• Alex

Gift wrapping a cow: five tips for engaging local councillors

With the local elections just a week away, councillors and candidates across England (at least in London, Manchester and around 150 other local authorities) are in full on campaigning mode. Evening meetings with committees and worthy community groups are being ditched in favour of door knocking and leafletting, with enough shoe leather and paper being consumed to gift wrap a hundred herds of Friesians.


But when the dust settles, and the long march of 1am planning meetings is in full swing, how can you effectively engage with the workhorses of local government?


1. Make it relevant to their ward. It’s not enough to localise messages and statistics to a particular council. Take Lambeth as an example, the North Lambeth ward of Bishop’s contains the London Eye, St Thomas’ Hospital and the South Bank. The issues affecting it are a world away from say Thornton ward in the south of the borough which is almost entirely residential and has no licensed venues. A round robin email to all councillors in all wards with generic messages will almost certainly get deleted.


2. Make it easy and social. One of the most effective pieces of engagement I had as a councillor was from Openreach who tweeted me about the number of apprentices they were hoping to hire in my area. Great – in less than a minute I can bask in some good news with residents who follow me that requires almost no effort; and hopefully one or two young people may have seen it and applied for the first step in their career.



3. Be honest and transparent. If the school you run is failing, or you are about to close a community centre, go tell the councillors about it early. It might not be an easy conversation but it will be much better for you or your client if they hear it direct. Any decent councillor who is well connected will find out about it eventually anyway, and most will want to work with you to try and solve the situation. I once found out about a housing association plans for a community centre in my ward from one of the reception staff whose job was under threat. The councillors might organise a public meeting or protest about the plans, but they may also be able to help open doors, broker engagement with residents or have creative ideas about funding streams.


4. Stop posting magazines. Local government has seen the worst cuts in history, in Lambeth our core funding was reduced by 56%. When I get a glossy magazine posted through my door my heart sinks. Not just that I have to fill up my recycling bin with dead trees, but the money that has been wasted in sending it to me, more often than not by a public sector organisation which is either funded by the council or my residents. Just. Stop. It.


5. Assume nothing. When I first went on the council, I’d been involved in the Labour Party for many years and had a reasonable knowledge of our policies and how decisions were made. But I didn’t have the first clue about how much affordable housing should be in a development or how local government finance works (I’m still not entirely sure after 8 years). Don’t assume because you or your client knows the minimum daylight requirements in the latest building regulations, that a councillor will. Tell them, and it will help them to answer the resident who is complaining they will be permanently shrouded in darkness by your plans.


What did I miss? What good engagement have you done? What things really cheesed you off as a councillor? Let me know in the comments…


ALEX BIGHAM

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