Why would anyone want to be a councillor?

First published in News by

As the local political parties prepare to do battle over the ballot box in May, we ask is local politics just for the older generation and just what does the role of a councillor entail?

"It is important that councils represent the make up of the local community," says leader of Hounslow Council and Labour group Colin Ellar. "At the end of the day it is a way of guaranteeing local services are run well."

A councillor is relied on by residents to represent their interests and ensure that they are getting the best possible service at value for money.

Everyday services you rely on such as street cleaning, refuse collection and libraries are provided by the council with councillors helping to formulate the policy on which distribution of money is based.

Every four years 60 members of the public are elected by the borough's residents to become councillors. At present there are 36 labour members making up the ruling party and 14 conservatives, five liberal democrats, three community and one independent who form the opposition with one vacant seat.

In March the list of those standing for May's elections will be announced.

The Labour party have almost completed their selection process for the year after shortlisting around 100 potential candidates.

"In terms of age, it is relatively hard to get people in their 20s even being shortlisted," says Cllr Ellar who represents Hanworth Park. "Generally there is not that much interest. It is quite rare to find someone in their 20s who is politically active. You tend to start in your 30s or 40s. It is probably because younger people are interested in other things. But we have contact with young people through the youth parliament."

Cllr Ellar himself is a prime example of this. "Politics is something I had an informal interest in when I was young, but I did not become politically active until my 40s."

Three candidates will be selected for each ward off a list of a possible six.

"We look for people who have ability," explains Cllr Ellar. "The ability to be able to understand issues, to represent people and to talk to people. We are looking for people with the right attitude, not entering into it for selfish motives but for the benefit of the whole community and the people they represent.

"We are looking for people with enough time. Being a councillor can be very time consuming. There are quite a lot of meetings in the evenings.

"The biggest challenge is to understand the role. Their role is one of managing services. To be able to represent people's views."

Cllr Ellar would welcome more young people to the political fold and is proud that Hounslow's cultural mix is reflected by the councillors representing the people.

"We have more or less imposed a policy of one women in every winnable ward," he adds.

But Phil Andrews, a member of the Independent Community Group (ICG) and councillor for Isleworth believes there is a real lack of understanding about a councillors role.

"I have been asked to use my 'influence' to alter EU legislation, intervene in wars and persuade Sven Goran-Ericsson to change his tactics in important matches," he explains. "I have also been told I live in a big house and live a life of luxury, when in actual fact I live in social housing and drive an old banger.

"But I am also touched by the amount of help which I receive from residents who really understand and empathise with what I am trying to achieve. It is this sense of camaraderie and unity of purpose amongst members of my community which inspires me above all else."

The ICG considers its self more a voice of organised local opinion than a political party.

"We draw our candidates, like our members, from a cross-section of the community, and unlike with the political parties, standing for the ICG doesn't require an ideological leap of faith," explains Cllr Andrews.

"We will be selecting our candidates early next month for the three wards which we have so far agreed to contest, and any member of the public who is eligible under electoral law can put his or her name forward for possible selection."

He believes, as a community councillor, the essential qualities for candidates would be: "a caring nature for dealing with constituents' problems, a thick skin for dealing with politicians and their ways, determination to succeed, a sense of proportion, a commitment to equality and social justice and, above all else, a real affinity with my community."

At 44 Cllr Andrews is one of the youngest councillors serving in Hounslow.

"That can't be right," he says. "But in order to encourage younger people the whole set-up needs to change. Representing thousands of electors is a big commitment for any councillor and at present there is very little to encourage younger people to dedicate so much of their time to attending meetings and dealing with casework.

"A council should reflect the constituency which it represents as accurately as possible. If we are to engage the whole community then it is important that we are seen to be representative of that community."

Cllr Andrews says his biggest challenge is having to contend with the obstructions which come with taking on what he describes as a highly politicised, often petty bureaucracy - Hounslow Council.

"My motivation comes from a burning desire to overcome injustice within the system. When you are a community councillor it smirks in your face and taunts you to do your worst. The system is a powerful, terrible entity and some understandably recoil from such a daunting challenge. Personally I couldn't live with myself without knowing that I had done everything within my power to make things right," he adds.

Councillors have the opportunity to scrutinise and comment on national and local policies.

Ten members of the majority party form the council's executive and five area committees are responsible for monitoring the delivery of services in their areas.

They make recommendations for changes in policy and working practice and can challenge council officers and cabinet members to justify their decisions or consider different options.

Councillors may also sit on quasi-judicial committees like the planning committee, which are non-political.

Another important part of a councillor's work is resolving problems with-in their ward.

It is possible to spend a lot of time working for the council with most meetings taking place in the evening. On average a councillor will spend five to 20 hours a week on ward work alone.

Councillors can be political representatives, which means they will be a member of the local political party, or independent, but all must be over 21, a commonwealth citizen or citizen of a member of the European community, registered to vote.

If you are bankrupt, have a criminal conviction with a minimum penalty of three months in prison, have been found guilty of corrupt of illegal practice, work for Hounslow council or hold a politically restricted post you cannot stand.

To help a newly elected councillor understand their work a reference file, administrative, research and secretarial support are provided.

They also receive a computer, paid for internet access and an additional telephone line. Time and expenses incurred on council business are also reimbursed. For more information contact electoral services on 020 8583 2137/2110/2095.

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