England & Wales Democracy, devolution and governance

From food market to community cohesion: Saqlain Choudry’s inspiring work in local politics

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Credit: Charlie Burgio

We sat down to talk to Cllr Saqlain Choudry, winner of LGIU’s 2023 Young Councillor of the Year award, about the work he has been involved in at Brent Council, motivations for getting into local politics and the day-to-day realities of being a young Councillor.

Do you know a young councillor doing great work? Nominations for the 2024 Cllr Awards are now open, nominate here today!

Saqlain’s passion for his community and for local government shines through in this interview, and in the projects he has been involved in at Brent Council. From spearheading the development of a surplus food market and organising events that bring the community together, to his belief in staying true to his roots and passion for getting young people in politics, it is clear that Saqlain pours 110% into his work as a Councillor.

Working with partners to tackle food injustice

Tackling hunger and food injustice is a key issue for Saqlain, and one of the projects he is most proud of has been a piece of work to create a surplus food market. The project works with local organisations to divert edible produce that is destined for landfills and has created a local market where people can take food for free. Recently a hot food counter has been added to the market every Friday so folk can get a hot meal and a drink if they want. No ID or appointment is required, people don’t need a referral, and it’s 100% free for anyone to use. The project serves between 300-400 people per week and is running independently, with 15-20 regular volunteers and a project lead. Saqlain shares that the unique factor of the project is that “It’s changing it away from a food bank structure to a sort of food market where people can come socialise, interact, make friends (…) The amount of food that we prevent from going to waste is extraordinary. But also the amount of people that are being fed is also extraordinary.”

Working with local organisations and community groups has been an essential part of creating this project. While the project itself is located in a mosque, it gets donations from a host of local businesses and the majority of folk who use the market are non-Muslim. Squalin proudly states, “There’s no discrimination whatsoever. It’s open to anyone and everyone. And the best thing about it is that there are no checks – nobody asks your name or your date of birth. You can drive up in a Mercedes and pick up something, or you can have one pound in your pocket. It does not matter who you are or where you’re from.”

Bringing people together and fostering community cohesion is important to Saqlain. For example, during Ramadan, he organised an event with a couple of colleagues at the local civic centre where they invited local people from all cultural and religious backgrounds to breakfast with them. Over 200 people attended with the majority of the food donated by local businesses. In the coming year, he hopes to organise a similar event, perhaps in a different building or to mark a different religious or cultural celebration.

“Brent is pretty diverse and it’s so important to try to work with different communities to showcase that there is a lot more in common. It’s just about bringing the whole community together and showing that we live in difficult times, but we can actually work together.”

The challenges and rewards of balancing two jobs

Alongside being a Councillor, Saqlain also works in finance and juggling the two responsibilities can often make for very busy days. From evening committee meetings to responding to constituents and meeting with partners, there is always work to be done. However, while working two jobs can be challenging at times, it is also incredibly rewarding. Knowing that the work he’s doing is making a tangible difference to people’s lives is what drives Saqlain forward. Saqlain shares that “sometimes you’re working long, long hours, and you finish work, and you immediately go from meeting to meeting and … from laptop to laptop, so it’s a challenge for sure. You can’t switch off on Saturday or Sunday evenings… but it’s so rewarding to see the tangible benefit that you can have on someone or someone’s family.”

Saqlain also acknowledges how the skills he has acquired in his day job benefit him in his role as Councillor. His knowledge of finance and skill with numbers have come in handy during his time on the Pensions Subfund and Audit and Standards Committees.

Nobody goes into local politics for the money, says Saqlain, it’s not a salary you could live off. So while working in finance alongside his counselling responsibilities has many transferable benefits, it’s also a financial necessity. This is an important point and the financial barriers to entering local politics is certainly a key factor to consider for those looking to widen participation.

The importance of authenticity in politics

Saqlain draws attention to the immense financial pressure that local authorities are under. This means that he often finds himself having to manage people’s expectations for what can be delivered.

Facing this challenging financial and social environment head-on, Saqlain has found that honesty and transparency are vital qualities of a good Councillor. “We’ve had too much political nonsense in this country for too long. We’ve had too much talk from politicians, and I think people just want straight-talking answers, and people just want a bit of honesty. They just want their politicians to look like them, behave like them, follow the same rules as them”, explains Saqlain. “I am a product of the local area, so therefore, I’m going to carry on being just that – I’m not going to be artificial. I’m not going to promise things that I can’t deliver on. But I am going to try and push and do what I can.”

Saqlain also highlights the importance of listening and learning from those around you. Being a councillor is a challenging role in many ways, and there are colleagues and community members with many years of experience that it’s important to learn from, particularly as a young person in politics. “If you speak you don’t really learn anything, but if you listen, you do learn”, argues Saqlain.

2023 Cllr Awards winners. Credit: Charlie Burgio

Bringing more young people into local government

A key reason why Saqlain decided to get into politics was the realisation that you need to be at the negotiation table, in positions of power and influence, if you want to create change. He explains, “If you’re fed up about something, and you’re frustrated, the best thing you can do is get involved. One of the things that prompted me to get involved in politics was that I just got fed up with people telling me what to do.”

He acknowledges that most young people aren’t interested in local politics and that the system doesn’t make it easy for them to get involved, noting that there are time commitments and the system often seems intimidating. Recognising this, one of Saqlain’s next projects is to try and bring more young people on this journey with him, through as many different avenues as possible, from encouraging young people to vote in elections or email their local representatives, to organising campaigns and maybe even becoming a councillor or council officer themselves. Saqlain highlights the importance of “Letting young people know that you can actually have a tangible impact on people’s lives if you get involved, you can actually make a difference”. He states, “I’ve seen it. I’ve done it”, affirming that delivering positive change is possible.

Going forward, Saqlain is keen to learn from what has worked in other areas and has spoken with the previous winner of the award Mariam Danwood to learn a bit more about what she’s been doing and how it might work in Brent.

A message to young people thinking about getting into politics…

Saqlain is passionate about his local community and local politics and emphasises the importance of having different people’s voices and experiences represented. Saqlain explains that “Politics isn’t how it used to be. We don’t need to sit for hours and hours in a meeting, and we don’t need to have a 3-piece suit and come from Eton. We don’t need to wear tuxedos and have 3 A*. There is no one-dimensional way of doing politics, things have changed so much. Social media has changed so much, and we need to debunk and get rid of this idea that only a certain elite or certain group of people can be political, or you must possess this amount of knowledge to be political. No, you don’t.” Saqlain believes “Anyone and everyone can be political. Yeah, come as you are, and that’s the beauty of our country right is that if you have the opportunity and you work hard, why shouldn’t you go forward? We’ve got such a wealth of diversity and cultures and religions, and we should cherish that.”

Saqlain is happy to be contacted about any of the issues discussed in this interview and is always looking for opportunities to learn from and collaborate with others. To get in touch, you can email Saqlain at [email protected]

Do you know a young councillor doing great work? Nominations for the 2024 Cllr Awards are now open, nominate here today!



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