Between the chaos of Brexit, the upcoming European elections and the prospect of a general election this year, the local elections on May 2, 2019 seem to have crept up largely unnoticed. Yet the results are just as important for towns and villages across England and Northern Ireland: 8,425 seats in 248 councils across England will reportedly be contested. Polls will also be held in all 11 councils in Northern Ireland, and people will vote for mayors in six English authorities.
Over the past decade, local councils – that is, parish, town, community and neighbourhood councils – have taken on many more responsibilities, including for libraries, green spaces, car parks and public toilets. This is in part because the UK government has made laws to decentralise power from the state toward councils, so that they can respond more effectively to the needs of the local community.
But for these councils to work as intended, people must both vote in local elections and stand to be local councillors. This is where British politics has a problem: many council positions will go uncontested and, in some areas, applications to become a councillor are so low that vacancies left by retiring councillors go unfilled.
In the May 2015 elections, only 20% of eligible parishes held an election for one of their vacancies. This time around, it’s been reported that in Devon, more than 300 candidates will be elected unopposed.
What’s more, The Telegraph has reported that 130 out of 163 parishes in Dorset have not attracted enough candidates to hold elections on May 2, while 20 have no candidates at all, so will no longer function – and the picture seems similar in other areas across the country.
This of course saves councils the expense of an election – but it’s a disaster for local democracy. Parish councils are the closest and most accessible tier of government for citizens. It’s much simpler and more straightforward to push for changes in an area by voting for – and engaging with – parish councillors, who are likely to be part of the community themselves.
Places where people participate in civic life often have stronger economies, and a responsibly run local council can help restore public trust, at a time when there’s widespread lack of faith in the UK government. Yet community politics is in crisis, just when the UK needs it the most.
A difficult role
My research from 2018 shows that parish councils have excellent brand recognition: people had heard about parish councils, might have been acquainted with councillors, and thought that councillors enjoy their role. On the other hand, very few people knew what jobs they actually do – such as commenting on community planning applications and managing local amenities including green spaces, local libraries and car parks.
From conversations with 30 participants, I found that most people thought of parish councillors as being older, and retired. Younger people in particular felt that councils did not represent their needs, or were not accessible.
Often, people claimed that they were not able to play a role in community politics because they lack the time. But when my colleagues and I dug deeper, we found this was not quite the case. It was more that they didn’t think participating in parish councils was worth their time. They were also put off by how parish councils had communicated with them.
One participant told us that she had previously been a councillor, but disagreement over the use of community resources for young people had created so much discord that she had become isolated and had felt that she had no option other than to move away.
Lack of participation – and therefore a lack of people from different backgrounds and ages on parish councils - can mean community issues are approached from a narrow set of perspectives and possible solutions. This adds to the perception that parish councils are not relevant to the lives of many citizens.
According to our research, parish councils find it hard to communicate about their work to local communities, in the ways that people expect in 2019. Beyond a website detailing meeting updates, few councils deploy apps or other technology. We heard stories about how less than effective use of communication meant that positive actions could easily be misconstrued, creating negativity.
For example, providing information about new amenities in a format that people didn’t normally access (in this case, posting about a new amenity on the village noticeboard rather than in the newsletter or website) meant that people missed their opportunity to take advantage of the new service.
Part of the problem is that members of the public can be very unpleasant to councillors, offering abuse verbally, by email, social media, or telephone at any time of the day or night. This makes councillors wary of opening up a dialogue with voters, because they are afraid of the kinds of response that they will get. It also puts people off standing in elections, because they don’t want to receive abuse.
Stand and vote
We found that people do want to be involved in their communities, and they do want to help to make positive change. But they also need to feel that engaging with parish councils is a productive use of their time. Councillors need to do more to explain why serving on parish councils is a meaningful way to make a difference.
It’s essential for parish councillors to work more with younger people – including those under the age of 18 – and to explore ways of communicating across generational divides. This might include exploring more effective ways of using social media and new technologies, such as following the example of East Goscote parish council in Leicestershire, by using apps to become more accessible to the public.
Councillors can do enormous good in their communities – but they need to let others know about it, so that people can reinvigorate local democracy by standing, and voting.