Cllr Andrew Snowden is a County Councillor for Hoghton with Wheelton and Lead Member for Highways and Transport on Lancashire County Council.
Over the summer I’ve had chance, on long haul flights and summer afternoons out and about in my division, to reflect on my first year as a new Councillor.
These are my personal reflections based on my circumstances; I represent a split rural and urban seat, in a two-tier authority, in a marginal seat and council, where we won control the year I was elected.
It will take a long time for the first impressions you make on Council Officers to change and you won’t get anything done without them; I’ve seen new councillors go about it the right way and the wrong way. Don’t take yourself more seriously than the role, don’t be rude or abrupt, don’t think yourself suddenly ‘more important’ or have a right to flout due process or reprimand someone.
Introduce yourself, make small talk, seek their opinion – treat it as a first day in a new job – yes, be robust in your views and asking for what you want – but don’t forget they’ve seen it all before, they’ve heard it all before and people talk. Your positive reputation as someone to work with and who people want to help or your reputation as someone to avoid at all costs, will spread quickly and stick.
Once you get elected and therefore know whether you are in power or in opposition and whether you are a front or a back bencher, map out all your meetings against your existing commitments and then look at what time you have left to actually DO anything. This is critically important if you work full-time; making it work for you and being an example to others is how we get more young people involved in local politics.
You will have obviously worked out that you have time to be a councillor before you stand. This isn’t about how much time you have to be a Councillor – it’s about how you use it. Local government and local democratic structures are the single biggest talking shops you will come across – you can be consumed by it or you can control it.
I mapped out all of my meetings and realised I would spend nearly all my time as a councillor talking about the same issues, often with many of the same people, just in different places.
Instead I choose to spend the time I have walking my division and talking to residents, taking pictures of defects and other issues and getting them fixed. I spend it writing and delivering newsletters, engaging digitally with my electorate, regularly surveying residents and importantly working with officers on actually DOING things.
I wrote out to all my Parish Councils explaining that basically I wanted to be a man of action not a man of words and that I wasn’t going to spend my term of office sat in endless meetings.
Beware of opposition councillors offering platitudes of kindness and joint working and equally never take at face value the claims of ‘being truly independent and keeping politics out of it’ from people on groups and parish councils. Don’t get me wrong, the vast majority are genuine and sincere in that, but always keep in your mind that you build the trust that they are over time – there are always wolves in sheep’s clothing – and they are out to trip you up.
When I was a candidate I remember getting stitched up in the minutes of a parish council meeting over something that hadn’t happened how it had been recorded at all, so emailed to say I was surprised and could they change it to reflect what actually happened. I got a response saying they would stand as they were.
I was startled as I had been given the impression the chairman of the Parish Council and many of the Members were ‘independent and kept politics out of it’ and therefore could not understand why they would want to mislead to make me look bad. So, you would imagine my surprise and also realisation that I had been stitched up like a kipper, when the Chairman of said Parish Council later appeared on the stage on an election result night sporting a red rosette as the election agent to the Labour candidate…
The opposition are not your friend and rarely do they campaign clean regardless of what they say. Keep your guard up.
It is easy to get wrapped up and obsessed by the political machinations and ‘who said what’ in council meeting and debates. It’s simple: Don’t.
Do what you need to either get your business through or hold the administration to account if you are in opposition, but as a new councillor get out of there as much as you can and talk to your residents, work street by street on casework and produce good quality newsletters and social media. That will have far more impact on the lives of those you serve than the minutes of any meeting.
Going all the way back to when I was stitched up in those minutes. I obsessed about it – how could they do that and what would people think when they read it? But I soon learnt, that no one other than me and the people on the council had read them – because who does…
My advice to any new councillors is do not be baffled by organisation charts, by complex committee structures and endless governance and projects boards. Focus on what needs to be delivered and who, and I mean who – not which department or board – a named individual, is accountable to you to make it happen, no matter how big or small the job.
As Conservatives we often compare the public sector unfavorably to the private sector – highlighting the lesser efficiency and an entirely different attitude to simply getting the job done. I have encountered lots of examples of this across the organisations and bodies since we won control, but I’ve also met some wonderful and dedicated Officers who are passionate, hardworking and effective. Who don’t want to hide behind a wall of bureaucracy – they want to just crack on.
You will always get those who you can’t please and they will often be the ones who tell you their views the loudest, the most often and most likely in full view on social media: You either don’t tell us what you are doing or you promote yourself too much…you either don’t get things done or why did you do it that way etc.
In short – you were elected to serve a community; so keep calm and carry on and you’ll do fine.