‘Place Shaping’ the role of a front-line councillor

With fellow speakers Cllr Dave Winskill and Cllr Claire Denham

I had a great time participating in the Local Government Association’s (LGA) annual ‘Improvement Conference’, up in Nottingham, earlier this week.

Myself and fellow local councillors Dave Winskill (pictured left) from the London Borough of Haringey, and Claire Denman (pictured right) from Crawley Borough Council, were asked to talk about the role of the “front line” councillor (e.g, a ward level local councillor as opposed to a councillor in the Cabinet) and our role in “Place Shaping”, which is all about councillors helping the shape the places and communities they serve.

Cllr Judi Billing facilitates the workshop's breakout session

My workshop session was expertly faciliated by Cllr Judi Billing (pictured above, left, in red ) who’s the Improvement and Development Agency’s (IDeA) Head of Programmes, alongside Joe Simpson from the Leadership Centre for Local Government.

Cllr Sir Simon Milton and Cllr Dame Sally Powell participate in my workshop session

Audience members at my session included Cllr Sir Simon Milton (pictured above left) and Cllr Dame Sally Powell (pictured above right), as well as Cllr Christine Bowden, Deputy Elected Mayor of Newham. (And yes, I was extremely nervous at presenting in front of such well regarded and famous local government heavy weights!!! :-)

The Panellists and the Facilitators

Thanks so much to IDeA and the LGA for inviting me to participate. It was a really great experience and I have brought back lots of ideas to share with my councillor colleagues in Waltham Forest.

Below is the full text of my speech to the LGA Improvement Conference’s workshop on ‘Place Shaping’ the role of the front-line councillor.

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‘Place Shaping’ the role of the front-line councillor

Really pleased to be here.

My name’s Miranda Grell. I’m a councillor from a ward called Leyton in the London Borough of Waltham Forest in North East London.

I was elected last May so I’m a new ‘Baby’ councillor – ten months old.

I’m obviously still feeling my way because there’s been a lot to learn but I do not regret for one moment standing to become a councillor. And I really welcome the fact that both national and local government are now moving away from the term ‘back bench councillor’ to the term ‘front line councillor’, which, I feel, is now much more appropriate.

I’m going to talk to you rather than use power point but what I have done is selected a few photos of life as a councillor in Leyton, which should hopefully give you a flavour of the kind of people I represent and the diversity my Leyton ward councillor role.

I thought it would be useful for you if I give you a little background about the kind of area I work in as a councillor.


Waltham Forest

As I just mentioned, I represent a ward called Leyton in the London Borough of Waltham Forest, which is in North East London.

We’re a diverse population of around 1/4 of a million people.

Over a third of our residents are under 25 (above avg), around 35% are 25 – 44 (well above avg), around 31% are over 44 (well below avg) according to the census conducted in 2001.

Waltham Forest is the 10th most ethnically diverse of London Boroughs with 44% of residents from an ethnic minority background according to the 2001 Census – mostly from the Caribbean, Pakistan and more recently Eastern Europe.

We have the 3rd largest Muslim population in London in Waltham Forest and we’re ranked the 25th most deprived borough in the country.

And we are a borough currently experiencing a lot of social, economic and physical change.

As one of the five Olympic boroughs there is much work under way, in Waltham Forest, to regenerate our area physically, economically and socially.

Leyton

So within Waltham Forest borough, I represent, as I already mentioned, a ward called Leyton.

I was born in Leyton ward and I still live in my ward.

Leyton faces a number of acute challenges, which means my role as its local councillor is far from dull.

I already mentioned that Waltham Forest borough, as a whole, is the 25th most deprived borough in the country – well, Leyton ward is the most deprived ward in Waltham Forest.

I think Leyton is a fascinating ward. Two thirds of my residents come from a Black or Minority Ethnic background. Half are under the age of 30 and two-fifths are under 25.

Leyton ward has the highest rate of infant mortality in Waltham Forest and the highest number of children receiving free school meals.

