Ray Dawe: Ordinary people balancing conflicting pressures

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So, who would be a councillor? Who would put themselves through the challenge of trying to keep abreast of ever-changing policy and guidance, exercising dutiful restraint, weighing comments from the electorate with advice from their officers, facing criticism in the press or social media, and doing all this in their spare time?

I wonder how often readers of this newspaper stop to think exactly who ‘the council’ is. In West Sussex it could be one of three bodies. At the most local level it is a parish or neighbourhood council, then we have Horsham District Council and finally covering the whole of West Sussex, the county council. Each has different sets of responsibilities.

Councillors are just ordinary members of the public trying to make a contribution to the community in which we live and to assist the people we represent.

A councillor could be any reader of this newspaper over the age of 18 regardless of experience or background. We are all entitled to stand for election to any of these councils.

At each level of council you will find a group of people who spend a lot of time trying to do the ‘right’ thing - reading through reports, and working with their council’s staff to understand the issues and to ensure that informed decisions are made.

It has long intrigued me that members of the public with especially strong opinions are happy to protest loudly but when asked to join in the actual decision-making process by becoming a councillor are most reluctant to do so.

So, I was really encouraged recently when a member of a protest group came along to a parish council meeting in my local area to comment about a particular housing issue, but felt embarrassed that as soon as that topic was over everyone except him got up and left, leaving the councillors to deal with a host of other business that affected their community.

As a result of this, he applied to take up a vacant space on the parish council, saying he thought it would be a great opportunity to get more involved in local issues.

As I know from the correspondence I receive and indeed letters in this newspaper, compliments are rare.

Far more commonly we hear from those who view councillors as wrongly motivated and as a target to be shot down – sometimes very personal in their attack.

They often fail to understand how difficult it is to balance the conflicting pressures locally, nationally and financially.

Moves towards decisions result in a wave of correspondence telling us we should do things differently. Few of the decisions councils make are easy or will be universally popular.

One of our newer district councillors said that when she stood for election she was concerned about local decisions she did not agree with, especially planning matters, and so she wanted to be part of the process and understand it better.

She has since commented how much easier it was just looking in than actually now being part of the decision-making process!

Am I suggesting that we will get it right every time?

Certainly not, but I am simply saying that your councillors are ordinary people – just like you.

They try to weigh up all aspects of an issue and then seek to do their very best.

Interestingly though, it remains the case that councillors are usually the most committed and enthusiastic advocates of our local government system.

They accept it is not perfect but they have a vision for the place that they represent and they accept the obligations of office to do something about it.