Forget What You Think You Know about...councils

In this episode, one of our NGDP graduates, Esther Barrott, explores what councils really do and why it's important to vote in the upcoming elections, with the help of experts Jackie Weaver, Councillor Peter Fleming and Lord Simon Woolley.

Forget What You Think You Know

Episode 4: Councils

In this episode, Esther Barrott, a graduate on the National Graduate Development Programme (NGDP), takes us on a journey to find out more about councils and the workings behind them. Esther looks at the general perceptions that surround councils, what councils actually do for communities, the role they have played throughout the pandemic, and why it is so important to vote in the upcoming local elections on 6 May.

Esther is joined by Cllr Peter Fleming, who shares his story around how he got involved in local government and what the role of a councillor involves; Jackie Weaver who gives us an insight into the story behind the famous parish council meeting that made her an internet star and why voting in local elections is so important; and Lord Simon Woolley who explains why it is important diverse audiences engage with councils and local democracy and what councils should be doing more of to encourage them to get involved.

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    Transcript

    Esther: Hello and welcome to this episode of the Forget What You Think You Know podcast.  

    I’m Esther Barrott a graduate on the national graduate development scheme for local government.  So far I have seen a bit of the workings behind councils and what they can do. But I want to delve a bit deeper. In this episode I want to bring you on my journey to find out more about councils, the general perceptions that surround them, what they actually do for communities, and why voting in the upcoming local elections is so important.  

    In my first stop on the podcast I’m starting close to home. I want to find out what my friends and family think about local government… 

    The first three words that comes to mind when I think of the word council are housing, organisation and repairs. 

    When I think of councils I think about schools, libraries and local communities 

    Tax, potholes, and housing 

    Our community, services, parks. 

    **Snippets of clips of people saying three words they think of when they hear councils** 

    Esther: Perceptions around councils and the work they carry out can be mixed. But is this fair? 

    Due to the pandemic we have spent more time in our local areas than ever before. They have never been more important. Councils who look after them are now in the spot light more than ever before and the upcoming elections provides people with a say on things in their local area that they want changing. 

    This year’s local elections are the biggest for a generation. Every community across the country should have an election of some sort in their area on 6 May.  

    But why should people bother to turn out? Apart from emptying our bins, what do councils actually do for us? What is my council tax actually paying for? Time to forget what you think you know about councils.  

    In my first interview I caught up with Cllr Peter Fleming, Local Government Association spokesperson and leader for Sevenoaks District Council in Kent to find out a bit more. 

    **Peter Fleming interview** 

    Moderator 1: So, I'm joined by councillor Peter Fleming, leader of Sevenoaks district council and chair of the LGA's Improvement and Innovation Board. Councillor Fleming, thank you for speaking with me today. I'd like to begin a bit by learning about how you first became involved with local government.  

    Peter Fleming: Okay. Hi, Esther.  

     

     

    Peter Fleming: So, how did I get involved? Almost entirely by accident. So, I was asked to stand for a seat that was 'unwinnable', although I later found out that that's what all political parties tell all candidates unless they're super, super-, 'Don't worry. We just need somebody to stand.' So, I went to the selection meeting, and I didn't get selected. At that point, when I didn't get selected, as a Leo, the whole ego thing went, 'What do you mean, you don’t want me?' And I went from not being that interested to being, like, majorly interested. So, yes, in the end I did get selected and won my seat. That was all the way back in 1999. So, yes, a while ago now. I wasn't in politics, I wasn't doing anything involved with politics. I was working in the West End as a lighting engineer, so that's what I was doing. So, nothing to do with politics.  

     

    Moderator 1: How very diverse. What was the main, I guess, driver for you to stand for election to your council?  

     

    Peter Fleming: What's interesting is, although at the time I wasn't doing anything particularly community-orientated, when I was younger, I had been on the periphery of some work that was going on in the town that I live in. So, there was a, sort of, driver insofar as I saw that there were things that we could do, some really exciting changes that we could make and, yes, that's been a driver up until today. You know, I'm more of a person that likes to move on rather than stay still, to be honest.  

