Life As A Stoke-on-Trent Councillor – So Far, So Good

By Cllr Abi Brown [Meir Park & Sandon]

If a week is a long time in politics, then six weeks seems like a lifetime.

I’ve attended two full Councils, made my first speech and started to get into the routine of Council work, though I still don’t feel any surer about the answer to the most asked question of, “So what’s it like being a councillor?”

Although I have some experience in local government and politics, I didn’t expect to be quite so busy ““ I am a fairly well organised person, but trying to run my council diary and fitting in ward work alongside my work diary and family commitments is tough at times. Prioritising what needs doing can also be difficult ““ a few weeks ago, I had to send apologies to a committee meeting as I feel that important ward meetings should take precedence. I will now never get a gold star for 100% attendance, however I was able to have a big input into the priorities for my ward over the next 12 months.

The amount of paper arriving for me has diminished, though I am still trying to get my head round the system for council post. I aim to nip into the Civic Centre at least once a week to empty my pigeon hole, yet almost without fail an envelope of council post arrives either the night before or the morning after. It is interesting to see which departments and organisations are now almost entirely paper-free, using e-bulletins for briefings, and contrast to those who must be almost solely responsible for the eradication of a rainforest each every month. Most annoying are those who email me a letter, then post it to me themselves (rather than in a bundle with other post) and finally put a copy in my pigeon hole too for good measure. I am considering setting up a system of fines for the worst offenders.

One of my election commitments was having a regular surgery, which starts in July. I’ve also set up a blog (www.abibrown.wordpress.com) and you can follow me on Twitter too (@abibrown1), though I’ve also been getting out and about at various groups. I’m still deciding whether it’s a good thing to be told, “We thought you’d turn up,” when you arrive at a small community event. I suspect some think this enthusiasm will trail off, but as Conservative members will tell you, I am this enthusiastic all the time about being out in all weathers, chatting to people and campaigning.

My family are getting used to it ““ my parents are very proud, as are the rest of my family, however for my 4 year old son, it’s just another job Mummy does, albeit one that sometimes requires him to be dragged along to strange events with strange people who want to talk to him (he is quite shy). At times, it does require some juggling and I can’t always attend things, so instead I prioritise what I go to and get individual briefings where necessary, but then the same is the case for any working councillor.

The second most asked question at the moment is, “But are you enjoying it?” Without a moment’s hesitation, the answer to that is yes. Making a difference in your community is what does it for me

The Diary Of The Life Of A New Stoke-on-Trent City Councillor – Matt Wilcox

Pits n Pots are pleased to bring you a diary of the first two weeks in the life of Matt Wilcox, one of the Labour Party’s twelve new Stoke-on-Trent City Councillors.

Matt was elected to serve the good folk of the East Valley ward.

We get a great insight into life as a serving Councillor. We start with the most recent entry and work back to Election Day.

21/5/10
Attended my first mentoring session with a great guy in the scrutiny office called John Ross, we had a good chat and he showed me around. Discussed some of my concerns and also bounced some ideas off him, told him I was disappointed that there was no real milk in the councillors room which was a bit of a let down!

In the evening I nipped past a really busy event at the Sneyd Green community centre where John from the residents association’s was hosting a night of clairvoyance with a local medium. When I got there it was already packed with more arriving in a steady stream by the minute. Managed to speak to lots of local people and find out some of the issues locally one lady told me about the local kids ripping the trees to bits, another about parking issues by the local primary.

I’ve got the feeling many of these residents and their views had been neglected over the past few years and they seemed really happy to see a local councillor take the time to come and say hello. If I want to be elected again next year these are the places I need to come to, places where the community congregate and places where I can meet the community and be seen to be active. I’m hoping to set up a surgery here soon so that they have a regular place where people can come and air their views about services, something which is very important in an area so dominated by social housing.

20/5/10
Watched an interesting question time tonight, lots of people not happy with the national governmental coalition. Its actually quite funny seeing the tories and lib dems sitting next to each other backing each other up as opposed to the traditional 3 way argument that normal ensues.

19/5/10
I take a call about an elderly lady who hasn’t had any central heating all winter and is very frustrated with the local council, I promise her that I will do my utmost to find out what is happening. Some of the things I’ve seen in just one week are amazing from crazy planning consent through to elderly with no heating in freezing cold winters. I hope that these are isolated incidents and there are logical explanations for them.

18/5/10
A day away from politics sees me getting some great work done at the youth project where I am the strategic development manager. Over the past week if I’m honest I may have neglected my duties so get there very early in order to catch up. The role of councillor can be quite time consuming but I believe if you can effectively manage your diary its easy to get a good balance between being active in the ward you represent and keeping the day job going to pay the bills! As an example I am writing this in bed!

Today is also the day of the learn more awards where Unity is nominated for 3 awards, “Most active in the community”, “Best use of technology” and my business partner Israel is nominated for “Community Champion”.

I’m pleased to say we won 2 awards and came second in the best use of technology one, I’m very proud that the staff team have been rewarded for their efforts and am proud that from an idea we had 5 years ago we now offer so many fantastic services and have such a great team of practitioners who work hard to improve outcomes for the young people we work with.

17/5/10
This morning involves a “Ward Walk” with the AIT and the chief executive around East Valley. We begin at the recently regenerated Spa shop and flats on Community drive, make our way through Smallthorne up to Sneyd Green where I meet many of the resident committee chairs and then onto investigate ongoing issues of parking in Milton and a business with no planning permission.

