OPINION - Local councillors are a mystery to most but they still do real good

·3-min read
Dr Laura Janes (Dr Laura Janes)
Dr Laura Janes (Dr Laura Janes)

As a lawyer working with young people in desperate situations, I am used to speaking truth to power. Yet, my recent decision to stand as a local councillor has revealed a world of accountability that I simply had not appreciated.

Coverage of the local elections has focused mostly on which of the national parties are winning or losing. But if you are disillusioned with national politics, look closer to home.

In local politics there are lots of opportunities to improve lives but these tools are too little known or used. Most people have no idea what local councillors do or how they can help local communities.

Everyone in the UK is represented by one of 20,000 councillors, answerable to all local residents in their ward. Yet many people don’t know which ward they are in or who their councillors are.

Local councillors are there to help people with a huge range of problems, some of which might seem trivial but can make our lives a misery or at least unnecessarily difficult if they are left unfixed.

Some people are concerned about bins and rightly so. I met a woman who had not been provided with recycling bags for several weeks. My colleague contacted the relevant official, and, when I returned to that street the next day, everyone had their recycling bags.

Another resident complained about graffiti at the end of their street. Within hours of my colleague contacting the relevant officers, we were informed that the local law enforcement team (recently set up by the council to supplement police work) had been to visit. The team had identified yet another piece of graffiti, arranged for it to be cleaned up and promised to increase law enforcement presence and consider putting up CCTV.

A woman I met who had lived in the same council property for decades and now required 24 hour care for a serious illness. She simply hadn’t thought to ask for help with the overcrowding she was experiencing. It’s early days but we were at least able to let officials know of her need.

Another family I met were understandably frustrated that some scaffolding had been left outside their home for a prolonged period following some works by the Council. My colleague knew exactly who to contact, discovered it had been missed due to a change in contractor and was assured that steps would be taken to get it removed.

In addition to representing residents in their patch, some Councillors have oversight of specific issues, such as children’s services, parking and culture. Unless the current government gets its way and reduces the positive obligations on the state to protect and support people, local authorities have a wide duty of care. But they need to know what’s going on to exercise it: so if you are concerned about the well-being of a neighbour, you can put the council on notice by contacting a councillor.

It is clear from conversations on the doorstep that trust in politicians is at an all-time low, especially following partygate. There is a long way to go to restore peoples’ trust in politics. In the words of one mum in crisis: “people in power never help people like me”: the mission is to prove that some of them can.

Dr Laura Janes is a Labour candidate in Hammersmith and Fulham

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