     

    Moderator 1: And I'm sure there are a lot of people who, in a similar way to you, feel very passionate about what happens in their local areas and they'd like to make a difference, perhaps as a councillor or are those who are looking to get into local government as a career. What would you say to those who are looking to get involved in local government?  

     

    Peter Fleming: Look, I think there are two parts to this. The first part is I think there is no more nobler calling. For most people, although, if you read the newspapers or you watch TV or listen to the radio or listen to podcasts even, most of the talk when we talk about politics is national politics. For most people, it means very, very little to them. Actually, the things that mean most to them, so, 'When you open your front door, do you feel safe? Is the place clean?', all of those sorts of things, people don’t necessarily automatically recognise as being politics, but they are. Most people have a view on what happens outside their front door, and much smarter people than me will talk about that and say, 'That's where real politics is,' is where you are. Over the last year in particular, I think I’ve definitely seen people much more focused on the things that they feel they can control. I think that's been a long time coming insofar as the whole world, you know, globalisation. I think people feel that, actually, their opportunity to control any part of their lives now is probably pretty limited.  

      

    But this last year, people have really woken up to the fact that, actually, like I say, that stuff outside their front door, the environment that they're in, 'Do they feel safe?', all of those sorts of things. They suddenly realise, 'Hold on. I might not be able to control whether I've still got a job or not, global economics, all of that, the environment, on a global scale. But, actually, I can make a difference in a really small way on that stuff.' And we need to tap into that and a more sense of belonging, a more sense of community and a more sense that's rooted in place. 

     

    Moderator 1: Yes, definitely. We've certainly seen people a lot more rooted in their community than ever before. It would be really interesting to just understand a bit more about what you do as a councillor. Could you give me a typical day in the life of Peter Fleming?  

     

    Peter Fleming: It is different. I think there is a difference between being a ward councillor, which is what I am first and foremost, and then a leader of a council or a councillor with special responsibilities. I think, as a ward councillor, it's really interesting. I mean, you have got to like people. We are in a people-to-people business at the end of the day. If you don't like people, whether you want to be an officer in local government or a councillor, it's probably not the career for you. So, you've got to love people. People will stop me and have a conversation. My friends will say, you know, if we're walking from one end of the high street to the other, which would normally take about 5 minutes, it can take 30 or 40 minutes. My dog has now taken to, as soon as I start a conversation on the street, lying down, because he knows that we're not going anywhere. You know, 'There's no point pulling. There's no point staying stood up. I'm just going to sit down or lie down because, frankly, we're going to be here for ten minutes.  I can do everything from having a conversation, as I've just come off of, a conversation about sustainable transport to an economic development conversation, to a projects conversation, to whether we should buy a building as an investment. And all of that could be within an hour. So, you know, we have 400 staff and we deliver just over 70 different services. So, it is pretty broad. And, yes, I know it's the old phrase, isn't it, no two days are the same, but no two days are the same. And that's the interesting thing, the thing that keeps me interested.  

     

    Moderator 1: Yes, I think, slightly, an unfair question to ask, perhaps, as no two days are the same and it is such a varied role that you have. And I'd like to move on. You've touched upon council services, I'd like to learn a bit more about councils, how they support communities and these services that they provide. People have varied perceptions of councils and the jobs that they do. I think it's fair to say, normally, people may associate them with the obvious services such as collecting bins, fixing pot holes, that kind of thing. But, they do do a lot more, don't they?  

     

    Peter Fleming: Yes. And I think what's been really interesting is over this last year we've seen councils of all flavours. And, of course, one of the great things about local government in England in particular is councils are very different, structures are very different, different councils do different things in different parts of the country, which is absolutely fine. I guess, what they normally would do, so all of those normal services whether that be benefits payments, environmental health visits, housing, planning, transportation, bins, all of that stuff. And then, layered on top of that, you know, we've had councils responding after a bit of a false start from government who said that, 'Don't worry councils, you won't have a role to play.' Less than a week later, 'Frankly guys, it's all down to you. Can you just do everything from delivering food to making sure that vulnerable people are supported?'  

