There has been much in the local media very recently about what makes a ‘good’ councillor who represents the best interests of his or her residents.
Virtually any one of you over the age of 18 can put yourself forward for election to the district council. As a councillor you become part of a democratic system with all the responsibilities that brings. If elected you would find yourself as one of 44 councillors.
You would then be asked to join various committees and divide your time between dealing with your own ward queries and issues that affect a wider area or the whole District. I guess that most members’ involvement is from about 16 hours a week but at certain times much longer. Members receive a basic taxable allowance of £4,665 a year for doing their job.
You can stand as an independent candidate or put your name forward to a political party and seek selection as their candidate. They would clearly want to know that you would support the aims and aspirations of their party group if elected and also follow their rules about personal conduct. These rules are usually handed down from that party’s headquarters and by standing you also agree to abide by them. These include how you participate in a democratic vote for council positions.
Councils throughout the country work on a basis where the largest grouping formulates and puts forward policy. All political groups have their own regular confidential meetings - these are for the purpose of discussing council and policy matters with the aim at achieving a collective view often by means of a vote.
If it is a matter that goes to a full council meeting it is then up to each councillor in that political group who doesn’t like the decision, to weigh up both the overall political consideration and his personal agenda when he speaks and votes. I believe that all members of the council want to achieve very much the same goals for the District but different political groups would go about achieving them in different ways. This is a major benefit of the party system where voters at an election are aware of a common set of beliefs and aspirations in a party manifesto.
The great value of a political group sitting behind a policy is that they start off with an understood joint approach to a matter and there is more collective energy, time and commitment to getting things done. There is a greater power therefore in a group standing together for a set of policies than any single councillor who stands alone. The largest amount of any councillor’s time is probably that taken up by planning issues. This may be anything from a house extension to dealing with a major strategic site as part of the proposed District Plan looking at where future housing and commercial development could go over a period of years.
It can present a conflict for any councillor when there is a contrast between what is considered undesirable by many in their immediate locality but is in the wider district interest. Councillors have to weigh their decisions against the background of the dreaded ‘appeal’. This is a process where the council rejects a plan which is then heard by a government inspector and granted, often resulting in many more houses and loss of community benefits that were offered under the original plan.
The balance then for a local councillor is to look at the reality and the long term best interests of residents. It may be locally popular to resist now, but wouldn’t it be substantially worse if we lost the appeal?
All councillors understand this dilemma and the answer then is to look at what is possible and work together to extract the maximum benefit for the community since doing otherwise means they lose out.
And of course finally, you need a tough skin since you will inevitably become involved in doing something an individual resident or larger group doesn’t like and they will write both to you and probably to this paper giving their view in far less than flattering terms!