Sunday, 22 June 2008

A Day in the Life of A Coucillor

By Rebecca Thackray
This article first appeared in the Local Government Association's First Magazine

Boundaries between my various roles are clear to me but not always to others. I spend the morning at Brixton Advice Centre where I work as a general adviser.

You wouldn’t believe how many people come to a legal advice centre with queries in that category marked ‘other’. I admire the specialists and I pick up useful updates on debt and housing from them, but the questions I get asked are far more intriguing. A woman wants to trace her husband from a decade ago, realising that she cannot remarry until she is divorced. I used to be a police officer and my approach is a methodical ‘where, when, what, why and how?’ and I always bear in mind that there may be someone out there who would really rather not be found.

After the drop-in I metaphorically change hats. I cycle off as a councillor to look at railway arches with a local restaurant owner with a view to traders storing cardboard and bottles for recycling. You’d think Herne Hill was Camberwick Green to hear him talk. This corner of London will feel even more villagey if a farmers’ market comes to the area. I was keen to make this part of the council’s regeneration planning.

Lactose junkie
I go to the corner shop for milk. I am something of a lactose junkie, requiring endless mugs of milky tea and vast quantities of yoghurt. I get cornered by a large man. I am not alarmed by his urgent whisper nor by the scissors in his top pocket. He is the barber next door asking for help regarding the mental health of his daughter. I leaf through council mail and see some initiatives on waste. Tetrapaks are being recycled in Lambeth now – if only thick plastics could follow suit.

A friend emails me about her friend in East Grinstead: “she puts everything possible in her recycling box ever since the stuff that can’t be recycled stopped being called rubbish and became known as landfill.” So often a name change is a euphemism but I like the idea of referring to rubbish as landfill and I forward it to the executive member for environment. I am not entitled to serve on council committees but I did get my teeth into a cross-party commission on climate change and I share the recommendations with other Green councillors in London. It can be lonely without a network of mutual support.

I receive a phone call from a police sergeant wanting an out-of-hours warrant signing. My magistrate hat goes on – I’ve been a magistrate since 1997. The grounds for the warrant are sobering. I drop off some information for the barber who works long hours too, serving the heads of the local community. I include details of a nearby resource centre for the mental health needs of African and Caribbean people – I used to work at the health centre and this place has an excellent reputation.

It occurs to me to check with him: “Were you asking me as a councillor, advice worker or nurse?” “I just thought you were someone who might know” he says simply.

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