In the run up to the local elections on 5 May, Sophie Page explores the role of a councillor and what it takes to become one.
Episode 9: Councillors
As we approach the local elections in May, this episode aims to explore the role of a councillor, challenge stereotypes and bring to life stories of local democracy in action. Sophie Page is joined by four councillors to discuss their journey into local government, how they manage the role − whilst juggling university work, full time jobs and motherhood − and to understand why it’s a role for anyone who is passionate about their local community to consider.
Don't forget if you are interested in becoming a councillor, or know someone who would be the perfect for the role, head to the Be a Councillor site.
Hello, and welcome to this episode of the Forget What You Think You Know podcast. I’m Sophie, a Digital, Campaigns and Marketing Adviser at the Local Government Association. In this episode, I want to learn more about the role of a councillor and bring to life what councillors do for their local community.
In England, there are 333 councils helping to provide more than 800 different services to local communities.
Everyone in the country is represented by a councillor, but not everyone will know the full extent of the role and what they do on a daily basis to serve their communities.
I want to explore whether certain perceptions about the role of a councillor ring true. I’ll be talking with councillors from across the country who are juggling university work, full time jobs and motherhood and discover what it takes to become a councillor.
Plus, as we approach the local elections, which are taking place across the country on the 5th of May, I’ll explore why it’s important to use your voice and vote.
It’s time to forget what you think you know about councillors.
I start my journey by speaking to the Liberal Democrat councillor for Newn-ham and leader of Cambridgeshire County Council, Lucy Neth-singha, to hear how she started out in the role as a new mother who just wanted to be part of adult conversations to now leading a council alliance of Liberal Democrats, Labour, and Independent councillors.
You used to be a Member of European Parliament, is that right?
Cllr Lucy Nethsingha
So I was a councillor, long before I was a member of the European Parliament in fact and I got involved in politics when I was very young in the town in which I grew up. But after I moved away to a different place, I got a first got elected as a councillor after I come when I was being a mostly a stay at home Mom with a couple of small children and I really wanted to spend some time with grown ups. I think doing, grown up things, not just doing things with children.
And actually, that's it. So that was what got me involved in the first place. I've always been really interested in the community in which I live. And being a councillor and also interested in politics. But it's the community side of being a councillor that I've enjoyed for over 20 years.
And yes, so you obviously loved it so much to come back and return to the role.
Cllr Lucy Nethsingha
Well, yeah, absolutely. I mean my time as a European Member of the European Parliament was comparatively short because it was kind of during the Brexit period. But so I went and did that and came back. But yes, I definitely did want to come back to it and so I mean it was really really interesting going and being in the European Parliament.
There were things about it that I would add that I absolutely loved and would go and do again, but one of the differences is the ability to really make a difference in the place that you live is almost greater as a councillor than as kind of being more distant in a parliament of something as large as Europe.
So for those listening who are who are completely new to local government, can you tell me a bit about what a councillor does day today?
So I mean that there are things that people always want you to do, like reporting potholes and street lights and making sure that stuff gets fixed, which often in a community people really care about. I mean, actually potholes can be very dangerous.
But street lights that are out make a difference to how safe people feel moving around and getting things like graffiti or fly tipping cleared up all of those sorts of things make people feel that their community is somewhere that people care about and that where, where the institutions and the Council are responsive.
And so being a councillor you do get the opportunity to do that. Some of the other things I managed to do as a backbench councillor were getting new cycle route put in and making sure that when they were pretty new cycle routes then they had drop curbs in the right places and that there were some sort of sensible places for people to cross near schools. All sorts of things like that, so, so relatively local and small, but nevertheless having a significant impact on people's lives.
These days I'm the leader of the Council and then you get to make rather bigger decisions and some of the some of those have been really significant this year. So the one I'm probably the most proud of over the last six months is managing to keep our free school meals programme going all over this winter at the full voucher rate.
