When I was considering standing for Edinburgh Council, I asked a veteran of local politics to give me a good reason why I shouldn’t do it, writes John McLellan.
“It’s the public complaints, really,” he said. “When you get elected some people think you’re their slave and sometimes you just want to tell them to pick up the bloody rubbish themselves.”
I’m glad to report no-one has tried to chain me to an oar or made unreasonable demands, but in recent weeks public frustration with council services has risen, particularly with waste collections where there is currently a manpower shortage because staff have left for private companies paying competitive wages.
Late uplifts, missed collections and overflowing communal bins are regular complaints and, as with the rest of modern life, already irritated citizens are further wound up by new automated call-handling systems designed to minimise human contact.
There are no such systems for councillors, so if you go to the council website, find your councillor and dial the number a real person should pick up the phone. Most people who contact us have already been through the system and really aren’t very happy at all. And then you get the truly determined who write to the Evening News.
One such letter appeared last week, in which councillors were castigated for only being able to “parrot official excuses and wring their hands.”
It’s easy to see why this is a common reaction, but in the short-term all that councillors can do is make sure departments are fully aware of public concern, ask what is being done to address problems and to propose changes, which in our case the other parties will duly vote down.
There is another approach, courageously taken up by Cllr Maureen Child during a debate about weed clearance at the last full council meeting, which is to ask the public to deal with problems themselves.
People are out weeding their own streets as we speak, she said, which is undoubtedly true, and I’ve recently done the same thing myself, but it’s a hard message to take to someone who points to their council tax bill and the overflowing communal bin in the street outside their flat.
For example, a few weeks ago a very concerned resident took me on a short tour of the London Road area to point out what he thought were examples of poor performance. An old rug had been dumped next to a street bin. “That’s been there for weeks,” he said.
So I duly reported it and then received regular updates from the constituent to say it was still there. Indeed, as I went past last week there it was, becoming a soggy symbol of failure, so taking my lead from Cllr Childs I took off my jacket and wrestled the manky thing from under the bin and slung it in.
My hands were black with mud but I was able to wash them in an abandoned basin which had gathered enough rainwater. I then emailed back to base that the job was done, although whether sodden carpets are meant to go in the communal bins is another thing.
Happily, a new barrow beat is to be added to the district, and on this occasion at least the only hand-wringing the local councillor did was in an abandoned kitchen accessory.