Local government needs different kinds of people willing to stand for election so that parties get a choice of quality candidates: councillors who are capable, vibrant, energetic and engaged, with a commitment to local people and a passion for change. We asked Bexley Council leader and London Councils Vice Chair, Cllr Teresa O'Neill OBE some questions about her career and what it takes to be a councillor.
When did you first become interested in politics – do you remember how old you were?
In the sixth form at a girl’s convent school in Lewisham when in 1979 Margaret Thatcher was standing for Prime Minister for the first time (that ages me). Although I was two months too young to vote, I canvassed my teachers and fellow pupils.
Why did you decide to become a councillor?
It sounds cheesy but to help others and make a difference. I stood in Lewisham (where I lived) in 1986 and 1990.
When did you first get elected?
I moved to Bexley in May 1997 and then stood for election and was elected in the May 1998 Borough Council Elections.
What most surprised you about being a councillor?
The breadth of what you deal with and the difference you can make to other people’s lives in the local community. The long term campaign to get a bus service extended to take people to a local hospital is as gratifying as balancing the books in challenging times. As Leader you are involved in a number of big issues but, for me, it’s even more rewarding to come across a resident who does not realise we can help them.
How would you describe your leadership style?
Hands on, leading from the front. I don’t expect anyone to do anything I wouldn’t do myself. I come from a working class background but I’ve managed people from a very young age in a professional capacity and I operate an open door policy. I am proud that we’ve raised Bexley’s profile under my leadership, improved local services, modernised the way we work and maintained sound financial planning.
Who is your political hero?
Margaret Thatcher – she was a determined person with clear vision which I admired.
How do you juggle being a leader and other commitments?
I chose to give up my full time job in the City and I don’t watch too much TV. It can be a huge commitment as you feel that you are on call 24/7. I even had someone complain because I didn’t respond to an email on Boxing Day until late with a query that was three years old – you have to keep a sense of perspective.
What advice would you offer someone thinking of becoming a councillor?
It’s exciting to help create a better future for our residents. It can however be a huge commitment once you are elected for a four year term – you need to have lots of time for everybody and develop links with all sorts of people who can help improve the lives of our residents. It’s not all fun and laughter, there’s lots of hard work and you can take a lot of personal criticism, even in the street, but it can be very rewarding.