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11 September 2014

Big red buttons, a biscuit inquiry, and deforestation: notes from a Labour councillor in Kensington

Andrew Lomas is new to the borough of Kensington and Chelsea as a Labour councillor. Here he reveals the drama of a full-scale biscuit inquiry.

By Andrew Lomas Andrew Lomas

Getting away from it all…

Summer is supposed to be a quiet time in local politics. Fewer town hall meetings are scheduled, residents go on holiday, and novels that have gathered dust are optimistically returned to with fresh enthusiasm. If only. Save for a few snatched moments in the souks of Marrakech and a leisurely few days driving along the Italian coast, the summer seems to be over before it has even begun. Nothing has better signalled the resumption of local government routines than the reappearance of brown envelopes stuffed with inch-thick wads of agendas on my doormat. Excitingly, these agendas are sometimes delivered by a man on a moped who attacks the letter box with so much gusto that I’m sure that someone kicking my front door off the hinges would make less noise. Apparently an area the size of Devon was lost from the Brazilian rainforest in 2013, a loss of trees that has become far easier to comprehend since becoming a councillor.

Taking the biscuit

Trees are not the only things being drastically cut back. In the age of austerity, town halls around the country have been doing all they can to reduce their outgoings. This has included cutting back on the custard creams, downscaling on digestives, and reducing the rich tea in the name of fiscal responsibility, something one officer alluded to this week when pointing out (over a cup of tea) that some particularly ascetic councils have been reduced to serving little more than water in plastic cups at official meetings.

Fortunately, Kensington and Chelsea is a last redoubt against those who would do away with our biccies (a bourbon barricade, a fig-roll fortress, a shortbread stronghold). But that is not to say that we are profligate with our party rings. Indeed, one civic-minded Tory backbencher has taken it upon himself to police the contents of a biscuit jar in the Members’ room, a wood-panelled space on the first floor where councillors go to gossip and make small talk transact important council business. Such is this particular councillor’s commitment to protecting the council’s bottom line and his colleagues’ waistlines that a few years ago a full-scale inquiry was initiated to uncover the identity of a biscuit burglar (our hero felt that his favourite chocolate digestives were being enjoyed somewhat over-enthusiastically). Door logs showing who had been in and out of the room were requested. Cleaners and council officers were interviewed. Angry emails may even have been fired off. Yet, disappointingly, the nice nabber remains at large…

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Doing less, better

The sainted Tony once said that the art of leadership is about saying no. Much the same can be said about being a politician in general, and one of the hardest things to learn as a new councillor is how to let people down. The problem is that it’s so very easy to say yes – to say you can help out, fix something, or make something else go away – because you genuinely care and really want to make things better. Unfortunately, reality often conspires against you and with that in mind it’s better to be honest about your limitations from the get go.

Sometimes it might be that you don’t have the skills, the resources or simply the time needed to do an effective job. Most councillors fit casework around full-time careers and the fact is that there are a number of brilliant organisations equipped to deal with a range of different types of casework that a good councillor is better off referring people to. Just as often, you simply might not have the power to do anything. As much as I’d sometimes like there to be a big red button I could press to sort every problem out, unfortunately there isn’t (and in any event I’m not sure it would be desirable to grant politicians those types of powers even if they did exist).

However, what councillors (and, if I may hazard, politicians in general) can do is choose one or two things they want to see improved during their term in office and focus on making them happen. Whilst this might seem like a modest prospectus, I think the trick – to quote an old NASA motto – is to do less, better.

Andrew Lomas is a Labour councillor for Kensington and Chelsea (Colville Ward). He tweets @andrewlomas. Read the previous instalments of his Notting Hill Notebook here.