At least a quarter of my ward is social housing – with the Beaumont Estate in the north of my ward designated the fifth most deprived estate in Britain.

And Leyton ward also has the highest unemployment rate of the whole of Waltham Forest borough.

So you can see that being a local councillor in Leyton is extremely busy and extremely challenging!

My Experience – how I feel about being a Leyton councillor

So how do I feel as the local representative of this vibrant but challenging area?

Well I have to say that being elected has definitely been a life changing experience! I’m definitely more tired – there’s been a lot to learn.

In the town hall bureaucracy itself, I sit on a number of committees including the Children’s and Young People’s Scrutiny committee, the Performance and Improvement Scrutiny committee and I chair my local Community Council (basically an area forum). I also serve on a housing association board and a regeneration board and I have remained a school governor of a large mixed comprehensive secondary school.

But I have to say that, at the moment, I feel much more interested in what’s going on outside the town hall because one of the things that has become most apparent in the 10 months I’ve been elected is that many people simply still do not understand what local councillors do.

There is obviously always going to be a natural confusion for local people over which elected institution – national, regional or local takes responsibility for what but I still find levels of ignorance about the role of local councillors too high.

Everyone here will be aware of the on going debate that has always taken place regarding councillors – whether we should receive allowances, whether people simply go into it to self-serve and so on.

Now I’m elected, I ‘m starting to think that many people hold these attitudes because they believe that councillors spend all their time in meetings, pontificating and listening to the sound of their own voices.

But I see my role as front line councillor to try and change this perception – as pontificating in meetings is something I am actively trying to avoid!

Instead, the issues I’ve been dealing with as a local councillor in, for example, just the last few weeks have included working with officers in my borough – and across boroughs – to help a young mother with 4 kids find a domestic violence refuge so she could escape her violent husband.

I have also had to deal with at least two evictions and support those families through the temporary accommodation application process.

And just last month at my surgery, two different residents came to me to talk to me about serious anti-social behaviour

About the young men living in my borough who are still refusing to give up their guns and their knives and are wreaking havoc on my residents’ properties and lives.

Their mothers and neighbours are at the end of their tether and so they come to me for a practical shoulder to cry on.

I feel that one of my most important roles as a “front line” councillor is to try and demystify “the council” and councillors and humanise our role and the institution so more people in urban areas come to us and speak to us about what’s really going on in their streets, on their estates and in their roads.

In my short experience of the role so far, I don’t think you can be a good “front line” councillor and a “community champion” if you don’t know your ward and you don’t know your community.

There are a number of strategies I’ve employed to help me keep in touch – really in touch – with what’s going on in my ward.

The first strategy is trying to remain in what I call “campaign mode”. Just as during the local elections we would go out door knocking, host coffee mornings and deliver leaflets through doors, I still think it’s hugely important for me, as a front line councillor to do these things all year around.

People are simply not visiting councillors’ surgeries in the numbers I’ve heard they used to so I am trying to make an effort to go out to people myself and talk to them on their door steps. I have met far more of my residents that way and found out about their issues and concerns.

This feeds into my second connected strategy of trying to reach out to people who I do not feel that the “bureaucracy” has previously paid attention to.

I make a particular effort to get out on the 4 huge council estates in my ward and talk to people who simply would not come to a community meeting because they do not feel confident enough – somehow I think all the jargon and professionalism of council meetings – although welcome – is intimidating for a lot of ordinary people.

I think that’s something councils – particularly those operating in urban areas where people speak a number of different languages and come from a variety of socio economic backgrounds – need to sort out.

And as I’ve mentioned before two third of residents of live in my ward come from a BME community and so I feel that having me as their councillor has contributed to a lot more people engaging with “the system”.

The turn out in my ward doubled last May as a result of 600 more people mostly from Leyton’s BME communities coming out to vote. I am passionate about actively championing their views and concerns.

