Councils: an unglamorous but essential platform for creating lasting change

Recently, my colleague and I submitted a 'motion' to the District Council on which we sit. We wanted to up discussion about inclusion and relationships within the Council, and between the Council and residents -- but it didn't quite go to plan. Here's some reflections.


I am an elected District Councillor in the UK. I am one of two Green Councillors on a Council of 39. And at 36 years old, I am one of the younger Councillors (the 2018 Local Government Association census of local authority Councillors revealed that less than 15% were under 45 years old, and 36% were female).


The role of a Council


I was elected in May 2019. Since then, I've enjoyed getting to know residents; learning from other Councillors; and shaping our climate strategy (I hold the position of Cabinet Member for Climate Change). I've seen our Council respond effectively and compassionately during the Covid19 crisis. Officers worked around the clock to get business grants out, and vulnerable residents were supported with food parcels and phone calls. And this is the kind of unglamorous, quiet, essential role of a Council -- not just to collect recycling, or deal with potholes, but to hold a space for residents to be heard; to help them find appropriate support when they need it; to work with them to create a prosperous local future.

But with Council budgets hollowed out after years of austerity, and now a pandemic to contend with, I fear that the kind of locally-rooted progress that Councils could bring might be less appealing to engage with than ever. That's why it feels so important to make sure that they're listening, respectful and inclusive spaces -- so they can be a real partner to residents, and so that progress might be led by relationship, collaboration and engagement, in good times and in bad.



Panaceas, people and processes


Complex problems like the climate crisis, social division, and a global Covid19 recession can make it tempting to pin expectations of solutions on celebrities, technology and finance; on people and processes that are distant from our homes and communities. Social media-powered 'influencers'; expensive eco-friendly products; nascent technologies; glamorous Earthshots and moonshots -- these platforms and products can be exciting, inspiring, motivating, and that's important: they can set action in motion. But I think the maintenance of deep and lasting progress is unglamorous, and something we all have a role in -- not just the digitally or financially literate, or the well-networked. It takes time, and patience, and the ability to sit with people and opinions we might not like or agree with, and a commitment to a vision that might seem far away.


For everyone to have a role in locally-led progress, they need to be listened to, and given autonomy and tools to act, and a local network to plug into. Councils need to see themselves as partners that walk with communities, not do to communities. (My work in international community development has shown me the same thing -- that communities are best placed to know their strengths and challenges, and don't necessarily need a project plonked on them from the outside).

The right to speak comes with a duty to listen


Listening to residents, and enabling them to see themselves as part of a process of creating local change, was part of the purpose of a Council motion that my Green colleague, Jo, and I recently put forward. We wanted to open up a conversation about how we, as a Council, might make sure we're creating an environment in which everyone feels welcome -- Councillors, Officers, residents -- and able to play a part in planning and creating the future. This includes being aware of the language we use as elected representatives, and how we are -- or are not -- including all residents. Where there are barriers to inclusion and representation, as we've seen there are, we want to work to understand and dismantle them.


Council motions are requests made for an issue to be discussed, debated and decided on at a Council meeting. Passing motions can be powerful symbols of where a Council stands on an issue. The original version of the motion we put forward opened with: "The diversity of residents, and the issues they face, must be properly represented and included in decision-making." The final version that was considered included the following points (some inspired by or taken from other Councils):


Council resolves to:

  1. Practice equality, fairness and inclusion, and to play its part in creating an equal society for all. There is no place for sexism, racism, bigotry, discrimination or intolerance of any form in our society.

  2. Acknowledge that language is a powerful tool for change and inspiration, as well as ignorance, oppression and damaged relationships, and should be used thoughtfully and respectfully. Many people who do not have a voice in the public domain have to suffer the consequences of inaccurate or insulting language.

  3. Review and, if needed, update member training, to equip all members with the language and tools needed to actively promote diversity and inclusivity.

