I’m not re-standing on 22nd May after 12 years as a Hackney Councillor, and two before that as Political Assistant to the Hackney Labour Group. It’s been a privilege to play a small part in one of the most exciting stories in local government, Hackney’s transformation from a national embarrassment to a well-run council.
Here are the top ten things I’ve learned in my time in local government:
1) Local councils and local politics make a huge difference to people’s lives. When Hackney was a politically unstable, badly-run, hung-council the impact for residents was disastrous. Failing schools, social care that was putting the vulnerable at risk, dirty streets, potholes, non-functioning streetlights, unprocessed Housing Benefit claims, reluctance of businesses to invest in the borough. Political stability and a Labour administration under Jules Pipe with a clear agenda has brought remarkable change: schools now achieving above the national average, failing privatised services brought in-house and turned round, high levels of building social housing, a Council Tax freeze for nine years, basic services like street cleaning that work really well. Labour in Hackney has taken resident satisfaction levels with the Council from 23% in 2001 to 74% last year.
2) Labour nationally really did a huge amount for the poorest areas in Britain when we were in government. I represent Chatham Ward, one of the most deprived in London. The funding pumped into public services in areas like this by Labour nationally and when Ken was London Mayor has been really transformative. Chatham Ward got a newly built City Academy, two secondary schools and a primary school rebuilt under Building Schools for the Future, a children’s centre, a neighbourhood policing team, more frequent train services, upgraded stations, new windows, roofs, kitchens and bathrooms for many of the council flats in the ward under Decent Homes. That’s without all the investment in existing high-quality services like Homerton Hospital, and the improvements to people’s personal income through the minimum wage, tax credits, benefit changes and lower unemployment. We seem shy nationally about saying what we did for the poorest communities in the country. It was a massive exercise in redistribution that as socialists we should be very proud of.
3) But the biggest problem in my ward wasn’t fully solved and has got worse under the Coalition – grotesque levels of deprivation and poverty. I’m angry that many people in Britain seem oblivious to the desperate levels of want among their fellow citizens or just don’t care. It ought to be intolerable in one of the richest countries in the world that we have areas in Hackney where life expectancy is ten years lower than it is just a mile or two down the road in the City of London.
4) Scrutiny works. When the executive/scrutiny division was brought in to replace the old council committee system I was concerned that there wasn’t going to be a meaningful role for the majority of backbenchers who do scrutiny roles. But I discovered in my four years chairing our Health Scrutiny Commission that if scrutiny is properly resourced and focused, you can really help develop policy ideas that then get implemented, and even achieve significant victories for local residents. For instance we helped Hackney’s Clinical Commissioning Group win back over £1 million in funding for local GP services that NHS England had tried to take away from the borough.
5) Being a successful Chief Whip – the job I did for seven years – is more about pastoral care, listening and nurturing your team of councillors than about the stereotypical idea of the whip as disciplinarian. Most councillors want to be good team players, you have to support them to do that, calmly sort out tensions and problems, and give people the space to air their concerns and differences democratically. But they need to know to stick to high standards of ethical behaviour and to respect the collective decisions of the Labour Group.
6) Getting stuff done as a ward councillor can be a marathon not a sprint. When I first stood in 2002 we pledged to rebuild two very rundown housing blocks, Bridge House and Marian Court. That project is happening, but it isn’t complete yet as I come off the Council now.
7) But never take no for an answer. I was told “the Council will never fit security doors on Trelawney Estate, there’s no budget for it” and “the Council will never agree to adopt Stevens Avenue (an un-adopted road hence no street lighting or road or pavement repairs), it sets too expensive a precedent”. Loud campaigning on both by the three ward councillors meant that miraculously the budgets were found to do both.
8) Life as a councillor is a lot easier when you have good colleagues in your ward. I’ve been very lucky to be in a mutually supportive team for 12 years with Guy Nicholson and Sally Mulready as ward councillors. I’ve seen councillors who fall out with a ward colleague or have to carry the workload for someone not pulling their weight made completely miserable by it.
9) Campaigning and casework aren’t separate activities. If you don’t canvass and deliver survey leaflets you won’t find out about most of the problems people in your ward want sorting out. Similarly when you do casework most of the people you do it for are far more likely to bother to vote for you.
10) Good officers are as important as good councillors to driving forward change. We were very lucky that at the point when we really needed to improve Hackney we were able to persuade key people like then Chief Exec Max Caller to take a huge risk with their careers and be part of Jules Pipe’s attempt at rescuing what was a badly failing council. Without dedicated and incredibly hard-working civil servants implementing the changes Labour wanted, we wouldn’t have been able to turn Hackney round.