Weekly Update From Councillor Guy Lambert

On being a councillor: why does he do the things that he does?


Guy Lambertguy.lambert@hounslow.gov.uk

tel 07804 284948

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I have written over 200 blogs since I became a councillor. The vast majority are really little more than a diary. I prepare them by looking back on my calendar for the last week and weaving a story about the events I’ve attended or people I’ve met. If I had an unplanned meeting I generally forget to mention it. I said to someone yesterday that describing my memory as like a sieve is a bit of an insult to sieves.

Anyway, what I don’t think I’ve done is written about what it’s like to be a councillor, and how I came to be one in the first place. I’m away for a couple of weeks and in my capacity (to borrow a Private Eye original) as Brentford TW8 and Brentford Councillors’ Phil Space I thought people might find this interesting, as I won’t be doing my regular blog.

I’d been a Labour party member on and off since the 1970s but was inactive for much of that time, getting engaged again from about 2010. In 2015 the social enterprise I ran merged with a larger charity and I found I had rendered myself unemployed. Being 62/3 and having long since been a senior manager/director I found I wasn’t that employable, nor was I tempted by the jobs I might have been offered, but nor did I want to retire. I worked hard on the 2015 General Election campaign and rather to my surprise Ruth Cadbury got herself elected (very wise choice, folks, as 2017 confirmed). As she was stepping down as a councillor she suggested I might want to put my hat in the ring. At first I was horrified by the idea, as I had never thought of doing it, but as I thought about it the idea grew on me. Something to keep the brain cell ticking and perhaps limit the time spent in taverns.

So I applied, passed the interview set by the party and carried out by folks from Slough to be an approved candidate and got myself selected by the local Labour Party in a tense meeting at Isleworth Public Hall. Then it was a case of working the streets of Brentford (as I had been doing in previous contests) and saying ‘Vote for Me’. I can assure you I didn’t kiss any babies, though I’d be happy to, if anybody asks. Turned out that I got elected for what was then a term of just under 3 years. I knew the editor of BrentfordTW8 from doing stuff with the Brentford Chamber of Commerce. She mentioned that Matt Harmer used to do a blog and would I like to revive the tradition. Seemed a good idea as I quite like writing and had been drivelling away on ChiswickW4 and BrentfordTW8 for decades. 

Ruth had told me that the commitment was a day and an evening a week. I wouldn’t accuse her of telling porkies and some councillors probably do just that amount of time – and some do less – but as you might have spotted I do rather more, though the nice part of it is that your commitment is very flexible, particularly during the day. Evenings are a bit fuller and at times you find you have Monday to Thursday all blocked out, particularly if you’re on cabinet as I have been for 18 months or so. Sometimes evening meetings extend past 11pm, but I’ve always been a night owl so ot’s better than having to turn up at 8am!

So what’s it like? The first thing is there is an enormous amount to learn. After 4 years I’d say I understand planning and licensing very well, have a decent idea about housing and benefits and parks and leisure issues but I’m still a novice in education and social care for adults and children. Also you get to understand loads about how the country works, particularly for poor or disabled or just unlucky people. The perniciousness of bureaucracy and its effect on more vulnerable people – mainly manifested in benefits issues which have become even worse with Universal Credit. Letters about benefits calculation that I – once a qualified accountant – cannot comprehend and which frankly I don’t think some of the officers understand either and boil down to ‘computer says no’.

Also your first name changes, which I find most disconcerting. To council officers, even ones you work closely with, you’re always called Councillor, never Guy. They claim it is a mark of respect but I have worked with council officers as an external supplier in the past and I know better.

There are pieces of casework where you make a single call or email and get an instant result for a resident who writes a gushing letter of thanks for all your hard work. At other times you work for months, have many discussions and arguments and eventually get something done. Generally speaking the resident then complains about how long it took or that the outcome is not exactly what they wanted.   

Oh, and a thick skin is needed. Social media is rarely kind to politicians (a word I find very weird when applied to local councillors in general and me in particular!) and there is very sketchy understanding out there of many of the legal frameworks within which we have to operate – planning, licensing and the way taxes work are the examples that spring to mind. But the upside is that  most people you meet in the real world appreciate what you’re trying to do and recognise the compromises that have to be made. You do your best, and of course make, or are involved in, decisions that a lot of people don’t like. I reflect plenty on these, make my own mind up without fear or favour, and follow my judgment and my heart.

Of course, officers are the full time professionals, usually qualified in their field, know what they’re doing a lot better than councillors and do most of the hard yards. You have occasional “Yes, Minister” moments and I’m quite sure some of the things I harp on about get very annoying and some of the responses, always polite, come through gritted teeth. We frequently overturn their advice on things like planning. You have to imagine the rolling of the eyes because officers are always deadpan in implementing your idiotic decisions.

That’ll do, and I’ll leave you with a couple of pictures from Italy.

dog cleaning up dog mess
"I am ashamed of my master and hope he become civilised".

Can we have some dogs like this in Brentford please?

You tell me whether I should be alarmed or reassured by this sign.

beware of snakes

Cllr Guy Lambert

October 3, 2019

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