And we're going to be able to do that this coming year as well, which means that families with children on really low incomes will get a significant increase during the school holidays, which is often a really difficult time for those families financially, so that's something that we've been able to make a decision on, and which will actually make us a really major impact on some of the most vulnerable families in our area.
And the other one is tackling climate change, which is really urgent and councils I think have a huge role to play in helping communities to understand how they can move to become net zero which which we need to do over the next 10 or 20 years in order to have any chance of stopping catastrophic climate change.
How important do you think cross party working is for local government and are there any learnings? Do you think that the public could take from this?
Cllr Lucy Nethsingha
So I think cross party working is really important in local government and I think it always has been. Our administration is a joint cross party administration and I have to say I'm really enjoying working with Members from all the different parties in that alliance. It's fantastic.
But actually previously when I was leader of the opposition in Cambridgeshire with a Conservative administration, and when I was a backbench councillor cross party working has always been really important because however much there is the sort of political grandstanding that you have to do to a certain extent most of the day today working about in councils is about delivering good things for communities.
And actually that's not something which is largely party political. It's often about working out what the best answer is within a very constrained financial envelope for this place or that particular project, and so much of that has always been cross party working, I think it's clearly something that I do a lot of in my role now, but it's always been, and in a very important part of being a councillor.
Moving onto common misconceptions about the role. Is there a key one that stands out for you about the role of a councillor that you'd like to dispel?
Cllr Lucy Nethsingha
Uh, it's difficult to know 'cause I think people have different perspectives, their perceptions of being a councillor. I think one of the things that's important to say to encourage people to feel that they might be able to do it is that it's not completely unpaid. It doesn't pay very well, but you are compensated for the time that you put into it and that is, some places are much better than others, and it does depend on your role and how much time you can put in.
But I think in terms of encouraging people to consider it's worth remembering. I mean one of the when I first started as a councillor, I was doing it sort of as a very small part time job while I was looking after doing my being of being a mum and it enabled me to have a couple of mornings that week where my son went into nursery and I did grown up things. And there were also mechanisms to pay for childcare in it.
There are far too many people who look quite similar. There are quite a lot of retired people being councillors it shouldn't all be retired people and actually it's for me developing a secondary career. While I was bringing up my children and I'd love to encourage more people to think about it in that way.
Interlude: Sophie Page
As we heard from Cllr Nethsingha, becoming a councillor can be seen as a secondary career, something which you can do alongside your every day job and motherhood. We need more people of all ages considering the role to ensure every voice is represented in local politics.
I spoke with Hertfordshire County Council’s youngest councillor at age 20, Tina Bhartwas, who is the Labour councillor for Letchworth North, and someone who wanted to speak up for the young people in her community. I wanted to find out why she thinks young people’s voices are so important in local politics and how her life experiences have motivated her to become a councillor.
Letchworth is my hometown. It's where I've grown up. But I would say it's really taken the community to raise me. I went through a lot of adverse experiences growing up and it's given me a real sense of community. There's so much to do here, we have food and drink festivals, we've got an art gallery, we have green spaces like literally 5 minutes from the station.
Is that part of the reason that you wanted to become a councillor? What was your inspiration to, to getting involved in the role?
So I wanted to become a local councillor for a variety of reasons and as I said to having adverse experiences so growing up in poverty, experiencing domestic abuse, having a period of homelessness as a young person. Those were really motivating factors for why I wanted to do it now.
But I'd also seen the community through so many different lenses. Like I said, we've got all of these events and groups, and I've been involved in the community in a variety of ways.
So I campaigned against education cuts at time when schools were really struggling to stay open. I've coordinated the youth wings of climate groups and seeing how important the youth voice is to creating really vital change.
What would you say is a typical week like for you in in the role?
So it's really varied. I find it a unique experience balancing it with university and all of the other things I've already mentioned I'm involved in.
I wasn't really sure how it would fit in with the lifestyle that I have. And so I think actually sharing my experience and saying, you know, it can be done. I commute from Hertfordshire into London and I can be and university up to five days a week and with their help and support it is something that really works.