Thirdly
, I also have my own website at web address www.mirandagrell.com – which I use to keep my residents updated on a regular basis about what I’ve been getting up to as their councillor.

The website has gone down well with my younger residents in particular – remember that the younger residents of Leyton represent the majority of residents in my ward.

The Local Government White Paper

So where does all of this fit into the White Paper? Where do I fit into the White paper?

Well, as I said before I greatly welcome the term ‘Front Line Councillor’ and I strongly welcome the term ‘Community Champion’ to describe what ward level councillors should be doing.

I think that the White Paper has got it right when it talks about ward members carrying out a duel role of ‘advocacy’ and ‘leadership’ in their wards.

I very much see my role as a councillor in an urban area as being a “bridge to bureaucracy”.

I think a front line councillor should be the hub and focal point for communities of all types of denomination, to seek advice, discuss the issues and work with their councillors to help them open doors and find their way through bureaucratic mazes towards their own solutions. And I think the role of local stakeholders is critical in this.

I really don’t think that any front line councillor operating in today’s urban environment will be able to carry out as that ‘advocacy’ and ‘leadership’ talked about in the White paper without building truly good relationships with people in “local leadership” positions.

I know I could not survive without the co-operation, support and good relationships I enjoy with my local ward level Safer Neighbourhoods Police Team, the head of my local Sure Start, the vicars and imams from my ward’s churches and mosque; – as well as the voluntary groups who are doing amazing environmental work on the estates in my ward and the women running supplementary schools and youth clubs in Leyton ward.


Waltham Forest supporting me

Luckily for me, Waltham Forest council is supporting me well in my role – so far!
I have two fantastic members support officers who are worth their weight in gold.

I still cannot understand why some councils do not provide their members with a ‘Joyce’ or a ‘Bernice’. Because members’ support officers are not a luxury but an absolute necessity in staying on top of case work and negotiating the town hall bureaucracy. Joyce and Bernice are my absolute and total rocks.

In terms of supporting the front line councillor, Waltham Forest council is currently reviewing the package of training and support it gives to front line councillors.

We are participating in a number of projects with external partners such as Birbeck University, which has developed a tailor made Postgraduate certificate in Local Governance and Community Leadership for councillors in Waltham Forest borough.

Waltham Forest council has also commissioned the Young Foundation to assist us in working through issues relating to neighbourhood working.

And only last month, members were informed that Prof. Ted Cantle from the Institute of Community Cohesion will be spending some time with us in Waltham Forest Borough – to undertake a research project looking into how both front line and cabinet members in Waltham Forest can better promote community cohesion and strengthen inter-ethnic relations in our very ethnically diverse borough.

But the most important support I believe a front line councillor needs is moral. I would like many of the older and more experienced councillors to begin to recognise and celebrate the diversity of front line councillors and our lives.

For example, I have a full time job as well as being a councillor. I think that councillors without full time jobs should made an effort to under the pressures upon councillors like me and treat us with empathy – because my life at the moment is very, very hard.


Conclusion

I hope I have been able to give you a little flavour of my world as front line councillor in Leyton ward in the London Borough of Waltham Forest.

I feel truly passionate about being a front line councillor.

As I’ve already said, I think the role of councillors and local councils unfortunately still remains misunderstood, which is a great shame.

So if the White Paper and this new push towards celebrating the front line councillor can do anything at all to reverse current indifferent and often negative perceptions of local government, people living in areas like mine are going to be the biggest beneficiaries.

Because it is those people living our urban areas who need strong local councils and good local councillors the most.

So I welcome the great opportunities being presented to today’s local front line councillors to receive more moral and practical support.

I am very much looking forward to developing my skills further – in order to continue ‘leading’, ‘advocating’ and acting as a 21st century ‘Community Champion’ on Leyton ward residents’ behalf.

2 thoughts on “‘Place Shaping’ the role of a front-line councillor”

  1. Thanks for your kind words of encouragement, Rayleen!!! Hope the election campaign’s going well up there…

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