Writing exclusively for CARDIFF EAST Councillor Cerys Furlong opens up on what life is like as a Cardiff Councillor. The Labour Councillor for Canton, first elected in 2008, is part of a new generation of councillors contributing to civic life in the capital. Widely regarded as a talented councillor to watch Furlong reflects on her two years in the chamber.
I was elected to represent Canton ward in May 2008. My predecessor in Canton was David Thomas, now sadly deceased. I had the good fortune of Dave’s advice on a number of occasions before being elected. His favourite pearl of wisdom was “don’t let it take over your life”. Hmmm… I’d like to take the liberty of testing out that advice here, in a short view of what it’s really like to be a Councillor.
I thought I had a pretty good idea having known my now colleagues Richard Cook and Ramesh Patel for a number of years. They set a challenging benchmark, and I recall saying to them “I won’t be able to do everything you do!” That is indeed true, working full time, and being a Cllr is something I am still trying to juggle. However, in Canton we try to share out the work between us which makes life considerably easier.
It also helped when five months after being elected I found out I was expecting my first child. Being heavily pregnant and trying to deliver leaflets, when the houses in your round all seem to have letter boxes at ground level is not that much fun. However being a Cllr is not just about delivering leaflets, though regular newsletters are an important way of letting your residents know what you have been doing, and what your views are on key issues. It is also about holding regular surgeries (we hold ours each Saturday 10-11am in Canton library), and responding to the whole range of resident’s concerns. It is not (as my husband sometimes seems to think) all about getting dog mess cleared off pavements, though that can also make a significant difference to the quality of resident’s lives. Nor is it only about school re-organisation, though that is the top priority in my ward currently.
It is also about big, City and County wide issues. Like the Local Development Plan (which will affect the way our city is developed, the quality of our housing stock, how our transport system functions, what green spaces we have and more, for the next 16 years), and like the services which so many residents rely on in social services and social care. I am a member of the Children and Young People’s scrutiny committee, responsible for scrutinising all aspects of the Council relating to the education and care of our young people. As Councillors, we are all corporate parents, with responsibility for the care of those being looked after by Cardiff Council. This is a huge responsibility that cannot be taken lightly.
After my daughter was born last April, I decided to take a few weeks off from Council business. It soon became clear that you can never really switch off completely, you still have a duty to represent your residents. Although my colleagues took up the slack considerably to enable me to come back , when I eventually started to get over the shock of being a parent, I’ll never forget the resident who phoned me ten days after having my daughter. The conversation went something like:
Resident: “I’ve got this problem and I need your help”
Me (still in a post-birth state of shock): “Certainly, can I ask one of my colleagues to help you, I’ve just given birth?”
Resident: “ That’s nice, anyway.. about this resident’s parking scheme….”
So, does it take over your life? Yes and no. It certainly can, and in some ways should. You are elected to represent your residents for four years, and you have a duty to do that to the best of your ability. However, I firmly believe that Councillors are, and should be real people, not saints, and that Cardiff would be a better place, if its’ 75 Councillors were more representative of the city’s residents as a whole. That means more young people, women, parents, black and minority ethnic people, and more people who also work. That real-life experience should enable us to make better decisions, decisions which better reflect our resident’s views and concerns. However, it also means you may end up with more people like me who are far from perfect- slightly disorganised, sometimes not sure what day of the week it is, child in tow and probably smelling ever so slightly of baby sick. Taking my baby to scrutiny or full council meetings is not ideal, although she does have an uncanny knack for shouting at appropriate times, and the truth is sometimes needs must. The reality of being a Cllr is, you do your best for four years, and then it’s up to the important people, the electorate to decide if that’s good enough.
Councillor Cerys Furlong is on Twitter @cerysfurlong where she tweets in a personal capacity.