So you mentioned university there. I believe your Hertfordshire County Council's youngest councillor. What kind of challenges and opportunities do you think that you face as a young person working in local politics?
So as the youngest councillor on Hertfordshire County Council, I think there's a number of different kind of experiences which I'll go through. I think the young people bring a really unique voice and a different way of doing things because I think that helps set the scene for the challenges that I face.
I think it's a real challenge without young people's voices to actually tackle the issues that young people in the communities face and to actually engage young people.
And as a young councillor I feel quite often I'm one of very few advocates for young people or, you know, perhaps, like I'll be the youngest person in the room who has got the most recent experience of the education system, for example. I think that's a lens that we do need to bring into political decision making.
Hopefully it encourages other people to consider the role. How did you first find out about what a councillor actually does?
So when I was much younger, I didn't actually know that councillors were politicians. I didn't know that they were party political or really elected.
But what I did know where they were people in the community you could go to who can help. And I knew that because I with my mum's carer and she had number of disabilities and quite often we really needed that help and quite frankly, in a lot of cases struggled to get it.
So I think that kind of depth of disappointment at a young age made me want to do something like it but I didn't even when I came to understanding how it works, so didn't necessarily think someone like me could do that.
Drawing on that decision making element of the role, how would you say that you make decisions on behalf of your local community and represent your residents? Can you give us an example?
Yeah, absolutely. So the most important thing to me is to be taking the views of residents on board and as I said, as I alluded to and I think, cooperation and collaboration need to be at the heart of that and I wanted to represent the community that I live in and that I've always lived in for that reason.
And I think again, with actually making decisions on behalf of your local community and representing residents like that's my priority above party political staff.
I mean the best example of this is going to be we had a crossing in my local area in front of the school. It's been campaigned on for years. I've been involved for a long time and it's around the corner from where I live and it's once again been delayed and it's one of those kind of hyper localized issues but it would make such a big difference and being able to bring that up in, you know, a variety of different rooms and say this is what local people think, this is what we want to see or understand the impact, being able to communicate what's going on at the Council back.
I don't want to be somebody who's sort of the Council's representative in the community but actually being the community's representative at the Council, and that's what's a vital about being a councillor.
I really like that. That's such a nice way of framing it. And you touched on obviously that you do engage with your residents, you do speak to the public about things that matter to them, but a lot of the time public do find it hard to understand and engage with local government. How do you think we can challenge this and get more people interested in the role?
I think a big thing in kind of understanding is that, is political education. So I didn't know councillors are elected. I didn't necessarily know what they did and I think having that understanding of the ways in which local government really touches every part of people's lives, it's so, so important and in terms of representation, I think I wanted to be the kind of councillor that reaches out to those traditionally hard to reach communities, and it matters so much to me personally.
Being a member of that community and I think really reaching out to people where they are and bringing them in, including them, we're not going to see the kind of representation or change that we need if we don't have diversity at every level because diversity equates to more dynamic decision making and that's a really positive thing.
So we need to see that representation of young people at every level of government and other diverse characteristics as well.
Going back to what I said about minoritized communities, I'm the second openly asexual councillor in the country, and I think that is something it really means so much for people from the LGBTQ IA plus community to see that, and to see somebody openly doing that and being proud of themselves for it.
Interlude: Sophie Page
Tina’s point about the importance of representation and diversity is such an important one. Anyone, regardless of their background or political affiliation should feel empowered to become a councillor.
One of the stereotypes of being a councillor is that you have to dedicate a lot of your time to the role. Whilst it obviously depends on your seniority within the council, it is possible to be a councillor alongside a paid, full-time job. It’s also possible to be a councillor and not belong to one of the main political parties and instead stand for election as an Independent.
I caught up with Councillor Luke Giles, an Independent Residents Association Councillor for Epsom Town who works in the theatre industry to understand how he juggles competing priorities and to learn more about how and why he became an Independent councillor.
How did you become a councillor?
Cllr Luke Giles (Guest)
My family always been engaged in Epsom and Yewell and you know my granddad when he was when he was with us, he was obsessed with the history of Epsom. And he really got involved and everything to do with it.
