Why Local Elections Matter: My Councillor Experience

May, 2023

Today is polling day. A day, which strikes a range of emotions into candidates and councillors. Elation, nerves, despair, the day of the election, and then the agonising count when you’ve not slept in three days.

Local government is the frontline of British politics. Councillors, either in person, or increasingly, virtually are the first called upon to sort resident’s problems and be their solution.  I was elected seven years ago, aged 23, fresh out of university with only a couple of part-time jobs under my belt, but I wanted to serve the community I had lived in my whole life and make sure that residents were being heard. Councillors are, and must be, ‘part-time politicians’ on a shoestring budget.

After the exhaustion and jubilation of an election win, the hard work starts quickly. Emails of congratulation and diaries filled up with meeting after meeting. Many from those who want to work with you and have an interest in your area, especially in building something.

Councillors often find themselves between the infamous ‘rock and a hard place’. The government, and parties of all colours want us to ‘build build build’, but closer to home and on the frontlines of politics, councillors see something very different. They see the persistent challenges from busy doctors, roads and schools and have to explain why there’s no magic wand to solve these issues to residents.

Councillors must walk the tightrope between their national party policies and their electorate. What’s good for the party, might not be good locally. What’s more, on housing, councillors must face residents’ groups, competing interests, house builders, site promoters the ‘threat’ of not being re-elected, climbing the greasy pole within the council and more! They do all of this, with limited experience and training.

We’re invited on site visits, seminars, and technical workshops and must decipher which are the best and are ‘least impactful’ to current residents. It’s a challenging and stressful process

Local councils must (we are told) have a Local Plan. Councillors, some who have no experience of planning, infrastructure or stretched services such as housing before being elected, must decide where this growth should go. We are presented with a litany of information and policy, but that goes nowhere without politics. The politics of planning can’t be understated. If councillors don’t like it, and just as importantly, can’t sell it. It’s not going through.

This contributes to the Local Plan process being costly and attritional. Millions of pounds are put on the line only for the decisions not to ultimately lie with officers (local government civil servants) but part-time, often, retired councillors. You can have the best scheme in the world, good design, policy compliant on affordable housing and officers onboard; but if you’ve not invested the time with politicians and don’t have local support, you’re taking a significant risk. Even if it’s a small detail, councillors want to feel heard and have their residents heard.

No matter the benefits of each project, it needs to be ‘sold’ to communities. What are they getting from it? How can councillors come away with a win that goes in their next leaflet to residents. Is that how policy should be made? Because it is …

The same is the case for planning applications outside of the Local Plan process. The infamous planning committees. Almost gladiatorial in their drama. They pit neighbours against one another. Developer’s rub shoulders in the committee rooms with objectors, they sit, in painful silence as each side (most often polite) dissects their argument.

Councillors must be flag bearers, cheerleaders and champions for our communities. Often, when a decision could go either way, the politics comes into the minds each one of us. What does this decision mean for my area?  This is what is enthralling about being a local councillor, it humanises deeply technical decisions that help shape the future for decades to come. Decisions that have a real-life impact on residents must pass that same test.

We have to implement the complex. We make sure residents voices are heard, but that can mean the overall direction of the council is blown off course. It’s captivating but must be incredibly stressful to watch. Politics at a local level often counter-productive, infuriating and leads to poor decision-making.

Local councillors want to and do amazing work. Good councillor’s flourish; they understand the rules of the game, play it well and strike a balance between their residents and the needs of the council. At the same time, those who want to do well investing in local government must do the same. They need to understand the importance of relationships locally and the need to invest in the politics and community of each area.

Done well, good councils can thrive; they can set modest budgets and get a lot done. Done poorly, they can break the bank and run services into the ground. This is why elections and councillors’ matter. They are an integral part of our flawed and imperfect system.  Councillors can work closely with residents and officers and deliver the investment, the roads, the schools, the environmental protections, the leisure centres, and yes, the houses that people need.

Your councillor is the human element in a rigid, creaking system, urgently in need of being closer to the people. They are the gatekeepers to the day-to-day activities that shape our lives

And that’s why local councils’ and today’s elections matter.


Billy Greening was a Horsham District Councillor from 2016-2023. He served in the Senior Leadership (political) of the council as well as being Vice-Chair of the Planning Committee.