      

    So, yes, I think, if anything, and I hope the Government remembers it, although governments of all colours have very, very short memories, that actually local government turned back around incredibly quickly. And continued with the day job whilst overlaying, with enormous community support But, yes, I think people don't understand what councils do. And, actually, I guess there's an argument to say, you know, there are very few universal services for councils. Bin collections is probably one of them, it's the one service that everybody gets. And then, the other ones tend to be a little bit niche.  

      

    And, I guess, that, in turn, has a problem when I look at the county council in my area, where we have a two tier system of district councils and county councils, where a huge proportion of their budget is on adult social care, sort of, looking after adults with, you know, real needs and children services. Actually, when you break that down, they're probably delivering those services to less than 5% of the population but it's costing, probably, about 70% of the overall council tax. That's a really difficult conversation that I don't think anybody's really having with the public about, you know, how much services cost, and where those needs are, and how services are organised to how they're paid for.  

     

    Moderator 1: Certainly. And I think that moves us on quite nicely to a conversation around the challenges that councils are facing, and particularly the focus on funding.  

     

    Peter Fleming: I mean, we can't downplay the scale of the challenge facing local government, £6.5 billion funding gap by 2024, 2025, just to keep the show on the road, so just to keep services pretty much status quo going forward. So, you know, an enormous challenge for local authorities, one that cannot be met simply by council tax, much of it coming from the increasing pressures around adult social care and children services costs. We need to find a solution. And, you know, when I say we, it's we alongside government and, also, the country. We need to explain what this gap is, why it's important to find a way of funding it and, yes, that's what we need to do. And, it is a bit of a platform, you know, 2024, 2025 will come round incredibly quickly and the gap will only keep growing if we don't find a solution to those, what seem at the moment, intractable problems.  

     

    Esther: So it sounds like councils do a lot more than I originally thought. 800 services sounds like a huge amount of work and councillors like Peter have a huge role to play. Getting the right people elected is important and the only way we can play a part in that is through our vote. 

    I wanted to explore this a bit more. I caught up with a woman who has had her fair share of encounters with councillors. I hope she has read the standing orders… Jackie Weaver joined me to talk more about why its so important for us to vote in the upcoming elections. 

     

     

    **Jackie Weaver interview** 

    Moderator 1: Brilliant. Hello, Jackie, and thank you so much for joining me today. So, I'd like to begin a bit more about learning about yourself and what motivates you to work within local government. So, to start with could you please give me a brief introduction about yourself and also touch upon how you initially became involved with local government?  

     

    Jackie Weaver: Hello Esther. I guess the problem of asking somebody my age for a brief introduction to your life is there's quite a lot of life to tell you about. I've been involved with local councils for the best part of 25 years. I've been involved in three different capacities. I've been a councillor-, a parish councillor-, I've been a clerk and now I am a county officer.  

     

    Moderator 1: What has kept you on this career path throughout the years? What motivates you to work in local government?  

     

    Jackie Weaver: That's a really interesting question Esther. For me I think local has a lot to do with it, and I think that I kind of prefer the word democracy rather than government. I guess for me government has more of a feeling of party politics about it, and my interest is really more about local communities and helping people to do what they think is right for their local community. I do feel very strongly that in local democracy there's a place for everybody. You don't have to get involved by being a councillor. I tried it and it isn't for me. Have to talk to and be nice to too many people (laughter). I decided it wasn't for me. You know, for me it was about finding a job that was interesting because it's varied but also where you could actually see that you were making a difference. I don't change the world, I don't profess to change the world, but in each small community it's really good to see that you have a part in making something come to fruition, that's what keeps me involved.  

     

    Moderator 1: That's something I can definitely relate to as well, and that's why I started my career in local government on the graduate scheme, and despite everything being online due to the pandemic I've been fortunate that I've had the opportunity to speak with students and young people over the last year in virtual careers fairs and talk to them about what it's been like to work in local government, particularly in these really strange times. 

    Moderator 1: Jackie, I'm sure you're expecting this to be mentioned sooner or later, but you're very well known for a particular parish council meeting that went viral. What was your initial reaction to people suddenly talking about a parish council meeting in their front rooms?  

