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Harry Phibbs: In 2008 are surgeries still an effective use of local councillors?

Phibbs_harryHarry is a Hammersmith & Fulham councillor.

Councillors are not supposed to be full time but to bring some sense of reality from the outside world into Town Halls. Given each Council has a budget of tens of millions, usually hundreds of millions, it is a huge responsibility to keep track of it all so our time is very precious.

Like MPs, councillors have surgeries. Sometimes people go to the wrong one. When people have raised immigration or the NHS with me I have passed the details on to our MP. But more often the traffic is the other way, with people raising problems such as housing with their MP rather than the councillor.

When first elected in 2006 I was a bit put off surgeries because nobody turned up to the first couple I did. I had a book to read - but it was still a bit of an anticlimax. Meanwhile vast amount of case work came through by email. Cases brought by telephone comes not far behind (in a fit of accessibility which bemuses colleagues I have my mobile phone number listed on the Council website.) Then there are also plenty of causes I am given to champion by people I bump into in the street. In crude numerical terms surgeries are stradlers in terms of case work.

So to manage time sensibly I take the surgeries on a rota with my fellow two ward councillors rather than us all three turning up to each one. We have also reduced the frequency from weekly to monthly - with the offer to arrange to see someone straight away for anything urgent. Rationalising the time spent allows us to keep in touch with residents in other ways - not least canvassing regularly not just at elections.

But I am a convert to the value of keeping surgeries as an option for those residents who wish to use them. Often people want to show me papers, sometimes complicated diagrams in the case of planning applications. Not everyone has email. Often people prefer to discuss their problems face to face rather than over the phone. Perhaps they feel awkward asking for a separate meeting - feeling it would be a special favour while regarding a slot at a surgery as their due.

Those who come to surgeries are often at the end of the line. Baffled by jargon. Driven witless by bureaucracy. They are victims of the system that was supposed to help them. "My constituency is the desperate, the damned, the disinherited, the disrespected, and the despised," declared Jesse Jackson when he was running for US President in 1984. Sometimes at the end of a surgery I'm reminded of his words.


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