So, you wanted to be a local councillor ...

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The Independent Online
I suspect that few of the thousand or so newly elected councillors will wake up this morning really knowing quite what they have taken on. When I became a councillor in the Isle of Dogs in Tower Hamlets two years ago, it was days before the sheer relief of defeating the British National Party began to wear off. All week letters and cards arrived, many of them from places I'd never visited. The Liberal mayor of one spa town sent me a card saying simply: "Greetings from one Town Hall to another."

But don't expect your euphoria to last for long. You might find a nasty surprise waiting for you. One day after the election, we found out that the previous administration had already sold off our borough's historic town hall.

No matter how much former councillors have tried to dissuade you from standing for the council, nothing can prepare you for the scale of the task you have taken upon yourself. When I was told it would mean going to meetings every night of the week, I thought this was an exaggeration. Little did I know that I would find myself trying to go to two, three or more meetings a night and still end up feeling guilty about the one I'd missed.

By becoming a public figure whose address and phone numbers are openly available for inspection, you find your home life subjected to some unbelievable intrusions. Although I've discovered how to deal with the odd telephone call from drunk British National Party members, it is harder to know what to say to some lonely old lady whose entire social life appears to consist of ringing up councillors at two o'clock in the morning. If the Town Hall offers to lend you an answering machine, you'd be wise to accept.

People imagine that councillors get paid for all this, and it is true we all get attendance allowances for committee and council meetings. Yet receiving pounds 22.50 for a day off work or an evening's work is hardly adequate remuneration for the toll that council duties can impose on your professional and domestic life.

The rewards of being a councillor are to be found elsewhere. When you are stopped on your way round the supermarket and thanked for helping a family to rearrange their debts before a loan shark called round or the bailiffs turned up, you know why you carry on. Opening a new children's playground or a primary school in your ward can be equally rewarding as you see dry committee minutes translated into facilities that are managed and used by the local community.

If I could send one message to everyone who was elected last night, it would be to enjoy your hard-won victory and the service you give to your borough, but try to set aside one night of the week for those near to you. Remember also that most hard-working councillors are quickly forgotten when they come off the council, even if their council's achievements and failures remain visible for decades. While it lasts, however, local politics can be fun, frustrating and bloody hard work. Good luck with the task that you have let yourself in for - there are plenty of surprises and another round of elections awaiting you in four years' time.

The writer is a Labour councillor for the Millwall ward of Tower Hamlets, in east London.