My first three months as a Liberal Democrat Councillor

On the day after I won my first election in May, while still elated and shattered in equal parts, my agent told me that is it typical for the first three months after election season to be relatively quiet and that I would have plenty of time to adjust to my new role. I can think of many words that might apply to these last three months in politics. ‘Typical’ and ‘quiet’ are not among them.

Nationally, as the EU referendum has triggered both a change of government and an opposition leadership election, the mood of our country is uncertain and fearful. Locally, in East Surrey, this is as true as anywhere. It was saddening but not surprising that our residents voted to leave the EU as many people took their opportunity to vote for something to change. Immediate worries for residents are about public services and infrastructure. Deep cuts to local authority budgets over recent years have meant reductions to just about every public service that people notice. Fewer bus services, shortened library opening hours, earlier closing times at the recycling centre and less regular grass cutting in public green areas are among the factors that all add up to make life less pleasant than it used to be. Meanwhile, a couple of decades of intense house building in my ward means that the population of our compact geography has more or less doubled while investment in infrastructure has failed to keep up. Roads are now overwhelmed and there aren’t enough school places and doctors’ appointments to service the community. On doorsteps people have been regularly asking how long before breaking point?

We found our breaking point in Caterham on the Hill on 7th June when we experienced the worst flash floods for 40 years. Local drains failed and properties were swamped with rain and sewer water, making too many families temporarily homeless. Given the political maelstrom, the media have not had a chance to give the consequences of our storm much attention. Not for our families the COBRA committees, armed forces response and additional funding that have been made available previously for other communities. Our Conservative MP did not even bother to make a statement. He was too busy in Westminster. This left a massive void of leadership with just us Councillors left to fill it.

As you would expect, our Liberal Democrats have been out there knocking on doors, hugging residents and crying with them over much-loved and now ruined homes and possessions, guiding distraught families through their understandable anger as well as grief. Along with colleagues, I have listened to what residents need and done my best to respond. Residents want to know what went wrong, they want to be listened to sympathetically and taken seriously, they need financial assistance in some instances, they want to have an active role in future flood planning and they want to be reassured that their Councillors will stand with them for as long as it takes to put things right. In response we called for an investigation by the flood authority, we have held public meetings so that the authorities can hear residents’ pleas directly, we called for Council Tax exemptions for flooded properties, we are helping set up a Flood Action Group for residents and we continue to represent them by speaking passionately at Council meetings. I was honoured to devote my maiden speech to the issue.

During this first 3 months, I have learnt so much. In addition to the flood disaster, I am finding ways to solve the usual day-to-day issues about bins, overgrown verges, parking, flytipping, potholes and the like. I also have grand ideas about more strategic projects involving business regeneration and improving schools’ provision that I hope to have the opportunity work on in the months and years to come.

This job is challenging, it can be distressing, it brings conflict and anxiety into daily life and I will always worry that there is more that I can do to help. This is the downside of doing a job that is incredibly meaningful. I am pleased to say that the upside vastly outweighs the downside. Already, I see clearly that it is possible to make a real and positive difference as a Liberal Democrat Councillor and that is truly thrilling.

* Cllr Caroline Warner joined the Liberal Democrats in 2015 and was elected as a Councillor in May 2016.

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  • Thank you for the insight Caroline – it’s been a turbulent few months nationally, and it’s really interesting to see how that’s affected you locally.

    Although the flooding sounds awful, it’s heartening to know that you councillors were/are there for the people, and fighting their corner (i.e. Council Tax Exemptions).

    The first part of your article really got to the crux of the EU / immigration issue very succinctly – the country isn’t “full”, we don’t have “too many immigrants” – what we have is an under-investment in housing nationally, and an under-investment in local services, from schools & GPs to rubbish collection and grass cutting – and it is fuelling resentment.

    Can you see that there is scope for improving these services in your ward within the budget you currently have?

  • Morwen Millson 29th Jul '16 - 1:23pm

    Well done Caroline, you are a credit and inspiration to your party and your fellow councillors. Keep going and continue to enjoy yourself!

  • Sue Sutherland 29th Jul '16 - 1:29pm

    It sounds as if you’re doing a brilliant job Caroline. People do respond when they know you’re trying to help even if there isn’t much you can do so don’t worry, just keep on being yourself, being honest and doing the best you can. If you’ve managed to do all you have done since May I foresee a bright and long future with our party.

  • Thanks for your insight Caroline. It’s great to read about you getting stuck in.

    I imagine it must be a challenge to balance addressing the unexpected and immediate concerns, such as flooding, with longer term aspirations, not to mention the ever present issues of pot-holes and dog fouling.

    It sounds like something of a baptism of fire, but at least your residents have had the opportunity to get to know you.

  • Phil Beesley 29th Jul '16 - 3:25pm

    Caroline Warner: “In addition to the flood disaster, I am finding ways to solve the usual day-to-day issues about bins, overgrown verges, parking, flytipping, potholes and the like.”

    Err, wow.

    Keep up the enthusiasm and find friends to maintain it.

  • Caroline Warner 29th Jul '16 - 4:26pm

    Thanks for the positive comments. It’s lovely to have a support network among fellow Liberal Democrats. Good question – AM – My honest answer is that I don’t know, but I think that Councils are going to have to be increasingly creative going forward. My instinct tells me that the answer lies somewhere in a mixed economy approach. For some services, Councils may end up being facilitators/regulators rather than providers. Certainly if cuts keep coming our way, then a radical new approach to local politics is going to be required. Certainly, my Tory-led local District Council is frustratingly old-fashioned and is really struggling to keep up. I’d like to see some shaking up – more LD candidates will help – where we stand and fight, we win, but it’s hellishly hard to find people prepared to do it.

  • Neil Sandison 29th Jul '16 - 7:03pm

    And the moral of the story is never believe your agent !

  • Mrs Helen Rujbally 29th Jul '16 - 7:47pm

    We would like to so how lucky we are to have Caroline Warner as our Liberal Democrat Councillor.
    Caroline has been such a great support to all of us who has been effected by the floods. Giving support listening to our questions and concerns a shoulder to cry on. Being approachable person is something that make a Councillor good at their job.
    We know Caroline will do well in all she does and wish her all the success in her post. And any support Caroline ever needs we will be more then happy to support Caroline.

  • I commend you Caroline for being willing to do a job I couldn’t. Having sat through an online council meeting it would drive me to absolute despair. It’s also refreshing to see an elected Lib Dem recognise the part that inadequate infrastructure played in loss of the referendum. You’ve clearly made a good impression in your community. Hopefully one day we might see you take that Tory’s Westminster seat away from him! Keep up the excellent work!

  • Simon Banks 30th Jul '16 - 3:58pm

    Sounds a good start, Caroline.

    In May 1982 I was elected to Waltham Forest council as a Liberal in an all-up election. We’d previously had one councillor from a by-election five months earlier plus one SDP defector from Labour. The by-election victor was re-elected and the SDP guy lost (but returned at the next election in a different ward). We had one ward we expected to win and another of things went well. We won all six seats. The result ended 13 years of Labour majority rule and put us in balance of power. The others promptly informed me I was leader. We celebrated that night and I remember walking home with postal workers delivering their morning rounds.

    Three hours later our ALC (as it was then) contact person, allocated to groups that might hold balance of power, rang. The phone woke me up.

    “How are you?” he began.

    “Awful,” I replied.

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