‘It can be boring, but satisfaction comes in getting a good result for our residents’: Why Suffolk councillors are prepared to attend up to 40 meetings a year
Councillor Carole Jones attended 33 council meetings last year. That’s a 97 per cent attendance rate, which makes her one of the busiest councillors in Suffolk . In that time, the Labour member for Westgate on Ipswich Borough Council sat through hundreds of hours of debates, read thousands of pages of agendas, and replied to countless emails from constituents.
It is a long time to spend doing a job that many would consider to be quite boring!
“It helps that I’m retired now, though I was a councillor for years while working full-time,” says Councillor Jones, who used to be head of English at Stowupland High School.
“My partner is David Ellesmere, who is still in work three days a week,” she adds, as if to play down her own incredible time commitment. “It’s much harder for him because he is the Ipswich Borough Council leader, which is a big responsibility and very time-consuming.”
Cllr Jones cannot remember exactly when she began on the local authority (she estimates around 1993). Influenced by her father, who was a Labour councillor in south Wales for 30 years, she got involved for reasons that will be familiar to many of the hundreds of members who are fulfilling civic duty around the county: ‘To contribute to a fairer, kinder society and help people who were struggling’.
When somebody is elected to local office, they are given a new title, a job role, a small base salary and, for many, duties on a committee or sub-committee. Some are members of more than one council, while Tim Passmore is a Mid Suffolk councillor on top of his job as the police and crime commissioner for Suffolk.
“I believe if you are going to be a councillor you should do it wholeheartedly,” says Councillor Derek Davis, who with 23 appearances at Babergh Council was one of the authority’s highest attenders. “It is the very least your voters should expect from you.”
It is not necessary for councillors to attend as many meetings as Cllr Davis or Cllr Jones, who is part of four committees as well as the main council. A glance at the attendance records will show you some disparity. Councillors are expected to attend full council meetings as well as committees they are on. In the same time period (all data for this feature was taken for April 1, 2019 to March 31, 2020): Councillor David Gathercole missed five of the 14 West Suffolk Council meetings he was expected at; In Ipswich, Councillor Bryony Rudkin attended 25 meetings, but was absent at 11; For Babergh, Councillor John Hinton attended 57 per cent of meetings, showing up to 12 out of 21; In Mid Suffolk, Councillor Wendy Turner attended eight out of 19 meetings.
There are many reasons, both personal and professional, why councillors may not be able to attend meetings. From research it is possible to see that in nearly all cases a councillor will have submitted an apology for absence.
Cllr Adrian Osborne of Babergh Council attended 29 meetings, one of the highest numbers on the authority, and said the time commitment can be a challenge.
“Obviously it means making sacrifices such as not seeing my grandchildren as much as I would like and having time to spend with my wife on things we like doing such as walking and, for myself, cricket.
“However, being a councillor is very important and something I take very seriously. With some planning and good diary keeping it is possible to combine it with a personal life.”
Suffolk County Councillor Jessica Fleming, another high attendee, added: “Being a councillor involves both local community work at the parish level and administrative, committee type work. They are quite different, almost like having two jobs.
“I am not always brilliant at managing time, but tend to be decisive and focus hard on items that need attention and look under the surface, which is why I particularly enjoy scrutiny.
“I am also supported by terrific officers and other members at both county and district councils.”
The time commitment is one thing, but I am keen to find out if there is much enjoyment to be had from the job. Being a councillor can be stressful and, at times, members are forced to make decisions on contentious issues with strong arguments either side. And having sat through meetings myself as a reporter, I know they can sometimes be less than thrilling.
“You are right, some council meetings are not exciting, especially when some of my colleagues drone on unnecessarily,” says Cllr Derek Davis. “There are some who feel why use 100 words, when they can use 1,000!
“The enjoyment, or satisfaction, comes from getting a good result for our residents.
“As important as the big decisions are, the main joy for me is often away from the public meetings when you achieve something for an individual resident.”
Green Party councillor Andrew Mellen said: "All Green councillors are hard working, and represent their communities well."
He also clarified that his colleague Councillor Wendy Turner has 'worked hard' for her constituents but unfortunately had to miss several meetings last year because of illness.
Cllr Wendy Turner said: "I was absent for many meetings for four months due to a critical illness that was unexpectedly diagnosed in October 2019."
She added: "Since my return to the council in February, I haven’t missed any of my scheduled meetings and have been dealing with day to day issues that affect the parish council and the parishioners. At my first meeting with the Thurston PC, I suggested that we needed a Youth Council as there were ongoing issues with a youth shelter and anti social behaviour. The Youth Council is now taking shape and will be part of the PC once the schools return in September.
"I was also organising a Climate Awareness week (a week of interactive activities including short plays, an exhibition, nature walks etc ) which would have taken place in June had the pandemic not struck."
Which councillors have the best and worst attendances on Suffolk authorities
West Suffolk Council
One of the top attenders was Cllr Susan Glossop who attended 22 out of 23 meetings she was expected at. For the meeting she was absent, she sent an apology and a representative. Cllr Peter Stevens attended 21 out of 23 and sent apologies and representation for the two he was unable to make. Cllr David Gathercole missed five of the 14 West Suffolk Council meetings he was expected at. He sent apologies for all his absences. Cllr Max Clarke was present at five out of seven meetings, sending apologies for one of his two absences.
Ipswich Borough Council
Councillors Carole Jones and Stephen Connelly attended 33 out of 34 meetings they were expected at, and gave apologies for the one they missed. Councillor Elizabeth Harsant attended all 31 she was due at. Councillor Bryony Rudkin attended 25 meetings, but was absent at 11 - giving apologies or sending a representative for all of those. Her attendance rate of 69 per cent was among the council’s lowest. Councillor Barry Studd was at 21 of the 30 meetings he was expected, a record of 70 per cent.
Councillor Peter Beer attended 26 out of 26, Councillor David Busby was at 27 out of 30, and Councillor Mary McLaren was in attendance for 25 out of 27. Among the lowest, Councillor John Hinton attended 57 per cent of meetings, showing up to 12 out of 21. Councillor John Nunn attended seven out of 11 meetings.
Mid Suffolk Council
Several councillors attended 100 per cent of meetings. Among them, Councillor Gerard Brewster was present at 20, Councillor Matthew Hicks made it to 19, and Councillor Andrew Mellen was at 21. The lowest attendance was Councillor Wendy Turner, who managed eight out of 19 meetings.
Suffolk County Council
Councillor Jessica Fleming is among the top attenders in the county, making it to 34 out of 36 she was expected at. With four absences and 11 meetings present, Councillor Alexander Nicoll had arguably the poorest record. Councillor Jamie Starling attended four times and was absent for two. Councillor Peter Beer made it to 11 meetings in addition to the 26 he attended for Babergh District Council.
East Suffolk Council
Councillor Linda Coulam made it to 42 meetings, missing none. Councillor Tony Cooper also had a 100 per cent record, and attended 40. Councillor Melissa Allen missed eight meetings, attending 68 per cent she was expected at. Councillor Frank Mortimer attended 62.5 per cent.