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October 26, 2006

The Joy of Local Politics III: Harry Phibbs gets down to work as a councillor

Posted by Harry Phibbs

What makes a sane person want to be a local party activist and then a councillor? Harry Phibbs has previously described his experiences of being a local party ward chairman - The Joy of Local Politics: Harry Phibbs on the recherché pleasures of being a local party ward chairman - and then his hopes and expectations on being elected a councillor in May 2006 - The Joy of Local Politics II: Harry Phibbs on being elected as a councillor. Now Harry Phibbs gets down to the actual work of being a councillor. The views expressed here are those of Harry Phibbs, not those of the Social Affairs Unit, its Trustees, Advisors or Director. The Social Affairs Unit is not a party political organisation.

Mock if you like. But for me becoming a local councillor in the Conservative interest for the Ravenscourt Park Ward on the London Borough of Hammersmith and Fulham is proving the most absorbing, fascinating, addictive thrill imaginable. No, it is not merely of relevance as a stepping stone to becoming an MP. It is interesting and important in and of itself. We have 180,000 people living in our Borough. Often we house them, mostly we educate their children. We spend £220 million a year.

There is something much more fulfilling about being able to do something about problems. For instance when a press release came through to me detailing Harriet Sergeant's excellent paper for the Centre for Policy Studies about foster children Handle with Care, I was able to consider it not just as a journalist thinking how can I write about it, but as a politician (albeit an amateur part time one) thinking what can I do about it?

Seldom has a day gone by without me sending an email to a Council officer challenging them over some aspect of the Council's activities. I hit the ground running the day after I was elected.

At the count the previous night I was handed a box of papers which included a form to fill in my bank details for the £8,750 a year I am paid for being a councillor. I objected to being asked to state my ethnic group. I was told that the Council has to ask but that people don't have to fill it in. One of the insidious things about these forms is that they don't even say such sections are voluntary. As a compromise I would like us to put on the form:

Hammersmith and Fulham Council is forced to ask you the following question about your ethnic group. We accept that it is none of our business and regard ethnic monitoring as thoroughly obnoxious. We are a colour blind Council and regard your ethnic group as wholly irrelevant to us. Whether you complete it or not is entirely a matter for you. We would strongly urge you to leave it blank.
Also on the first day I reported some graffiti to be removed on a passage way in my ward near the River Thames. To be honest you don't have to be elected as a local councillor to report graffiti but I never reported any before I was elected and I have reported an awful lot since.

At one stage all the Conservative councillors went "grot spotting" (noted graffiti, fly tipping, municipal signs and fences in disrepair, etc.) where we toured our wards to prove we are serious about providing a cleaner greener borough. I personally recorded nearly 100. It was depressingly easy. I just walked along Goldhawk Road. It becomes compulsive. A visit to Ravenscourt Park with my four-year-old daughter is followed by an email missive about the leaves in the paddling pool and the broken swing in the playground. A visit home on the Central Line is followed by and email about the need for an extra litter bin outside Shepherd's Bush tube. The perfect end to a perfect day.

Much of the proceedings are like a mini version of Parliament. There are scrutiny committees for back benchers like myself to sit on. Often my questions will be tough but my query to one of our local headmasters, John McIntosh of the London Oratory was suitably sycophantic when he made a guest appearance.

What could other schools do to follow your remarkable success....?
The full Council meetings generate greater excitement over procedural interpretations than ideological direction. My maiden speech was a rousing call for dehumping, or "inverted potholes" as I called them. But the Labour opposition didn't put up much of fight. Since Barnet Council dehumped and saved lives by doing so the argument has become just too overwhelming to resist.

One of the surprises people have had is that we are actually serious about implementing our election slogans. a cleaner greener Borough, Zero tolerance on crime, reducing the Council Tax to Wandsworth levels over eight years, promoting home ownership.

Housing is the area I have been asking to specialise in as an "assistant". For me the worst scandal in the legacy of waste has been the number of empty properties owned by the Council. A snapshot of official records, detailed on the Empty Homes Agency website, (taken on April 1st last year) shows there were 433 empty flats and house owned by the Council in Hammersmith and Fulham. This is not only an astonishing misuse of assets in financial terms. It is also a terrible waste in human terms.

One of the arguments has been over our approach to the building of new "affordable housing". Here the ideological clash is still in place. Socialists have never really appreciated the difference between "housing units" and homes (except, of course, when it comes to their own housing arrangements). I'm afraid that, even after the collapse of the Berlin Wall and the advent of New Labour, this instinct for centrally planned, standardised, uniform housing has been retained.

There is still this desire to achieve equality by levelling down to the lowest common denominator and for us all to live in rabbit hutches.

The argument is not over whether or not new housing is needed but what it should be like. We don't want to "rubber stamp" the dreary plans of the previous Labour Council.

The revised scheme for the Prestolite site in Larden Road in my Borough offers an example. It provides a better social mix and better housing. This reflects the wishes of local residents. Labour locally may complain about ratio of social housing being reduced but on the Prestolite site it will still be above 50%, the figure recommended in Ken Livingstone's London Plan. Often a dogmatic insistence on a very high social housing ratio causes the housing to be pretty awful - or for the scheme not to be economically feasible to go ahead. But Labour have chosen to pick a fight over it.

No doubt there will be many more to come. "Go to Wandsworth, look at how they do it there", has been our catchphrase when told it can't be done. I wonder if one day people will come and visit us under the same instructions.

Harry Phibbs is a journalist.

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