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Fighting for diversity and representation in local government: Cllr Hannah Perkin’s Story


Credit: Charlie Burgio

In this interview, Hannah Perkin, named Community Champion in the LGIU & CCLA Cllr Awards for 2023, discusses her route into politics and the impact of her work in the Borough of Swale in Kent.

Sometimes, an issue close to one’s heart prompts someone to get into politics. For Hannah Perkin, Liberal Democrat councillor for Faversham’s Abbey ward with Swale Borough Council in Kent, it was the threatened closure of a children’s centre where she was working in 2013.

“I went along to all of the consultation events and went to listen to some debates, and what really shocked me was the lack of diversity of people in those conversations,” says the Community Champion in the LGIU & CCLA Cllr Awards for 2023. “There were often very few women there — there were certainly very few young women.
“I had just had my second child, and the children’s centres had been an absolute lifeline for me and all the people I knew that had used them. I met all my friends through the children’s centre, and I’d really seen the impact of the centres in picking people up when they were in a bad space. I thought to myself: ‘I can either accept that this is a bit of a grim reality — that these people are speaking about something that directly impacts me and my peers while we’re not in the room — or I can roll my sleeves up and get involved.’”

Improving accessibility

Hannah, who has a background in hospitality, was involved in community campaigning between 2013 and 2017 before being asked to stand in the 2019 elections by her local party. Additionally a member of Faversham Town Council, her work covers a wide range of issues that have an effect on her area. “It’s a real privilege to be involved in local government, because I do feel like you get an opportunity to make small but impactful differences,” she says.

One area that Hannah’s work encompasses is accessibility. Working with the Faversham Disability Forum—a group that she established—the councillor has explored ways to make public services more accessible to people with mobility issues and wheelchair users, as well as individuals with sight impairment and people with sensory needs.

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“We have accessible play equipment in two of our play areas now, so we have wheelchair roundabouts and the seating that we have there has gaps for wheelchairs to be wheeled in so that children can access those spaces in a similar way to able-bodied children,” she notes. “It also makes it easier to access if you are a carer with a wheelchair or mobility issues. There is sensory planting that has been done in play spaces [too].”

Hannah has also worked with a local swimming facility to support a bid for extra aids and new surfacing on the outside pool to make it more accessible to people with mobility issues and wheelchair users. “My mum is a wheelchair user, and I think you gain a real perspective of how inaccessible the world is for this group if you experience that life with somebody,” she says. “Accessibility to the world is really important to me.”

Advocating for diversity and inclusion

Another area of Hannah’s work relates to the issue of violence against women and girls. “We have committed to work around safer streets and to reducing spiking, and making that something that hospitality venues are very aware of,” she says. Along similar lines, this year’s International Women’s Day saw the representative participate in the unveiling of a stone commemorating three women who were hanged in Faversham in 1645 after being branded as witches. “It’s a reminder that as a community, we’ve gone through some pretty dark times, but we’ve come out the other side, and we shouldn’t forget people that have paid the price for those times,” says Hannah.

The councillor has also been involved in environmental projects: she has undertaken work on making Faversham a pesticide-free town, and biodiversity planting can be found on top of local bus stops. “We won Neighbourhood with the Best Buzz, which is an award which is given to a town that has done a lot for improving biodiversity for pollinators,” she notes. In addition, the councillor has participated in work around making local government more accessible to non-retired people.

“The general system just isn’t set up to facilitate people who have jobs and caring responsibilities,” she says. “We now have a parental leave scheme for councillors. It means that if you go off on maternity leave or something similar, you’re given the grace to be able to do that.”

It is clear that for Hannah, diversity and inclusion are top priorities. “lack of representation is something that really spurs me on to get more women and more people from underrepresented groups elected,” she reflects. “I also am a neurodiverse person, so getting neurodiverse people elected and respected within local government is super important to me.”

Challenges abound

Although her achievements in local democracy are evident, Hannah believes that many barriers exist for those becoming councillors. “The time commitment is a huge thing,” she notes. “I work full-time as well as being a councillor, so I take on my councillor role in the evenings.”

Furthermore, social media abuse is an issue. “I think we’re in a kind of environment where it’s seemed okay to say some pretty outrageous things to people, and I think we all need to work together to combat that,” Hannah says. “We’ve been working with campaigns like Debate Not Hate to look at how we can reduce that friction and make sure that everyone’s okay and able to fulfil their role without any fears.”

Hannah also draws attention to the slow pace of local government. “When I was first elected, somebody said to me: ‘The thing you’ll find most frustrating about local government is how slowly everything moves,’” she remembers. “Getting my parental leave into policy took three years, and to change that, it was really just a couple of sentences, but you have to go through so many layers of bureaucracy to get there.”

Despite these challenges, the representative encourages people to participate in their communities — even if that doesn’t involve going into local democracy. “I’d really recommend chucking yourself in if you can because being able to give back to your community feels great, but also it fosters a sense of who you are,” she says. “I think it brings people together in a really lovely way that can benefit the future of the area you live in, but also enables you to stand up for things that you think are important for your community.”

Future plans

With Hannah highlighting how many individuals in her area are currently “really struggling”, the councillor believes that her role over the next few years will involve “being a kind of support for a lot of people”. “More and more people are using foodbanks, and more and more people are not able to stay here because the rents have increased so much,” she notes. “Part of my role that I find most rewarding is being able to help people that reach out with those problems and signpost them in the right direction.”

There are some promising things on the horizon for the councillor too, though. “We have a neighbourhood plan, which we’ve been working on with the community for about five years, that we’re hoping to take to referendum this year, which is super exciting and the culmination of some really joined-up community-focused work which we’re all very proud of,” she says. “With the Borough Council, we are currently doing an equalities consultation, which I’ve been pushing to be more reflective of the LGBT+ community. [meanwhile]with my town council hat on, I’ve been the chair of the equalities working group, and we’ve also worked with a local historian to pick up the history of Black people in Faversham and East Kent. She’s written a book about that which we’re publishing and will be selling as well.”

Hannah Perkin
Credit: Charlie Burgio

Hannah is also standing in the general election for the Liberal Democrats, and there is no doubt that a winning result would take her political career to new heights. Whatever happens, local democracy will always have a special place in her heart. “I’m so invested in local government,” she says. “It has real potential to make really significant changes for our communities, and that’s really exciting.”

If Hannah’s story has reminded you of someone,  nominate them for a Cllr Award and celebrate their achievements with us!


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