WHATEVER position you hold on a council – including regional or national posts – you are always, first and foremost, a ward councillor.
In this week’s blog I’m going to talk about how and why I first became a ward member and reflect upon why I believe the work they do is so important.
My own story starts with the love of my home town of Failsworth.
My family has built up strong friendships and we feel safe and part of a community here.
When I first stood for election I certainly didn’t do it because I had any ambition to be a Council Leader – if anything the thought of that would have put me off standing!
I put my name forward because I wanted to do my bit to help in making the little piece of the borough where I lived the best that it can be.
I didn’t do it knowingly for altruistic reasons, although I’ve always felt it was important to play your part in community life. You get out what you put in.
I did it because when we were expecting our first son I started to take more time and interest than before to consider the place where he would be growing up.
Suddenly I found the local park was on my mind – and the performance of local schools and how safe the area was too. All of the kinds of things which most of us take for granted suddenly become very important. Or, at least, they did for me.
Before standing for election I was already busy being locally active.
From my early days of setting up the Failsworth Historical Society with my good friend John Crompton, to sitting as the youth representative on the (then) Area Committee, I was enjoying feeling part of something bigger: the community.
I’ll admit that when I was subsequently elected as ward member for Failsworth East it was all a bit overwhelming, and it still is.
For people in your neighbourhood to take the trouble to go out and vote for you provides real food for thought. It isn’t just a show of support, it is a contract and one which I take very seriously.
It demands that I act in the wider public interest and work hard to make the town a better place.
Instead of waiting for someone else to step up and do that, I was prepared to do my bit, but I feel genuinely privileged to hold the positions that I do and also a huge weight of responsibility not to let down those people who’ve trusted me.
I can walk around my local ward now and point to improvements that have been made. I can meet people I’ve been lucky enough to help and I’ll also be certain to pick up new casework as residents stop to chat.
That short personal story (and a lot has happened since!) will be similar to a great number of councillors across all political divides in Oldham and elsewhere. I’ve been fortunate to work with most members of the council here and can say that, by and large, they are dedicated and in politics for one reason – to make a difference.
I know the positive impact ward councillors can make but at times we are all so busy getting on with things that we often forget to let people know what we’ve been doing.
As we gave increased budgets and powers back to the districts I therefore felt it was important that we had some way for them to report back, which is why we introduced Annual Reports for councillors. You can read these by clicking here.
Most councillors have published these reports and they are important. They’re not about committee positions, high office or party politics. They are all about their work as a local ward member.
These are also about accountability. They are good for local democracy and good for councillors: a rare chance to pause and reflect on a year.
I’ve read every one of them and although it’s hard to pick out individual reports I wanted to give a flavour of what goes on.
Look, for example, at Hollinwood councillor Steve Williams. His annual report beings by saying: “I have always felt that I am one of the most privileged councillors Oldham has ever had”. That is because of the pride he takes in representing his community.
Steve then goes on to list a host of community projects, grant funding schemes and work being done to help those in financial difficulty. It isn’t all hard work though as he also talks about a great day out at Southport and Blackpool with local families.
And this isn’t about party politics.
A different but equally interesting annual report from Saddleworth councillor John McCann tells of how he fought hard with local people to get the 180 bus service restored.
For me this is all part of the bigger picture. Effective local leaders working for local people and being supported to do that by a confident cooperative council that is willing to devolve power down to those elected by their community.
Being a councillor isn’t all fun and rewarding, of course.
At times it can hard and nothing can ever really prepare you for the divisive nature of Oldham politics at times.
It would be easy to be distracted or shaken by the attempts of some to attack you for the sake of politicking, but I find having a reference point to step back and reflect upon is good for the soul. It serves as an important reminder of why we are all here.
It would be a reasonable question to ask why – if I only wanted to be a ward councillor – I am now Council Leader or giving time nationally to local government issues.
Put simply, it is because I believe in local government. I also believe in the power of communities to come together and decide who they want to represent them.
Sadly, in reality, many decisions are not made by local communities as unaccountable bodies or distant agencies are often deciding what you get and how and when you get it.
But if by working beyond Oldham’s geographical boundaries we can get a better deal for the communities we’re here to represent, then I believe that is a very good use of my time.
Our system isn’t perfect – and I would never claim I am perfect, far from it – but I do think we sometimes badly underestimate the value of local government and the work of ward members.
If you have a few spare minutes, why not check out the work of your own ward councillors? Hopefully it will give you a better insight into what is being done in your area. And if that prompts to contact your local councillor and say so – or give any feedback – then I know they’d all really appreciate it. That’s why we are all here.
Thanks for listening,