This morning, my shower stopped working. This was, to put it mildly, a bit of an inconvenience. However as a result I have now made a really good, and hopefully a long term, professional acquaintance.

About six months ago, whilst volunteering for the Personal Support Unit at the Cardiff Civil Justice Centre, I met a client who was under threat of eviction as he had fallen into arrears on his mortgage. He was accompanied by his brother in law, who was there to give him help and support. Unfortunately, they were finding it difficult to navigate forms and court processes in order to stave off the threat of eviction. I helped them to fill out the relevant forms, accompanied them to court and then explained what had happened after the hearing was over. Essentially, the court gave the chap who was at risk of eviction more time to get up to date with his debts to the mortgage company – which I heard today he’d been able to do. Oh, and we had a cuppa while we were working out what needed to happen next. It’s amazing how much work gets done with a good hot cup of tea or coffee to accompany it!

It’s not always a good thing when someone says that they recognise you. However, my quip about it probably being on ‘Crimewatch’ obviously jogged his memory, and the story spilled out. Suffice to say that right now I feel like I’ve done some good in the world, and it’s come full circle as I now have a shower that works , and a massive smile on my face to boot.

If anyone finds themselves cast adrift in the sea of jargon and confusion that is the civil legal process (basically anything except criminal cases!) then get in touch with the Personal Support Unit on (029) 20343685 and the wonderful volunteers there would be happy to assist. I can’t say “we” anymore, as I’m off to work for the Co-operative Legal Services shortly, and so will be unable to continue my voluntary work there for the foreseeable future.

Every few years, each Local Authority in the UK has an election, to determine who is going to represent their Wards – and to administer their Council. These local elections take place on the same date in many different Council areas, and how well or poorly each political party does is used to measure their effectiveness at a national level. Does a party gain or lose a number of councillors nationally? If it picks up seats, it’s doing well. If it loses seats, it’s doing poorly.

This is a slightly peculiar system – not because of the requirement to regularly elect Councillors (we do live in a democracy, after all) but because the vast majority of Councillors elected are a member of one of the main political parties.

To understand why this is a little odd, we need to think a little about what Councils do. Firstly, they deliver local services. These can be broken down into statutory and non-statutory services. Statutory services are those which the Council is required to deliver, as directed by UK statute law. The non-statutory services are therefore discretionary – so Councils could discontinue them should they choose to do so. Statutory spending makes up the bulk of each Council’s budget, Cardiff Council’s is reported to be about 60%, for example. When a priority has been set by a higher power, it’s not like it can then be delivered in a particularly party-political manner. Policy direction and prioritisation takes place at higher level, be that at Westminster, or at a devolved institution (where they have the competence to do this). In the case of Cardiff, this institution would be the Welsh Government.

An additional peculiarity of way that Local Authorities are run is the ‘Leader and Cabinet’ system which most have implemented. In this system, certain elected councillors are allocated lead responsibility for a service area. To continue the example of Cardiff Council there are nine cabinet members plus the Council Leader. The areas of responsibility are such things as Finance & Economic Development, and Education & Lifelong Learning. This system has seen a loss of the direct relationship between Ward Councillors and Council Officers as they now need to go through the Cabinet Member, who has often ‘gone native’ as the Officers have ‘educated’ them. Therefore there is a loss of tension and direct accountability of Council Officers to elected representatives in each Ward.

Another anomaly of the current system is that where independent individuals are elected, there can be an Independent ‘Group’ created. Being a Group confers certain benefits, for example in terms of office space for the Group Leader. In some circumstances, the Independent Group can run a Council (this happened in Carmarthenshire until recently, as well as in Merthyr Tydfil. It is still the case in both Powys and Pembrokeshire). In other circumstances those of a certain political persuasion are likely to hide it from the voters by masquerading as an independent, when in fact they are closely aligned with a certain political party. Many Conservatives in the South Wales Valleys stand on an independent ticket to prevent the ‘anti-Tory’ vote going to their nearest challenger.

In recent years, the UK has seen an increasing number of Cities directly electing mayors, rather than them being drawn from within councillors elected to represent local wards. A number of the successful mayoral candidates have been independents – in Bristol, Mansfield, Middlesbrough and Tower Hamlets they bead political party candidates to be returned to office. This is a step in the direction that US Cities are run – and the renowned 99th Mayor of New York, Fiorello La Guardia, was notoriously pragmatic. He, who worked closely with F.D.Roosevelt on the ‘New Deal’ even though he was a Republican and FDR was a Democrat, is often quoted as having said that “there is no Democratic or Republican way of cleaning the streets”.

However most Councils remain dominated by party political candidates. This is probably because if a person has a party affiliation, it is worth a number of votes to them. Many voters will decide who to vote for locally based on national issues. However many will then vote for or against national candidates based on their Council’s performance. This seems odd, when the skillsets needed to be a good Councillor are organisation to administer decisions made by more senior institutions, empathy and sound judgment to undertake local casework for ward residents.