Focus on council’s links to community

Cross party House of Commons Select Committee in  Sunderland Council Chamber on Monday morning.
Cross party House of Commons Select Committee in Sunderland Council Chamber on Monday morning.
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A DELEGATION of MPs travelled from London to discuss improving the relationship between residents and councillors.

Representatives from the Communities and Local Government Committee arrived in Sunderland yesterday to hear how bonds were being formed across the Wearside community.

City council leader Paul Watson was the first to address the meeting, alongside Coun Celia Gofton, portfolio holder for responsive services and customer care, and chief executive Dr Dave Smith.

They were followed by a selection of local councillors, including Conservative leader Coun Robert Oliver, as well as representatives of the Association of North East Councils and other local officials from the three main parties.

Dr Smith praised the work of the council and said the authority’s Community Leadership programme has improved the trust between residents and their councillors.

He said: “Sunderland City Council has provided good services for a number of years, shown by the resident satisfaction surveys.

“Going back a few years ago, while residents rated services highly, the council itself was not. This was common across the country, that trust and satisfaction with councillors was lower than the trust and satisfaction with services. Those figures have now been levelled out.

“We have redirected funding to the front line and taken 30 per cent out of the back offices. The council in the last three years has saved £100million without any reduction in service provision.”

The MPs moved on to ask how members of the community could be persuaded to become councillors, and Coun Watson stated his opposition to defined quotas to ensure minority representation.

He said: “The true tenet of democracy is that a council should be made up of who the community want to see in the council. It would be dangerous to tamper with that basic tenet.”

Asked about how young people could become more involved, 26-year-old Coun Michael Mordey, of Hendon ward, said: “A lot of my friends think I’m a bit geeky, but I tell them it’s a huge honour to be here.

“It’s hard to juggle being a councillor with work life and family life but if we can get that balance right, things will change.”

There was some disagreement between Coun Dianne Snowdon and Coun David Tate about how successful councillors are in their current roles.

Asked why she became a councillor, Coun Snowdon said: “I didn’t become a councillor to spend my time in the city centre but to work in my ward. What the Community Leadership programme has done is allow me to be more of a front-line councillor and really represent Washington.”

Coun Tate, who has been with the council since 1979, appeared to disagree when asked whether things are better now than they were 33 years ago.

He said: “A lot of the training that goes on now is about how not to be a councillor, what you can’t do, and we have more meetings and committees now than back then.

“We need to spend more time in the wards rather than in the city centre.”