     

    Jackie Weaver: The very initial reaction was probably terror. I mean, the actual meeting had taken place on the 10th December and this was now the beginning of February, so we've had Christmas, we've had COVID, we've had birthday parties, you know? So, so much had gone one since then that my first thought was, 'What have I missed?' There was clearly something about this meeting that was just, like, so shocking that the whole world's interested in it. So, I got out the recordings and watched them again and you know I just didn't get it, I really didn't get it at all. But fortunately I didn't find anything in there that I hadn't remembered.  

     

    Moderator 1: That's very fortunate indeed. In that viral clip we witnessed you calmly facilitating the council meeting despite some extremely aggressive behaviour. Are all council meetings like that?  

     

    Jackie Weaver: Oh goodness, no, no not at all. I mean, I wouldn't have survived 25 years of it if they were, and nobody would (TC 00:10:00) want to be involved in parish councils if that was the general experience that you had. No, my experience of parish councils is that they're usually, usually, better behaved. Probably because they are your neighbours. But what we saw that night was exceptional.  

     

    Jackie Weaver: I mean, in many ways the role of a councillor is as much or as little as you want it to be. So, as a councillor you do have a duty to attend meetings, you do have a duty to read the papers, to read the standing orders of course and to understand them, and to fill in a register of members' interest saying that you will abide by the code of conduct for members. That, in a nutshell, is what you're obliged to do as a councillor. But if we want to go on and become a really good councillor then I would hope that a large part of that doesn't take place in the council chamber but takes place outside of the council chamber in the community that you purpose to represent, by talking to people, by finding out what their interests and their concerns are by letting them know what the council's doing.  

     

    Moderator 1: On that note I'd like to move on to discuss the upcoming local elections, which are taking place on May 6th. This year's elections will see everyone in England having a ballot of some kind, with many places having multiple ballots taking place at once. This is unprecedented. Please could you tell me a bit more about the upcoming local elections and the impact that they are going to have on people across the whole country?  

     

    Jackie Weaver: Again, I think we're back, Esther, to the problem of it being confusing. I know that there has been an enormous push to encourage people to vote, and like I said to you when I was referring to the not-so-good councillor I get very angry, I guess that is the right word, when members of the public contact me-, because they sometimes think we are a regulatory body for town and parish councils, we're not-, and they ring me to tell me how awful their council is, and every now and then I can't help myself from being a bit naughty and saying, 'And have you stood yourself, Esther, for this awful council that we might want to change?' 'Oh, I don't want to do it.' 'Okay, interesting point.' So, I feel that you don't get to bitch about things if you're not involved in them. So, one of the things I've been saying over the last couple of months is even if you don't feel that being a councillor or any of the other roles that we've spoken about is for you the least you can do is make your views known, and the way we do that is through the ballot box.  

     

    Moderator 1: A lot of people may only vote in general elections. Could you just explain the difference between general and local elections and why it's so important to turn out in local ones as well?  

     

    Jackie Weaver: Yes. I mean, if anything, Esther, I think it's more important to turn out for local ones, but again you are talking to me as an advocate for town and parish councils so you'd expect that. I think there's almost something simpler about national politics. All you need to know is what colour, okay? It seems as simple as that, just pick a colour. I'd like to think that you'd picked them on the basis of policy, I'm not always convinced we do. So, you just go and you pick your colour and off you go, you immediately understand what it is your voting for. In local elections you're more likely to be voting for someone whose colour you don't know. So, really you're expecting the community to know what that person stands for. We're not always good at canvassing as local councillors so you don't always know what that person represents, but actually it's probably the local elections that are going to have far more impact on our lives than the national politics. So, that's why I think it's even more important that you vote locally, and I don't think it matters what party, you should be voting for the person that you think encapsulates your views.  

     

    Moderator 1: Do you think there's any audiences that are under-represented, and if so why is it so important for them to turn out to vote?  

