I’ve been engaged in a little spat-ette on Twitter with my counterpart in the London Borough of Wandsworth, Conservative Cllr James Cousins, who recently declared that councillor advice surgeries are “a waste of time”. (Poorly attended surgeries a waste of time, admits bored local councillor, South London Press, July 21 2009).
On his website Cllr Cousins said of his Lavender Hill library surgery: “I think council surgeries are a waste of time. They are a hangover from a bygone age. And we should look at how we provide them, and even whether we should provide them at all.”
In the South London Press article, Cllr Cousins was quoted as saying: “I could be spending an hour actually doing some useful council business. But instead, I counted the number of buses going by. I read a few children books … I don’t think anyone’s life was being enhanced by my being in the library.”
“Privately, most councillors think it’s a waste of time. But if you ask them, they’ll say it’s a wonderful thing to engage with the electorate and loads of people come along. But if you look at the evidence, not many people are.”
Privately and publicly I don’t think surgeries are a waste of time. My experience of surgeries is different – people do come. They ask for help. If that isn’t useful council business, what is?
I think Cllr Cousins has done councillors in general a disservice by suggesting that we would rather be somewhere else. What does that say about local democracy, and how will that encourage more people through Cllr Cousins’ surgery doors?
On Saturday morning I left for my surgery (in Streatham South we do at least 4 a month plus a regular street stall). I tweeted as I went. I said: “Off soon to do advice surgery at Granton School, Streatham Vale. The Wandsworth Tories may think them a waste of time, but I don’t.”
Cllr Cousins tweeted back at me some hours later saying: “Why let facts get in the way of some political knocking?”
Yes, I hold my hands up, it was political knocking. But it had a serious point. I genuinely believe councillor surgeries offer a regular opportunity for residents to come along and air concerns or seek advice with problems.
So, in that spirit of non-partisan helpfulness for which I am renowned, I tweeted back: “I get plenty of people at my surgeries.”
Which is true. I had nearly 30 people at one surgery and struggled to find chairs for them all. The surgery extended well beyond the advertised hour. The regular number would probably be 3 or 4 people, which is manageable in one hour, bearing in mind the cases are often quite complex. That complexity is why people come to see me face-to-face rather than writing or emailing.
Cllr Cousins tweeted back: “I’m very pleased for you. Probably a function of the relative quality of the councils.”
Ah, now who’s indulging in political knocking? Tory Wandsworth swipes its big blue handbag at Labour Lambeth.
But while Cllr Cousins has been reading children’s books in empty libraries, Lambeth has changed. Labour has been in charge of Lambeth since May 2006, when voters kicked out a disastrously incompetent Tory-Lib Dem administration that had wasted or lost £34 million, leaving the borough on the brink of financial collapse.
Since 2006, Labour has established stable finances and healthy reserves. We are in the top national performance bands for the first time ever and rank as one of the fastest improving councils in the country. We have kept council tax increases low and now frozen it. We have worked in partnership with other public agencies to improve quality of life in Lambeth. Crime, for example, is down by 30% and we are determined to bring it down further.
There is much to do to improve services to residents, but we are working hard on that and when services are inadequate we acknowledge that and work to turn them round.
But as Cllr Cousins said, why let facts get in the way of some political knocking?
I would agree with his belief that people often go to MPs’ surgeries with council-related issues which would be better dealt with by councillors. Conversely, I often get people with immigration cases which I am unable to deal with, or issues of international diplomacy, and have to refer them to the MP’s surgery.
What is needed is not a write-off of councillor surgeries but better communication with residents about what MPs can do at their surgeries and what councillors can do at theirs.
Councils and councillors should be taking a lead in that.
For information, in Streatham South our regular council surgeries happen as follows:
1st Saturday: Granton School (Granton Road, Streatham Vale, SW16) 10.30am to 11.30am
2nd Friday: Holy Redeemer Church (corner Streatham Vale & Churchmore Rd, SW16) 7.00-7.45 pm
3rd Saturday: Shree Swaminaryan Centre, corner Colmer Rd & Ellison Rd 10.30-11.30am
Last Saturday of the month: Immanuel and St. Andrew’s Church Hall (452 Streatham High Road) 10.30am-11.30am