Sneyd Green community centre was an interesting visit where I met a gentleman called John who was the chair of the residents association and had been responsible for the building of the play area on repington road and the asset transfer of the community centre from city council ownership into ownership by the community. He tells me that he is successfully making it financially viable after taking it over when it had only previously made a £13 profit for the year. Its certainly a great community asset, looks like it is well looked after and offers some fantastic community activities such as sequence dancing, troupe, keep fit and dieting groups.

Milton seems to have real problems with parking and there is some land which with a little money from the ward budget could certainly help towards easing the issue but there are some issues over development and ownership which may, or may not be resolved. Its something I’m eager and hopeful I can help solve during the next 12 months.

I finish off my day of council duties with lunch with the neighbourhood manager at the civic where I sample Cumberland sausage with veg which actually turned out to be beans and chips! We discuss many things but the transition into councillor feels like a very natural one, I’m familiar with much of the terminology used and its just getting the hang of the processes involved to really create better communities.

One thing that is becoming apparent is the amount of people I’m meeting who have said they are here to make a change, I’m not here to make a change I’m here to make a “Positive difference” I think that’s an important thing for all councillors to remember.

The evening turns to a very important Labour party meeting where we are to decide what to do with the situation we find ourselves in and the control of the council. After much discussion and some amazing speakers we find ourselves voting to seek an alliance with the other parties, I myself have reservations on both this and taking control as a minority administration but I join the group decision. Its one of those circumstances which doesn’t have a right or a wrong answer you have just got to go for it!

One thing to take away with me is the realization that the chamber even when your own party is inside can become a place of heated debate, a place of comedy but overall a place to stand in awe of passionate local people who speak their thoughts so eloquently.

15/5/10
Central labour party meeting at 10am, my first venture into the council chamber greeted by a massive piece of artwork by Burslem based painter Rob Pointon, I wonder how much longer it will be until this very talented guy is catapulted to artistic greatness on a worldwide scale. His work is fantastic and how he twists the subject matter into the “Spherical” image on canvas is mind boggling, I take a closer look and find Pervez and Adrian Knapper, its amazing how realistic but abstract it is.

I take a seat next to Joan Walley and sit back to listen to the party members discussions around what decision we take in regards to our position of 26 Labour councillors and taking control of the council.

Part way through the meeting I get a drink from the drinks machine, it takes me 5 minutes to work out how to use it and then another 5 to realise there is no milk and the powdered variety will have to do!

Some interesting opinions are given and I am still not sure what decision is for the best, only time will tell! One thing I’m certain of is that we all need to be out there in our wards, meeting residents and putting in a significant effort over the coming year if we want to maintain and build on our current foothold within the council.

The members vote on the way forward in preparation for the councillors meeting on Monday night. We as councillors now know what our members want, we just need to finalise and agree everything on Monday night at our AGM part 2.

14/5/10
Popped down to Smallthorne community centre for an hour to see the results of the respect week and the improvements in Smallthorne including the creation of a football pitch, the regeneration of community drive shops and gated access to the bungalows. I thought there were some excellent results in improving the local area and great ideas all from the residents that the local council officers implemented. Met Neil from the resident association again and the local police officers, it felt good to be meeting people in the ward and surprisingly I felt like I had been doing it for years! Got a labour party meeting for the north later, will be good meet more labour supporters in the area and gauge their reaction to our success in the locals.

13/5/10
My first call from a resident about problems with a dance troupe and venue in my ward of all things! The role of councillor can be more of mediator at times I’m finding but I have the skills so its all good! Lets hope Smallthorne Diamonds can keep slapping those thighs! I had a great time when I joined in leading in my campaign leading up to the elections”¦.all 2 minutes of it!

11/5/10
A day of training is facilitated to induct the new councillors, there is some discussion about the lack of WIFI in the Civic (I cant believe there is no wireless Internet in the building)! And I meet some of the managers including Ged Rowney director of children’s and young peoples services who I’m sad to hear is leaving as he has been very supportive of my work over the years previously with young people.

10/5/10
The first labour party meeting of the councillors, in fact its the AGM, it gives me a good insight into the running’s of a political party and I do my best to get my view across as and when I feel confident.

7/5/10
The day of the count I get to the civic very unprepared and apprehensive as to what is about to unfold, I watch eagerly as piles begin to build as the counters flick the papers through their fingers. The two piles that begin to build strongly are mine and the conservative pile of voting slips, as the counting continues it becomes just about clear that I have won. The independents in particular the sitting councillor is upset about losing his seat, I feel sorry for him but its out of my hands, the people in the area have made the decision and not me.

I’m pretty relaxed I check my phone as my friends continue to tweet, facebook, text, email and BBM me in between looking over shoulders at whose pile is bigger, someone tells me I’ve won unofficially, all the other candidates are there with their pads and paper writing down numbers, I’m chilled if its me its me, writing down numbers isn’t going to change anything.

Its official we go through the spoilt papers, 2 votes for mickey mouse and a love heart (not by my name!) are among them and then I’m told I have won. The “Young” conservative, as a fellow labour candidate coined him, accepts defeat and I’m handed my pack by one of the council officers. I feel very proud and happy that I’ve managed to become a councillor and make my way downstairs to see the results read out in the kings hall. It seems Labour have done very well, we will go on to find that we now have 26 seats 12 gains and 5 holds a very good day indeed.

6/5/10
All the leafleting, meeting, speaking and door knocking is done there is nothing more that can be done but sit back and wait, I’m told the polling stations are busy and I begin to think about finding out the results tomorrow. After a hectic day at work and an evening game of football I sit back and watch the national situation unfold until the early hours. The exit poll doesn’t surprise me although I hold out hope that Labour will do better than expected.