Craig Dearden-Phillips: Why I'm glad I left my seat on the council

Being a trustee is far more interesting than trying to look concerned about another fly-tipping site, says our columnist

Craig Dearden-Phillips
Craig Dearden-Phillips

The council elections of 2 May saw my short, undistinguished political career come to a quiet, unfeted end.

I hadn't actually put myself up for re-election. I had decided, within a couple of years of being elected, that being a councillor was not really my bag. I preferred, by a royal mile, serving as a trustee on the boards of the charities I love, including the Impetus-Private Equity Foundation and the Stepping Out Foundation.

Three things really made trusteeship much more attractive to me than being a local councillor. The first is that as a councillor, you have very little power or influence. Councils are tall pyramids run by a handful of senior politicians and top managers. Time and again my ideas for the local area were kiboshed until, well, I gave up trying. OK, trustee boards can also be marginalised, but as a trustee I have mostly felt far closer to the real action than I ever did on the council.

The second reason is the interesting nature of being on a board; it is mainly about giving counsel, support and challenge. Even on a poor board, you get to use your brain. By contrast, much of my work as a councillor was as a local Mister Fixit, running from one pothole or over-hanging tree to another and trying, often in vain, to get it sorted. My mobile became a hotline for anything from overflowing dog-shit bins to abusive social care. This would all be just about bearable, except that providing any remedy involved inordinate time spent chivvying nice, but often hopeless, council officers.

Which brings me to the third reason: workload. I know councillors who work 70 hours a week. You really can rack this up if you go to the endless parade of committees, receptions and taskforces.

For the affluent retired, who form the majority of councillors, this packed itinerary (all conducted at leisurely pace with abundant biscuits) is a fantastic way to fill an otherwise worrying void. However, for younger professionals with families, all of this is a big no-no.

So should someone considering entering local politics give all this a wide berth? I would never say "don't do it". While I yawned my way through scores of meaningless committees and stood around, trying to look concerned, at more fly-tipping sites than I wish to recall, I learnt a lot about many things.

I also got a chance to understand, from the inside, the unique culture of the public sector. Although I thank God every day that I am no longer doing it, I am equally thankful for the opportunity it afforded.

And I did make a small difference: a 20mph zone here, a new bus shelter there. I also helped start two community groups, which was probably my most important achievement.

But, truth be told, I prefer, by some margin, being a trustee to being a local councillor.

Contact Craig, who writes in a personal capacity, at www.stepping-out.biz

Craig Dearden-Phillips is managing director of Stepping Out

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