The individual councillors celebrated in the LGiU Cllr Achievement Awards are part of the glue that holds civic life together, says Dr Jonathan Carr-West.
Earlier this month I was able to indulge in one of the particular pleasures of running the Local Government Information Unit (LGiU) when we hosted our annual Cllr Awards along with our friends at CCLA. This is an amazing opportunity to come together to celebrate the achievements of individual councillors around the country.
It’s easy to be cynical about politics these days, indeed it’s quite hard not to be sometimes and I’ve written before in these pages about a widespread collapse of trust in our political institutions.
There’s no easy answer to this but the stories we hear through the Cllr Awards and through the hundreds of nominations we receive do at least provide some antidote to this cynicism.
We heard about councillors who have tackled isolation and loneliness within their ward by introducing council-led measures such as community outreach programmes like the ‘MensSheds’ in Cumbria, or engaging the community in Buckinghamshire to recognise vulnerable residents and protect them from loneliness and doorstep crime. Other councillors have created intervention projects aiming to reduce the demand on health care systems by assisting people with health care needs before they enter the NHS.
These schemes are incredibly important in light of the ageing population and growth of mental health issues causing additional strains on council budgets and the NHS.
Away from health and wellbeing, members also impressed us with the transformation made to council structures and service by improving finances. This has been achieved through the raising of additional income by investing in revenue-generating businesses and encouraging new Enterprise Zones.
On top of this, many of our councillors had been nominated by grateful residents who were thankful for the difficult planning work that they had carried out, leading to important economic developments within the area. Other councillors were recognised for having improved service delivery by securing additional funding to advance schools in Southwark or upskilling residents’ usage of technology with council-funded courses, and holding workshops.
All of these examples show the amazing work and extraordinary efforts that ordinary people across the country are willing to put in to support their communities. We should remember them whenever anyone tells us that politics doesn’t make any difference or that politicians are only in it for themselves.
But what does this all add up to? How do we move from individual stories of civic heroism to a different sort of municipal conversation?
That in turn is part of a bigger question about how we value and maintain the essential civic infrastructure of society. A decade of deep cuts has left local government in many parts of the country perilously close to breaking point. That has an immediate impact on services and the people who use them but it also affects the nature of our social contract; how we think about ourselves and others and our relations within society. The degradation of the local state leaves us all more isolated, more atomised. Local government in its modern form is, of course, a complex bureaucracy but it’s also, at its most basic, simply an institutional form of the principle that communities come together to self organise and to support each other.
If we lose that, we lose something precious and fundamental. The individual councillors we celebrate in the Cllr Awards are amazing people, but they’re also part of the glue that holds civic life together. That’s not often recognised, but we should all be grateful for it.
Jonathan Carr-West is the Chief Executive of LGIU. This article first appeared in The Municipal Journal.