And it's through that and being engaged in local politics, he found the Residents Association and was involved in the Resident Association for years, helping them leaflet and all that kind of stuff and had lots of friends in the Residents Association.
So he was quite a, you know, he was a driver in that in that Residents Association mindset and all that kind of stuff, independent mindset and the, you know, residents first kind of view of our local landscape.
So you've mentioned other Residents Association and so that's obviously you're not part of kind of the main political parties. Can you tell me a bit more about the process of standing for election as an independent councillor?
Cllr Luke Giles (Guest)
It's an independent network of councillors essentially. So we we've got no party whip, no one is telling us out to vote it's just residents first thinking about what residents needs, you know close ties into the community.
There is another way than joining a party. You can run independently. You can represent the views of your residents and not have to think about anyone else that might have a political agenda.
The independent voices aren't necessarily the minority voices knowing that independents can work and it can last for 80 years and it can be a, you know, an amazing force for change, for local residents think certainly in local politics independence and completely under represented.
I think for me it really makes residents the heart of the matter and not necessarily the politics of the person, its the residents and how they're representing residents is what the really matters and you know, I kind of think that's what they should be all about, really.
How did you find out about how to actually stand?
I got in touch with a councillor for my ward and just you know sort of had a chat with him. I've known him for a couple of years before we stood and I so just sort of asked how I could stand and now I can make a difference and it was quite an easy process I mean as soon as they saw someone young walk in. It was kind of like, ‘oh, great, fantastic. We will take you please.’
They have been very open with me and they really needed young people to step forward and they really wanted young voices, you know, they wanted a diverse representation of Epson and that's something we're looking at for the next upcoming elections.
But yeah, so it was. I've just got in touch with my local group and just said, you know, how, how can I how can I get involved? And I joined the committee and and Yeah. And then I stood.
You carry out your role alongside a day job, can you tell me a bit more about what you do?
Yeah, I work in National Theatre, touring around the country and going to different places and doing lots of lots of different shows. And it's great fun. It sometimes takes me away from Epson which is you know a bit difficult but thanks to the 21st century we can still be in touch. You know I'm talking to you through teams or carry out love my council meetings for his teams and through email and you know I can stay engaged and everything that's going on in Epsom.
How do you kind of juggle that balance between the councillor role and your your day job?
Cllr Luke Giles (Guest)
I mean, it can be hard. no matter how many times they tell you, you know this is the commitment you always those that have a desire to be a councillor, desire to have change will spend hours thinking about what they can do and how it can work, they may tell you it's gonna take 15 hours there and 15 hours there. But really your mind is always so it switched on about what's going on.
You know when I'm touring around and we looking at theaters and stuff I'm constantly thinking or what could we do in the town like this? This is great. walking through middle of, you know, Peterborough High Street thinking, that's a really good idea. I take a picture of that and make sure you know. So you're always switched on. It can be quite all encompassing.
The May elections are coming up, why do you think it’s important to vote?
Cllr Luke Giles (Guest)
I think for a lot of people there could be quite overwhelmed by those elections and you know like certainly national elections become so all consuming.
You know you're dealing with these amazingly hypothetical situations of this might happen in this might happen. And if you do this, this, this person is going to do this and all this kind of stuff when actually on a local level it's literally your day to day life as effectively these small things that might, you know nationally might sort of switch you off from voting really when it comes to local stuff should be switched on even more.
Interlude: Sophie Page
It’s clear that residents are at the heart of Luke’s decision making process and that he’s always thinking about his home town, even when he’s in a different city for his theatre work.
My final guest is Councillor Kelham Cooke, Conservative councillor for Caseick and leader of South Kesteven District Council.
Kelham didn’t expect to be elected as a councillor, let alone have visions of becoming the leader of the council, but has embraced and loved the opportunity to represent the area that he grew up in.
Thank you so much for joining us on the podcast. Welcome. Could you start by telling us a little bit about yourself, what your passions and hobbies are outside of local politics?
