From animals to antisocial behaviour – a glimpse into a councillor’s caseload
“They yell at you for 15 minutes then say ‘Come on in lad, sit thi’sen down and have a custard cream and a cup of tea’.”
Coun Terry Fox laughs as he explains what it’s like being a councillor on the Manor Castle ward.
“People have lived with a problem for six months so they want your full attention for 15 minutes,” he says. “I’ve had people collar in me in the club, I’m stood talking for ages then my wife wants to know why we’ve missed the bingo.
“Sometimes people just want to get something off their chest and to talk to somebody. You’re never really off duty.”
Welcome to life as a local councillor where people think you’re on call 24/7, you’re expected to have an encyclopedic knowledge of council services and you’re very often the one person who can be easily contacted and relied upon to help.
Terry, who has been a Labour councillor for a total of 18 years, is sharing a cuppa with Coun Martin Smith, Liberal Democrat councillor for Dore and Totley, and Green councillor Douglas Johnson, who represents City ward.
It’s unusual to see councillors from different parties sharing a laugh and a joke over coffee but despite their politics, they do have a lot in common. The three serve very different wards and demographics but what quickly becomes clear is how similar their roles are, regardless of which part of the city they are in.
Nowadays it can be difficult to get a GP appointment, there can be lengthy waits with call centres and general confusion over who in officialdom to actually contact so being able to turn up and speak to your local councillor in person is a novelty.
“I counted up and there are eight different ways for people to contact me,” says Martin, who has been a councillor for five years.
“I hold two surgeries a month but how busy they are varies, it’s a bit like waiting for a bus. People can also contact me on my mobile, by email, letter, by calling the office or stopping me on the street. People very often talk to me when I’m at the greengrocers.
“You have to make yourself available and you need to have different ways for people to contact you. Some people feel reluctant to pick up the phone, some people don’t do email and some prefer talking in person.
“Sometimes I do say I am really sorry, I am off duty but here are my contact details. Most of the time people accept that and the vast majority of people are great. There have been some who are abusive but you can filter their calls.”
There are 15 different housing associations in Terry’s ward so understandably a lot of his casework involves housing.
“The most casework I get is from the local Tenants and Residents Associations or face to face where people will pull you to one side. If there’s one incident you don’t know about you can guarantee there will be a welcoming committee at your surgery,” he says, smiling.
Douglas, who has been a councillor for three years, says: “In City ward the population is very digitally connected so a lot of my correspondence is through email, text, Twitter and Facebook.
“I don’t have as much from surgeries, they are not as well attended and can take a while to build up.
“The Greens do have a regular surgery at Highfield library and we made a group decision to keep that going. We also have surgeries at the Harlequin pub and at Union Street but we don’t get a lot of people coming, it’s more of a meeting point.
“I very rarely get anyone being abusive. I don’t really mind being stopped in the street and I like casework because you draw out what people really want to talk about.”
All three agree there are no set rules. Terry says councillors just need to find a venue which works for them and Martin adds: “You just have to make yourself available and visible in whatever ways work best for your local community. Word gets around and people tell each other who to talk to.”
Although each councillor has a very different ward, many of the issues are similar. Terry says “Each councillor would say their ward is unique and housing is a major issue in my ward.
“We have 15 registered social landlords and housing associations so my first question is always who is your landlord? A lot of my constituents are families with several generations living within one or two streets of each other.
“Because there are so many housing associations it’s very different to how it would have been under Sheffield Council, where you just had one contact point.
“Mental health is another big issue. I can get drawn into very complicated issues which are way beyond what I can deal with. As councillors we have to navigate through the services to find the best help for people.
“People on Park Hill contact me about parking whereas in Wybourn it’s more about housing problems. It’s also seasonal – complaints about gritting or broken street lights in winter and garden waste or noise in summer.”
Martin says a lot of the role is knowing where to direct people. “There are certain things councillors can resolve there and then but a lot of the time we help people navigate their way around and find someone who can help.
“I have cases involving people being evicted from council houses, landlords not doing repairs, issues with schools, disputes between neighbours, antisocial behaviour and drug taking.
“Keeping confidences is very important and councillors have to respect that. There are strict protocols and people have to give us their permission to telephone somebody on their behalf.”
Many people think councillors can solve any problem but their powers are limited.
Terry explains: “I had someone contact me saying they had the bailiffs at the door and I said as much as I want to help, I’m not a sheriff.
“I also had a case of an animal being mistreated and they came to me before they went to the RSPCA.
“I’ve had casework involving the Home Office, visas and immigration because people very often think you are an MP, a lot of people don’t understand the difference.
“There are limited things I can do sometimes and you can get the backlash if people don’t get the answer they want.
“You know when somebody is flannelling you but you get intel from the community and you get to know people and become experienced. You become skillful in investigating and questioning and you share knowledge with colleagues.”
Douglas agrees. “People often approach us thinking we can do things but as a councillor we have no decision making powers. It’s about troubleshooting and finding your way through the system.
“It’s not being critical of people who mix us up with MPs, it’s not that people haven’t bothered to find out, it’s just difficult to find your way through the system.
“People know they can come and talk to you off the record and that’s really important as you can raise issues while protecting individuals if they don’t want to be the one to speak out. You can do it as a generic complaint rather than one person having to be named.
“Usually my casework is people who have used the right channels but can’t get a response or get a response they don’t want. Sometimes it’s about finding a different way. People come to us because they know us and people are far more likely to ask for help from somebody they know.”
There’s no training for being a councillor – Terry admits some of the casework does leave him emotional and Martin says it can be taxing.
“I see a lot of people wanting help,” says Martin. “Casework is the best part of the job and also the most difficult.
“You spot somebody sometimes and you know what are saying is really serious so you have to drop everything. Experience counts for a lot.
“Some people can be very vociferous and it’s because they are under stress. You never know who is going to come through the door or what kind of problem they will have. It can be a challenge explaining to people what we can and can’t do as councillors.”
Terry agrees. “Someone will come to your surgery and talk about the weather or football and just as they are leaving, let drop that they are being evicted tomorrow.”
And Douglas adds: “It can be like being a counsellor as well as a councillor. Sometimes you know what people want to say but you have to give them time to come out with it.”
There have been reductions and redundancies in council staff over the past few years due to austerity, which in turn has impacted on councillors.
“There are fewer council employees and they are all stretched,” says Martin. “When you are experienced you know the information an officer needs and can help the person present their case in the best possible way.”