  4. Request a report detailing the options for how the Council can implement the relevant recommendations for Local Authorities (where not already in place) listed in the Fawcett Society/LGiU report: ‘Does Local Government Work for Women?’ (the report found that structural and cultural barriers hold back women’s participation in local government. The practices and protocols of local government create unnecessary barriers to participation, particularly for women with caring responsibilities).

  5. Identify and discuss approaches to reaching hard-to-reach communities in the District.

  6. Create a diversity and inclusion strategy, seeking input from residents and local organisations that have expertise, to ensure the council is inclusive in its recruitment, member representation and service provision. As part of this, review and update our equalities policy.

  7. Explore further opportunities to increase inclusivity, diversity and representation in the Council, including but not limited to amongst women, minority ethnic communities, young people, and carers.


Dismissing the discussion


The motion was broad, and imperfect. We are not experienced Councillors. Where we touched on a particular context, e.g. barriers to women in local government, it was because that's what we know, or have experienced ourselves. But during what discussion there was, we heard points like these (my brief reflections in brackets):

  • "It's insulting that you think we need training on diversity. We have that policy; we read it every year." (This is about more than just reading a policy because we have to. It's about behaviours and attitudes, and a knowledge that we can always do better -- and was a based on feedback from residents)

  • "This is utopian". (We had asked to explore how we might assess and improve inclusivity, engagement and representation at the Council...)

  • “This motion is talking about females a lot, so are we sexist against our male counterparts? If that is the case, maybe the next full council someone will bring up a motion about fairness to our male colleagues.” (The point of the motion was not about men vs women.)

  • "I think we have to bear in mind that Elizabeth and Jo are quite young compared to all the rest of us. It may be that they have been victims of things against which older women would stand up for themselves.” (Giving the impression that age or an ability to stand up for oneself are necessary to be an elected representative, is damaging.)

The varied reasons that prompted us to put forward a motion were broad. The motion was deliberately forward-looking. But conversation was quickly brought to an end by the referral of the motion to the Standards committee. To us, and to some residents and some Councillors, it felt like the conversation had been shut down and dismissed, or "kicked into the long grass" as one Councillor said. Against a national and international backdrop of seemingly increasing polarisation and division, this felt unwise and frustrating.

Lessons


There has been some follow up since the meeting, and we are trying to keep conversations going (though in one conversation we heard from a senior Councillor that the 2017 Fawcett report about barriers to women in local government was "out of date", and that there are "no barriers to women now"). I'm also doing some work with others on improving community engagement at the Council.


Having sat with the aftermath of the motion for a little while, I've noticed how the motion has come to be referred to as the 'gender equality motion', though it was broader than that. I'm also conscious that language like that which we used in the motion quickly gets associated with activist, Green, 'woke' stereotypes. I am more interested in the common ground between groups than in being part of a tribe; and I am more keen to listen to and combine the best bits of all parties / perspectives, than to see in stereotypes. But it reminds me how words can so often be seen and used as a proxy for a 'type' of person, or an ideology, rather than being used and understood in their own right. Words can bring nuance and understanding -- when used well, and when listened to. Our motion could have been sharper, more succinct, more carefully-worded. But it also shone a light into shadow, and -- albeit in a way I didn't foresee -- opened up conversation.


I was going to compose a Tweet summing up the outcome of the motion, but Tweets are often over-simplified and misunderstood. Perhaps motions can be, too -- which is why accompanying discussion is so important. In this blog post, I wanted to capture some of the nuance that didn't fit into a Tweet. I wanted to suggest that discussions like this are vital if we are to get to a place where local government is seen as a forward-looking and representative platform to meaningfully engage with, and through which to create change. It may be unglamorous, underfunded, inefficient, and frustrating. Party politics can get in the way if we let it. But Councils are close to citizens; to people who -- when listened to and invited in -- can be partners in creating community-owned, long-lasting change. This will only work on a foundation of good relationships, listening, respect and inclusion. This is why I'm a Councillor, and why I feel the kind of discussions we had hoped to open up with our motion are essential.