Cllr Kelham Cooke
I've been a councillor now for amazingly 11 years. I got elected back in 2011 when I was twenty. I think there's certainly the youngest councillor elected to South Kesteven and I still am the youngest councillor, even though I'm also leader of the Council as well.
Outside of politics, I do definitely have a life. So one of my passions is I love skiing, cycling and I think like most people my age, going out for dinner with friends, catching up with friends and just visiting different places around the UK as well.
Obviously but how did you first become involved with local government?
Cllr Kelham Cooke
That’s a really good question. And I think in local government, everybody's journey is so different.
So for me, I helped out in the 2010 general election and that was my first involvement with politics really 'cause I I've not studied it. I didn't really do much of it at school, but I was sort of interested because ultimately every decision that steak and comes back to politics because if you aren't happy with the state of your roads, well that's a councillor responsibility.
So the 2011 election came around and I offered to deliver some leaflets.
And then I was actually persuaded to stand, and I don't mind admitting at the time, you know, I was twenty, I hadn't even graduated from university, I didn't really know what the Council did.
And I also got the promise that it would be really good for your CV and you won't get elected.
And then ultimately, I did stand and I did get elected with her rather large majority. And I've never looked back actually. And it's a really varied and interesting role to anybody who wants to stand up for their local area.
Would you say that there are kind of stereotypes that maybe your friends and family draw on when you say that you're a councillor?
Cllr Kelham Cooke
Oh, absolutely. I mean when I first got elected. And I don't even think my family really understood what it was I was doing and my friends just thought I was absolutely mad and just assumed that my role will be going around cutting ribbons to new shiny projects and sitting in meetings that replicated the sort of the Vicar of Dibley style meetings.
And it's a real challenge, actually, to get across what we do because quite often people will say to you about their council tax and how it has gone up and when you actually then explain or what that does and where it goes, you have a different type of conversation.
Why did you want to become a councillor? What attracted you to that role and eventually obviously becoming leader of the Council?
Cllr Kelham Cooke
you know when I did a bit more research into the role of what a councillor does and actually the level of influence and power you have over your local area, it really interested me in terms of some of the challenges we have.
So my ward is 5 rural villages just outside of one of our towns called Stanford and it's an amazing community to represent because I basically grew up there and the people and the business is actually in that area I suppose in some ways I wanted them to be represented better and also to get that investment and funding into our local area.
So despite being a rural area, we have some amazing businesses, but they had issues at the time with getting access to broadband, which you know 11 years ago we had significant issues. So by working with others, I managed to improve broadband to the area and improve the housing and also work with other stakeholders such as county council on improving our road networks. So for me it was about representing my area at the District Council.
And the leader role. I never thought I would become leader. I can remember my first Council meeting where I was as nervous as anything. Speaking of that meeting.
And that stayed with me for quite some time actually, because it's an organization with, you know, just under 1,000 employees. You know, we've got huge budgets, huge responsibilities and ultimately I got opportunities from the group leader at the time.
I actually went on the LGA Leadership Academy, which is a program designed for councillors that want to do more and gradually I got more involved in the Council operations. I joined the cabinet when I was 24, and then became deputy leader when I was 26 and then ultimately the leader decided to step down and there was an opportunity for me to either and put myself forwards or I suppose to go on the back benches.
And for me it was an opportunity I didn't want to miss and there's no greater honour than really standing up for the whole of the district.
So what would you say is a typical week for you then as a leader of the Council?
Cllr Kelham Cooke
I think that is a really interesting question and I, and I don't genuinely think there is a typical week. I think for anybody interested in getting into local government even as a ward member, I think you'll love the variety of tasks that you have to deal with and the variety of opportunities and problems that you have to deal with as well.
At Council leader level. So, for instance, today I had a board meeting with our development partners on a site where regenerating in Stamford, which is a 33 acre site with 180 homes. You know it's a £30 million scheme to being in a leisure centre board meeting to discuss the four leisure centres we've got across our district to then later on today discussing with councillors of all the Council about our corporate plan and our priorities moving forward.
