest one per cent cut last year but this year - nothing.

Generally there has been poor management. The streets are dirtier. Millions of pounds have been wasted on an ill-judged plan for stock transfer of the council housing.

There have been lots of gimmicks. A commission for this, a review for that, a panel for the other. It's a way of claiming to be terribly concerned about something but avoiding taking practical decisions. There was an "arts strategy" that they produced that was complete waffle, for example.

Then they proposed having a 20mph speed limit on all streets even though the police made clear they would not enforce it.

What are the frustrations of being in opposition?
As a journalist I find opposition easy enough - asking lots of questions and so on. And often I will be able to sort out particular problems that are raised. But it is frustrating sitting through meetings and having perhaps some influence but not power.

On the other hand I am confident that we will have a Conservative council in 2018 and so have a chance to pursue our ideas then.

How can local people get involved in the process and make things happen?

Emailing your local councillors with your ideas and complaints is a good start.  If a local resident has a clear allegiance to a political party then joining that party is an effective was to participate.

Joining their local residents association is another (or setting one up if it doesn't exist in their area).

Interests will vary. Some may be interested in being a school governor, others in serving on a housing association board, others in a Friends group for their local park.

Freedom of Information requests can be a very effective way of holding the Council to account -not least over how it is spending our money.

Of course starting a local blog is a very positive contribution...

The Bush Telegraph
 offers a personal view on life in Shepherd's Bush. If you would like to contribute a story about our neighbourhood, email us at shepherdsbushblog(at) And do leave a comment in the section below.

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