The frustration of being continually in opposition in LB Hounslow

Image above: Sam Hearn with dog Leo

Interview with Sam Hearn, on retiring from local politics in Chiswick

When Sam Hearn became a councillor in December 2007, he remembers it as an exciting time when the Conservative group was able to get things done:

“It was gloriously exciting. We were slaughtering a lot of sacred cows which had been in place for decades”.

Things like the organisation of LB Hounslow’s Council’s Leisure Services, which according to Sam had been put into a structure with a charitable body at its core:

“an innovative thing which Labour had tried to do, which put it in a position to apply for all sorts of grants, but which was horrendously complicated and ended up with a black hole of £4 million which the trustees weren’t aware of.”

Financial restructuring is the sort of thing which floats his boat, as Sam has spent most of his career “either setting up for breathing life back into internal audit departments”.

Having worked as an accountant with international construction companies and a global pharmaceutical company, he spent 15 years with Historic Royal Palaces, based at Hampton Court, helping them become more commercial and then worked for the National Theatre as Head of Internal Audit, before devoting himself full time to the trials and tribulations of the residents of Chiswick Riverside (aka Grove Park and Strand on the Green, or its most recent bureaucratic iteration, ‘south Chiswick’).

He stood down at these local elections because local politics can be pretty stressful and at 68 he decided he wanted to spend more time with his family (yes really).

Image above: Joanna Biddolph with Ranjit Gill and Ron Mushiso at last Thursday’s count, re-elected as councillors in Chiswick, Gunnersbury, 5 May 2022

“You have to approach this as if you might one day be in power”

He had planned for the last four years to be his last stint as a councillor before he took over as leader of the group in May 2017, by that time with ten years’ experience, but instead of seeing out his time as Leader, steering the group’s development in the way he wanted, he was unceremoniously deposed two years later by new kid on the block Joanna Biddolph, elected for the first time in 2018 (who was herself unseated as leader a year later, to be replaced as Leader by Gerald McGregor).

After the local elections on 5 May 2022, the Conservatives remain a small opposition rump. The Labour Party remains in overall control of Hounslow council, with 52 Councillors, out of a total of 62 seats in 22 wards. The Conservative party won 10 seats, eight of which are in Chiswick.

Sam’s time as a councillor has been coloured by the frustration of being continuously in opposition, but it is a condition he has come to terms with.

Before he was elected, his view on being the merits of being a councillor was quite simplistic:

“I had always said ‘what’s the point if you’re not running the council? It must be extremely frustrating if you’re always in opposition?’ Which is true, it is.”

Now after nearly 15 years his take on it is more nuanced:

“You have to make power by making personal relationships in committees.

“A proportion of councillors realise you have to approach this as if you might one day be in power. You have to be constructive. But other councillors find it a lot easier to be negative, to believe everything is done with ill will and not trust anything Labour does.”

Image above: Chiswick Pier; photograph Anna Kunst

The real work of being a councillor

The real work of being a councillor, he says, is getting stuck in to committee work and case work. Sam has been a trustee of the Thomas Layton collection – 5,200 archaeological and ethnographic artifacts, 3,500 coins, tokens and medals, 4,000 maps and prints and 8,000 books and manuscripts from the 16th century to 19th century bequeathed to the people of Brentford.

He has been a trustee of Chiswick Pier – a charity established by the Council to manage the leasing of the moorings for houseboats on the pier and managing premises for the Thames Explorer Trust, the the Chiswick Sea Cadets, the Chiswick Pier Canoe Club and the RNLI, whose role is also to and help people understand more about the local river and community.

He has also been a Governor for Strand on the Green Infants and Junior Schools – plural – at the centre of a hard fought campaign to keep the two schools as separate entities. They were under pressure to integrate, which would have saved money, but which both heads opposed because of the disruption it would have caused.

Because of his background in accountancy, chairmanship of the Pensions board was a natural fit, but he has also spent four years as a member of the Housing and Environment scrutiny panel  committee and a year on the Planning committee.

“Being on the Planning committee was one of the scariest things I have ever been involved in. For every meeting you have a thick pile of documents to get through. Your decisions affect people’s lives and it goes across the borough so you don’t necessarily know the area under discussion.

“It required so much knowledge you could spend all your free time learning about it.”

Such is the complexity of planning regulations that, he says, the danger is that planning decisions could all become officer decisions, as they have the necessary background and training to understand the intricacies.

But as was proved with the recent case of an application to build luxury houses in the garden of a Victorian house on Hartington Rd, Council officers can also come up with recommendations which neither the public nor the councillors on the committee, think are either right or reasonable.

READ ALSO: Development of luxury houses at Hartington Rd turned down

Image above: Sam Hearn; photograph Matt Smith

The bulk of a councillor’s work should be case work, if they are doing their job properly. They are the conduit between the residents and local councils, helping people access information they cannot find and to realise that there are ways in which local councils can help with problems.

The most common issues, says Sam, are those such as fly-tipping and abandoned cars and individual problems such as parents needing help with getting their children into schools, particularly children who need to be ‘statemented’ to access the help they need with particular learning issues.

“It’s the same with accessing benefits. People very often just can’t find their way through the bureaucracy.”

Sam reckons he has dealt with more than 400 pieces of casework over the past three and a half years, not including his postbag on Low Traffic Neighbourhoods and the cycle lane.

On that subject he is “mentally exhausted” he says, but is still after “proper” consultation.

“I am desperate that we approach the new administration not thumping them in the face but that we just ask for a proper consultation on options and the things we have been told can’t be done.” [Such as regulation of traffic by ANPR cameras].

Image above: Strand on the Green Junior School

Highlights and successes

What are the successes of which he is most proud? I asked him.

Winning the argument to keep Strand on the Green Infants and Juniors is one. Managing the public consultations on the introduction of Controlled Parking Zones (CPZs) another. Bringing a senior police officer from West Area, the tri-borough command covering Hillingdon, Ealing and Hounslow to address two public meetings on policing in Chiswick was another useful thing to have done.

He was reminded a few days ago, by a woman he confessed to not remembering, that he had helped her get her autistic son get the educational support he needed. Another, a single father who had suffered mental illness himself, as had his wife, Sam supported in his attempt to keep his son in mainstream education despite his behavioural difficulties.

He has managed to help some people who have become homeless. He helped a man get his life back on track when he had been thrown out by his landlord – Hounslow Council – for not paying the rent and in the process had lost all his personal paperwork. He also helped a family of five made homeless by a private landlord to be rehoused by LB Hounslow, visiting alternative premises in Feltham with them. These are the satisfying outcomes which make being a councillor worthwhile.

“Though selfishly, the thing I have found the most satisfying is the learning. You learn so much by being a councillor.

“It’s important not to get a God complex” he says, “running on emotion will get you nowhere and there is no point in telling people ‘we can do something to stop this’, if we can’t.”

Read more stories on The Chiswick Calendar

See also: Amy Croft “surprised to have been elected” as Chiswick’s first Labour councillor in 30 years

See also: First Labour councillor elected in Chiswick for 30 years

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