As much as I'm leader of the Council, I still get casework from my local residents about where they potentially have housing issues, where they've got problems with their waste collection or they have got problems with education or highways, and so I still got to commit that time as well to make sure that my local residents needs are met as well.
Thinking about what you’re most proud of do you have one or two examples?
Cllr Kelham Cooke
They all in a way come out of COVID. So I got elected leader back in the September of 2019.
And then, of course we locked down in the March 2020, so I didn't really get much time to get out there, meet with the business community, meet with their community groups.
And so one of the positives, if you can draw positives out COVID, is we have some amazing community groups and charities across our district. But one of the things we didn't really do very well was actually work with them and alongside them in a really cohesive way. So when COVID started, we actually set up the SK Community Hub.
And we've continued that today. So we now have much closer relationships with all of the charitable organization groups across the district. We're working with them on their needs and they've now got dedicated staff and we will continue to provide that support across the whole of the district. And I think before we worked closely, we've sort of had relationships, but now we're really engaged and actually it really proves a massive benefit in terms of residents that do come to us in need because we can now sign post and work with those charitable organisations.
Could you tell us a little bit about what support is out there for people that might be considering the role?
Cllr Kelham Cooke
So if you're standing for one of the parties, they all have networks of councillors that will happily help and support you as a buddy or as a mentor and also likewise with the independent. There is an independent group at the Local Government Association that you can get information from.
I'll use my own experience. So at South Kesteven, we really value members training and support.
We have a dedicated Member Services office. And so when you are first elected, we have a comprehensive training program where your meet all of the senior officers of the Council, you'll get training in terms of all the different services and what your role as a councillor is and responsibility.
Because I think quite often some people come into this thinking they're going to be running the whole Council and that's not necessarily the case. You have a really valid role whether you are in the scrutiny committee or in the policy or in a leadership role.
And so for us, we provide really comprehensive training and we continue that throughout the whole four years and we work really closely with the LGA and others to make sure that everybody gets the appropriate training that they require.
But also councillors do get an allowance because I think we all appreciate, you know, for quite a lot of people, they work, they have both commitments. So the allowance will effectively cover or your costs in terms of what you do as a councillor, as well as your mileage claims as well.
And like most councils, you know we provide mentors, we provide buddies in terms of the senior officers. So it is really comprehensive who are not chucked in at the deep end and you'll have that for the whole of your term of office within whichever organization you go to.
I think for anybody interested in being a councillor I would strongly recommend you put yourself forward. It is the most fulfilling thing you can do and I've got no regrets of goings local government and I've now nearly done three terms and I'm up again and for election next year and it's continued development.
You know I've learned so much along the journey not just about the Council but also about me as an individual and the opportunities that come through working in local government. Don’t have any regrets and put yourselves forward.
Outro: Sophie Page
As Cllr Cooke clearly highlighted, not only do councillors help the community through the decisions that they make, councillors also get a lot back from the role personally, developing career ambitions through training, mentoring and working with a range of people and businesses.
Speaking to all four councillors I realised how varied the role of a councillor can be and how important it is for councillors to reflect the diversity of the community they serve.
Although each councillor has a different story, and are from different political parties, the thing that unites them is their passion for their local area.
The main thing I’ve taken away from the discussions is that anyone can stand for election and anyone can become a councillor. It is important that everyone’s voice in the community is heard and that we have representatives in councils that do just that.
If you are interested in becoming a councillor and have questions about the role or know someone who would be the perfect fit, recommend them and head to the LGA’s Be a Councillor website where you can find FAQs and resources to help you start that journey. Visit : local.gov.uk/be-councillor
Even if you aren’t considering the role of a councillor, your role in local politics is still hugely important. You can help shape the way your community looks by voting for councillors who represent your interests in the upcoming local elections on 5 May. It is vital everyone has a say about their local area.
Until next time, I’m Sophie and I hope this has helped you, to forget what you think you know about councillors.