     

    Jackie Weaver: I think there are fewer young people registered to vote, although I believe a lot of work has gone in to trying to encourage them. The reasons why? I've absolutely no idea why young people are not. I guess, again, that it's about whether or not they feel that their vote will make a difference. Now, all I can say is that I don't know if your vote's going to make a difference but I do know that not voting makes a difference, and it's not a positive difference that it makes. So, if you are a young person and you see something in your community that you want or you want changing or you want more of or less of then the way to see that change is by voting in your local elections, and we hopefully will see the change before you are no longer a young person. 

     

    Esther: So there we have it, from the Britney Spears of local government herself, it is vital we have a say and use our vote in the upcoming elections if we want to make a local change.  

    My chat with Jackie did get me thinking more about diversity in councils, local democracy, and politics in general. I wanted to find out more about how councils are working to encourage diverse audiences to get involved and what more needs to be done to ensure everyone’s voice in the community is heard. I caught up with Lord Simon Woolley, Director and founder of Operation Black Vote to hear more about this.  

     

     

    **Interview with Simon Woolley** 

     

    Moderator 2: Simon, thank you so much for joining me today, it's a pleasure to have you on the podcast. Could you please begin by giving a bit of an introduction about yourself? Your name, your title and a bit of background to Operation Black Vote.  

     

    Simon Woolley: Okay. Simon Woolley, and now Lord Woolley of Woodford, for the past, I think, eighteen months. All new, all exciting. But I'm also the CEO of Operation Black Vote and we celebrate 25 years this July, so in a couple of months time. Very excited about that. It's been a long journey, but one that we can be proud of, having made the big changes that we've made.  

     

     

    Moderator 2: And Simon, fast forward those 25 years, what has Operation Black Vote achieved so far and what are your hopes for the future?  

     

    Simon Woolley: Well, when we started there were four Black, Asian and minority ethnic MPs. Now there are over 65. So I'm proud of that. I'm proud of the fact that when we had a four year campaign to encourage our communities to become magistrate, over 150 decided-, We nurtured them, it was a Magistrate Shadowing Scheme, and in that four year period, 150 magistrates started and have given about 1500 years of public service in the courts. That now we see city mayors, Sadiq Khan, supported by Operation Black Vote, Marvin Rees in Bristol, the first directly elected Mayor of African descent in Europe. And, you know, both of these individuals, Sadiq and Marvin, sons of commonwealth children, running cities that made their wealth from the enslavement of Africans, from the colonisation of their countries. I mean, the significance, Esther, cannot be more profound. The evidence, the overwhelming evidence, not just from the left but from the right and from the centre, unequivocally says there are still systemic problems and they need systemic solutions.  

     

    Moderator 2: And Simon, you've touched upon, you know, the inequalities that prevail in society, I'd like to move on to talk about representation of diverse communities, particularly given we've got the local government elections coming up on the 6th May. So, would you say that there's an issue with diversity in democracy?  

     

    Simon Woolley: There's A massive challenge, about diversity in our local democracy. In some respects, Esther, local democracy is more important than the national, Westminster. I mean, clearly, they're both important but often, local democracy is more immediate. Your schools, your play spaces, the healthcare, there's so many facets to local democracy and it works best when it's inclusive, when it's representative. And it isn't. It really isn't. But we can do something about it, but we need to be honest. One of the biggest problems in local democracy is the fact that so few people engage in voter registration and voter turnout. I mean, turnout in local elections is what? About 30%? Sometimes even lower. I think the Police and Crime Commissioner elections sometimes fall as low as 10%, so (TC 00:10:00) there are big questions about our society. That it is, I wouldn't say politically illiterate, that would be unfair, but politically not bothered.  

     

    Moderator 2: Yes and, you know, would it be fair to say that councils could do more to encourage diverse audiences to get involved and how do you think they could do this?  

     

    Simon Woolley: I think local councils could really be engines of change. But they have to recognise, look at themselves, look at their own senior teams and look at their chambers and say, 'Wow, look where the gaps are. So, what are we going to do?' They say that their doors are open, but it's not enough. It's not enough because the cynicism of many communities, including working class, feel, 'What's the point of engaging, when the people that are making these decisions don't care about me?' Actually, Esther, that's precisely why you should be involved. You know, because leaving it to people that don't care about you is not a good plan for democracy, is not a good plan for your children's education or housing or health, as a matter of fact. But it's getting the citizens to realise that they are the democratic masters and recognising that those in the council chambers, the local council chambers, are the democratic servants.  

