Wales politics

Your council: Could you do better?

Woman pinning polling station poster up in Welsh language and English Image copyright Getty Images

Council elections take place in May for every local authority in Wales - but do you think you have what it takes to be a councillor?

So, you're fed up with the way your local council runs things?

Maybe you're angry about bin collections, or the way the local school is performing and you want to shake things up.

You might think your local authority is doing a great job and you want to sign up to continue the good work.

Well, now is your chance, because in May, Wales will go to the polls for local authority elections. That's why some councils are holding taster sessions, to explain more to wannabe councillors about what the role entails.

But if Denbighshire council's session at the Nova Centre in Prestatyn on Wednesday night is anything to go by, some authorities have their work cut out simply getting people through the doors.

Excluding organisers and council staff, only six people turned up to the meeting. One of those is already a serving councillor and another was there simply to support his wife, who is interested in standing in the election.

This was the third of four sessions Denbighshire is running, and turnout has not been good.

About seven turned up to a meeting in Ruthin, and even fewer at the session in Rhyl. The council is hoping more will be encouraged to attend their final session in Denbigh later this month.

Denbighshire's chief executive, Mohammed Mehmet, told those present on Wednesday that turnout had been better at similar events held in 2012.

"The turnout to the roadshows has not been overwhelming," he said, but added: "I'm not too concerned about that. If we have people present who are seriously thinking about it, and this is useful, then five or six people is okay."

Asked if the fact they are holding these sessions signifies there is a shortage of people willing to put themselves forward, Gary Williams, Denbighshire's head of legal, HR and democratic services, said: "I don't think there's a shortage. We fill all the seats.

"But we are keen to encourage as many people as possible to want to take part, and the idea of these evenings is to give people the information to enable them to make a considered decision as to whether or not it's the right thing for them."

Image copyright Getty Images

Barry Mellor, who represents the east ward of Rhyl, was just months into his role as a county councillor when floods struck the town in 2013. He told the audience this was an example of how varied work as a councillor can be.

"That was a baptism of fire, to come in as a councillor six months before that... 140 houses were devastated.... by probably nine o clock that evening we'd relocated everybody out of those 140 houses."

Prospective councillors also need to be prepared to give their own time and open their doors to strangers, he said.

"I've got somebody coming round to my house tomorrow night to discuss a business venture. If I can help, I will."

Incredibly "proud" to be a councillor, Mr Mellor admitted you need "thick skin and heavy shoulders" to perform the role well.

'Honesty' key

And the one quality you need above all others?

"Honesty. All I believe, is if you get asked to do something and you can't do it, explain to the people you can't do it, and they appreciate that much more."

The sessions provide information on allowances and salaries. The basic allowance is currently £13,200 a year, which is due to rise by £100 after May. Other allowances are available for certain roles with added responsibilities.

If they are successful and get voted in, councillors receive iPads and IT support, will be trained on subjects ranging from how to chair meetings, how to improve questioning skills and - a relatively new addition to the councillor's skillset - how to use social media.

The importance of appropriate behaviour in public office was also stressed. One useful anecdote on the night explained how "running down the street stark naked wearing a Red Indian head dress" is probably not the way to win any favours with the ombudsman.

The audience was told that even if they decide against running for the county elections, town and community councils are finding it "really difficult to get people to stand", and would welcome new blood.

Andrea Tomlin, from Prestatyn, attended the meeting with her husband, because she is interested in "getting a little bit more involved in my community".

However, she said: "I have definitely been swayed that county council isn't for me at the moment due to the time commitment I believe it demands of you. With having my own business and working full time in it I don't think I could dedicate the time that that role deserves."

However, she is considering standing for Prestatyn town council.

On the low turnout on the night, she said: "It doesn't surprise me, it disappoints me, because I just feel that there are so many people out there with thoughts and ideas and opinions on things in their own local community, on their own local streets. This is a good forum for them to be able to do that and they are not taking that opportunity.

"And it feels to me as if the same old, same old people might be coming through again, which is why I might consider getting involved this time."