Six months ago Swansea Council was coloured red for the first time in eight years. Politics reporter Helen Keates sits down with the new administration to see what it has been doing and what comes next.
CHRISTINE Richards is only in her second term, but she’s already found herself in a cabinet position and deputy leader of the council.
Before the May elections she was a back-bencher, now she has a portfolio — citizen, community engagement and democracy.
Born in a house in Clyne Woods, Mrs Richards is Swansea born and bred.
But she is not new to the civil service — she has worked in the public sector since 1979 when she was a depot clerk at the Royal Navy stores in Llangennech. She has worked in a variety of government departments, including at the DVLA, and been active in trades unions. It was 1984 before she joined the Labour party — spurred on by the miners’ strike — and 2008 before Mrs Richards decided it was time to throw her hat in the ring for a seat on Swansea Council.
Until then, she said, she had been active in the background, but with work and family commitments there had not been an opportunity to be more involved.
“I will do this job for as long as it needs,” Mrs Richards said.
“I don’t see it as a career. It’s a job you do to make things better. There are lots of jobs to be done — some may call some of them small — but they are important to people.”
At the forefront of Mrs Richards’s mind is filling her role as deputy leader and cabinet member. It’s harder work and longer hours than her previous jobs, while making sure she continues to represent her constituents in Lower Loughor.
It is in this role she has been successful with the friends of Parc Williams (corr) and also had a seat on Llwchwr Town Council.
“The friends of Parc William are excellent,” she said. “Lower Loughor is right on the edge of Swansea and it was felt by people that it was a little bit forgotten, especially compared with the big parks in Swansea. We have organised events, fun days, carol services, Loughor Town Band has played. We wanted to create events where people could come and not spend any money if they couldn’t afford it. Of course we try to sell programmes at events to raise money for parks too. And of course as ‘friends’ we can apply for grant funding for the park. It’s been great.
“It is a challenge to keep the ward work going. I try to do newsletters and work with other community councillors and I still hold surgeries.”
As a cabinet member, Mrs Richards is pleased with the progress made so far in Swansea Council. One of the changes made in the past six months, which Labour says has made democracy more accessible to all, is more council meetings later in the day.
Council meetings were previously held every eight weeks, starting at four. Now they start at 5pm and occur every four weeks. Cabinet meetings take place at 5pm too, instead of 2pm.
She added: “It accommodates people who have jobs. We also have a new petitions process. For example, if someone wanted to petition for a one-way system on their street. Before they would get a few minutes to tell you what it was all about. Now they sit down in a room with the appropriate officers and cabinet member, ward member, opposing sides. Officers will come up with a report, and there will be a dialogue and a debate to try to find a way forward.
“If you are that incensed that you have gone to the trouble of organising a petition, you feel very strongly about something. And people deserve to be listened to.
“The first one was last week. All in all I think it went quite well. People felt they were listened to. We did not make a decision — we are going to go out and have another look.”
Changes on the cards for democracy also include new scrutiny arrangements. Instead of scrutiny committees, there will be programme boards, which will pass work down to task and finish groups. It is intended so all non-executive councillors can be involved in scrutiny, taking advantage of everyone’s knowledge and experience. It also means only one scrutiny chairman claiming an SRA (special responsibility allowance).
“I can see what the leader is trying to do with scrutiny,” Mrs Richards said.
“The main issue is there should be no less scrutiny. I think the idea is sound.”
Looking forward, Mrs Richards is excited about the formation of a Youth Council. She is working with the member for opportunities for young people, Mitchell Theaker.
She is also looking at the community council forum and how it can be more effective.
Target areas and residents’ associations are also on the agenda.
Adding a last word about her roles, Mrs Richards said: “I thrive on it. I love it.”