Council and ward: Dumfries & Galloway – Annandale North Ward
How long have you been a councillor?
What prompted you to stand for election?
In the early 2000s I felt that rural life in my community was under attack. We were recovering from the harrowing effects of the Foot and Mouth crisis. The Council were consulting on rural school closures, including my children’s wonderful primary, I worked in ASN at the time and could see pupils desperately in need of educational support but schools lacking the resource or at times policies to give them the help they needed. Every week I’d read the local newspaper and be annoyed that services people valued were eroding. The letters page was always an eye-opener as to the impact local decisions were having on local people. I decided I could either rant at the kitchen table or I could stand for election and try to influence policy and give my community a strong voice.
Describe your average week as a Councillor
That’s the beauty, there is no average week or even an average day, it is varied and enriching. It also greatly depends on whether you are an Administration Councillor with portfolio or an opposition backbencher. Mondays tend to be group meetings and casework catch up, Tuesdays and Thursdays are when our central committees sit, Fridays for me are generally CoSLA days. There is evening and weekend work supporting your hard-working community groups and your weekly shop will take longer than expected as folk love to chat. You can be resolving an issue with a dropped kerb in your village one day, the next giving a keynote address in Brussels, you can flit from attending a community council to negotiating a £10.7bn budget with the Scottish Government but at the heart of everything you do you are there to help your community and make individuals lives a little better.
How does being a Councillor fit in with your other responsibilities and commitments (such as children / caring responsibilities)?
Evening meetings and weekend commitments can be challenging particularly with young children but I have found it relatively easy to balance as your diary is your own and is flexible. I’ve always had tremendous support from colleagues and the community, when my late Nana was requiring more care people understood if I couldn’t attend an event or a meeting, the key thing is to speak to your group leader/member services and your local leaders they will be kind and supportive. Lastly, having a good relationship with your fellow ward colleagues is crucial, even though you’re political opponents when working in your local patch you need to work together and support each other that way you can split local meetings and not become overwhelmed.
What do you find most rewarding about the role?
I think it’s the little things, meeting great people everyday is definitely a bonus. Assisting a community group to get their vision up and running. Giving a wee bit of your ward budget to a parent council who then turn it into a fantastic project. Almost 15 years on it’s remembering why you stood for election in the first place, that people are what drive you, that their pleasure gives you pleasure. The highlight of my year is always selecting 2 pupils from Lockerbie Academy to be Lockerbie-Syracuse Scholars in memory of those who lost their lives on Pan Am Flight 103, these pupils will have the year of their lives studying at Syracuse University and every year I’m amazed by the sheer talent of the applicants, a credit to the school and to Lockerbie.
And the most challenging?
Knowing when to switch off! I find it difficult when dealing with a case that is having a personal impact on a constituent, you feel dreadful when you can’t resolve the issue. Last year during the height of the pandemic when businesses were on the brink of closing and there was uncertainty around the various grant schemes, I was still responding to desperate messages from people late into the evening, not because I could resolve at that point but because I wanted them to know I was listening, that I would look into it the following morning, I hope that helped them sleep that night. Unsurprisingly, another challenge is the bureaucracy and response times to queries, the wheels of Local Democracy can move very slowly at times which is enormously frustrating for constituents. Lastly, Social Media! Knowing when to step away from the app, not letting comments get under your skin, consider responses carefully and if indeed there is any need to respond. It is a great tool to reach out to your community but you have to balance its use.
What has been your greatest achievement as Councillor?
I’ve been at this a while and can honestly say the achievements are not mine, they are usually an amalgamation of lots of people in our community coming together to make something fantastic happen, I am for the most part the facilitator or a conduit to their success. Whether it be finally getting the much-needed Multi Use Games Area in your town, the lunch package to a child who’s Mum is shielding or the right care package to a precious relative my successes are due to diligent council staff and a brilliant community.
Tell us one aspect about the job that people might not know / find surprising?
Just how much Local Councils deliver in their communities. Until you are directly involved in frontline politics, I don’t think most folk have any concept of how much Councils do, I certainly didn’t. Almost every moment of our daily lives is impacted by council services; schools, education, well being support, community facilities, social care, youth work, planning, refuse, economic development, sports, environmental health, roads, verges, lighting, playing fields, parks…the list is endless.
What support is available to possible candidates?
When I was first elected in 2007 there was very little support, a coffee with a local politician was my induction prior to selection, I had no idea what I was getting myself into. We’ve come a long way since. Now political parties have their own induction packs and support, Councillor Associations reach out to prospective candidates and buddy them up with seasoned councillors. Councils and the Electoral Commission have a plethora of information and CoSLA has done sterling work through its ‘Barriers to Elected Office’ to inform and prepare interested folk for their journey. This questionnaire is a prime example of resource that wasn’t available to me 15 years ago.
Why is greater representation in local government important?
As I’ve just said the services delivered by Councils is immense, to support the delivery of those services we need a broad range of talent from varied backgrounds elected to truly work on behalf of their communities. Councillors need to be a reflection of their community. It’s important we have elected representatives who understand local need, decisions made closest to our communities in consultation with the people we represent are usually the best decisions.
What advice would you give to someone considering standing for elected office in their local area?
Just Do It. It’s been the privilege of my life and I never take a day for granted.
And finally, who is your role model and why?
My late ward colleague Ted Brown. We were both elected for the first time in 2007 and forged a fantastic working relationship and friendship. He was Labour and I’m a Conservative and we could have some real humdingers in central committees, but we made a pact early doors that when we left the town boundary of Dumfries and returned to our Ward that we’d work together for the betterment of our community, we never had a cross word. He was passionate about the area, really cared about people and always sincerely asked how you were. That’s stayed with me and I now always ask how someone is, it’s a kindness that costs nothing.