Debra Allcock Tyler: Make sure your council understands your concerns

If you want change in your community, get involved in local politics, says our columnist

Debra Allcock Tyler
Debra Allcock Tyler

I like bling. Sparkly, shiny things hold a great appeal for me. So it won't surprise you that recently, while attempting to give a keynote speech at the East Berkshire Funding Fair, I was wildly distracted by the glint and gleam of the golden necklaces of the mayors and deputy mayors sat in the front row. They were beautiful items (the badges, not the mayors - although admittedly they too had their own charm).

Seeing those badges of office prompted me off the script I had prepared. Instead, I talked about the relationship between councils and the local voluntary sector. It is generally agreed that there is a big disconnect between our citizens and our politics. Many reports show that the level of citizen engagement in our democracy is poor.

In fairness, some of this disconnect might be because of the political gulf between national and local politics. It seems to me that there is no real career pipeline from local to national level. Despite the government's localism reforms, local politicians who earn their stripes working on practical issues in their communities never seem to graduate to positions of power at the national level. Nor are they really given much credit or support for doing difficult work in the locality if they have no ambition for a national career.

So it's not surprising that ministers and MPs often seem to be disconnected with life on the ground. It seems to me that, despite all the talk from MPs about serving their constituents, local councillors are considerably more connected to local issues than MPs.

More worryingly, the bigger issue is the apparent lack of engagement by many charities with their local councils. In my travels around the UK, I frequently hear complaints from charities about idiotic decisions made by councils, or councillors' lack of understanding of the needs and issues facing the voluntary sector, or the lack of commitment to working in partnership with the sector to solve local issues. These complaints may well be justified. But if so, I would argue that's quite possibly our own fault.

Where are we? We shouldn't wait to be invited to sit on advisory bodies. We should turn up at local authority offices and demand to speak to our councillors. Council meetings should be jam-packed with folk from small charities, listening, arguing and pointing out the flaws in councillors' thinking. We should insist that they know our names, faces and charities, and the people we serve.

Yes, there are probably some truly dreadful local councillors. But I believe the majority are - just like us - decent people trying to do their best for their communities with scarce resources and huge political pressures. And if they don't understand - well, we haven't explained it properly.

If you want change in your community, get involved in local politics. Or stop whingeing. Talking to the people wearing the 'bling' matters.

Debra Allcock Tyler is chief executive of the Directory of Social Change

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