     

    Moderator 2: And you've been instrumental in transforming the ethnic and racial make up of councils over the years. Do you think we're seeing a slow improvement?  

     

    Simon Woolley: Oh, it's a slow improvement. But I'm impatient for change. You know, because I know that the change that we are talking about will transform people's lives. Will save lives. I mean, we've had the most shocking global pandemic and we've seen that the health inequality gap has meant Black, Asian and minority ethnic communities, individuals, have been dying, literally dying, at a higher rate than they should. Because, two reasons. One, because of social determinates they've been overly exposed to the disease. Zero-hour contracts, care workers. If you don't work, you don't get paid, right? But the other factor is that in the inequality of health, where you have long standing persistent diseases, that they're not addressed. So, when you catch this disease, you're more likely to die. So, getting this right, not only saves lives, but I want to be more than saving lives. What we should be saying is, after this awful pandemic, we should have the biggest, the greatest, political conversation we've ever had in society, ever. And that we tear down the barriers, we unleash the talent, we give people hope and opportunity that they can be the very best they can be. They can do anything. I mean, you know, only after a crisis like we've had, which is almost like war time, 1945, can we be as big and bold as your imagination allows you to be. Because people, like after a world war, are ready to say, 'We can't even go back to the way we were, because that wasn't great.' So, I get a bit fed up when I hear people say, 'We need to build, build back better.' I don't want to go back. I want to build new better.  

     

    Moderator 2: We want to go forwards, yes.  

     

    Simon Woolley: We want to go forwards. It has to be new. It has to be dynamic and we have to leave nobody behind.  

     

    Moderator 2: And what can diverse audiences bring to local politics?  

     

    Simon Woolley: Well, it's not just Black and Brown faces in high places, it's not just about women in high places. I think they have to have a sense of purpose. They have to have a sense of, it's not about me, me, me, me, me, me. If you want me, me, me, go on Big Brother or Britain's Not Got Talent. Because, you know, you're about wanting fame. But if you want to change the world, if you want to inspire a generation, then you say, 'How can I put my shoulder to the wheel, that's going to make a difference?' And if we can nurture people like that, with integrity, with ethics. The sky is the limit, what can I say? And you know, quite frankly, after the year we've had, we need vision, we need passion. We need those young men and women, Black and White and the older generation too, to feel that there's a wealth of opportunities that is only stilted by our imagination.  

     

    Moderator 2: And finally, Simon, why is it vital that diverse audiences get involved with local politics and vote in the upcoming elections?  

     

    Simon Woolley: Well, I cannot tell you enough. I mean, we saw hundreds of thousands of young people, Black and White, your age, Esther, taking to the streets. Some got arrested. Crying, pleading for a more hopeful future. That our education can be inclusive, that we can learn that the past, the awful past, still influences the present. And our campaign with Saatchi and Saatchi, you may have seen the video, in a sense, shows you all the Black Lives Matters, was all that for nothing? And it is all for nothing if you don't pivot to politics, to registering to vote, that date's now gone. But you still have to vote on May 6th. And don't wait to think, 'Well, they need to come to me.' No, you go to them. You find out which of the political parties will best serve you. You start making demands and saying, 'You get my vote, but I want this, this and this.' That's how politics works. Those that stay at home get nothing. Those that stand up to be counted can forge a brave new world.  

     

    Speaking to Peter, Jackie and Simon I realised that councils really do a lot more than we think. They touch every aspect of our lives and that’s what makes these elections so relevant and important for everyone. The elections on 6th May give us an opportunity to have our say on the things that impact our lives the most. The local things that you may not even notice. Like our roads which help us get from A to B, our parks and outdoor spaces that have been a god send this year, and our high streets, which have recently opened thanks to the help of councils across the country. 

    Even working in local government I have learned loads from speaking to our guests today. I hope you have too. 

    Until next time, I’ve been Esther Barret and I hope this has helped you to forget what you think you know.