As some of you know, I’ve been working quite closely with the Kensington and Chelsea Council recently. I joined my local Extinction Rebellion Borough group back in April and got stuck into local policy matters. The goal? Lobby for greener and more ambitious policies on a local level.
When I started, I had zero understanding of how local politics work. It was something I just didn’t pay attention to. I imagine many people are in the same boat. It is something that feels distant, and often irrelevant. Yet not only do local politics affect your life, but they also represent an opportunity to make an impact.
Fair warning: I haven’t done anything extraordinary or unusual. I am not here to claim a magical ability to work with Councils, but I want to share my experience because I think civic engagement is important.
As a start, you need to figure out some basics about how Councils work. Each Borough is split into wards. Kensington and Chelsea, for example, is split into 18 wards, each of which has two to three Councillors in charge. These Councillors should be your first point of contact, as they directly represent you. Individual Councillors are not able to do much on their own, but they can pass on your query or issue to the appropriate person in the Council and act as your liaison with officers and other officials. Typical issues they can help with range from a housing issue to supporting with removing an out-of-use phone box from a street.
The Council also has a leadership team, which oversees the strategy for things like the environment, housing, transportation, planning, communities, and more. The Councillors on the leadership team are also responsible for wards, but they have additional duties overseeing the broader Council strategy. The Councillors on the leadership team are the people to reach out with bigger policy ideas or constructive feedback. For example, during my lobbying on environmental policy, I have worked with the Lead for Environment, the Lead for Housing and the Lead for Planning and Transport.
Councillors work with officers (civil servants) to develop policies. Officers are responsible for doing the research, providing ideas, and implementing the policies set by the politicians. While officers may provide direction, the Councillor on the leadership team is in charge of directing the strategy.
This is where the public (aka you!) comes in. As elected politicians, Councillors are very sensitive to their constituents. If they hear frequently from their constituents about a particular issue, they are likely to prioritise it or pay more attention to it than an issue that never comes up. The environment is a perfect example of this. For a long time, the public didn’t engage on environmental issues. As a result, it was deprioritised on the political agenda. Over the last year, the rise in public engagement and environmental activism has caused 205 councils in the United Kingdom to declare a climate emergency (Kensington and Chelsea included).
There are many reasons to engage with your Council but fundamentally, local policy directly affects your life. Councils are in charge of building social housing in your neighbourhood, setting planning requirements for third party developments, keeping air quality as clean as possible, greening the streets, waste management and much more. Councils also liaise with the Member of Parliament for the Borough, so they are a great first stop if you have an issue for the national stage.
Whatever subject you want to work on, below are my five golden rules to effectively work with your Council.
1. Know who you’re speaking to
When you go into a networking event, you are most likely to succeed if you have some background on the person you want to speak to. It helps with the way you frame your conversation, and it helps you with the topics of conversation. The same is true for your Councillors. Understanding who you are speaking to will help you make the most of the conversation. There are a lot of ways to get information on your Councillors, but a good place to start is the Council website and the Councillor’s social media account(s). You don’t need to spend hours doing research but a good 10 minute Google search can help you understand what they are interested in, what is in their portfolio and the extent of their powers. For example, if the Councillor covers transportation, they aren’t the person to talk about Kensington’s recycling facilities.
2. Find the best method of communication
There are numerous ways to get in contact with your Councillor, and depending on the subject, different ways can be most effective. Most Councillors run surgeries once a month, where residents can stop by and informally meet and bring up issues of interest or concern. This is a great opportunity to get some face time with your Councillor and let him/her know the issues that are most important to you, even if they aren’t “problems” per se. For example, my first foray into local politics was going to my ward surgery, meeting my Councillors and letting them know that the environment is my top priority. I didn’t have a complaint to share – I simply wanted to let them know that one of their constituents was passionate about the environment. You can also always email your Councillor. Email can be less personal than a face to face meeting, but provide you with a paper trail. Email is best if you have a specific issue that may need to be raised within the Council, or that you want to track the progress of. Social media is also a good way of doing this – just remember to be nice (no trolling, please)! Personally I prefer meeting Councillors in person, as you have an opportunity to connect as people and spend more time discussing a matter, than what you can do via email or social media. If the surgery times don’t work for you, or you want privacy to discuss something, you can always contact your Councillor and request a one to one meeting.
3. Be constructive
As you make contact with your Councillor, remember to be constructive. There is certainly a place to be critical – after all, local politicians represent the people and it is our duty to hold them accountable. But pointing fingers doesn’t help anyone and in many cases it is counter-productive. If you contact your Councillors, even if it is with a complaint, offer constructive feedback. For example, state that you disagree with the new housing development proposed and provide ideas of how it could be improved. It is also important to remember that people are most likely to contact Councillors when something has gone wrong. If something is going well, people typically don’t go into the effort of congratulating them (I am certainly guilty of this!). Councillors want constructive feedback, but I have no doubt they would appreciate residents communicating about policies or initiatives that they like, too. Noticing that something is going well goes a long way, and reinforces positive work and actions that Councillors take.
4. Be human
It is really easy to vilify politicians and dehumanise them. A Councillor makes a decision or a speech, and you put them in the category of “monster” or ” cruel and heartless.” The media certainly has a role to play in this by perpetuating images of politicians as the “bad guys” who have evil intentions. I can’t speak for every politician, and I don’t confess to know intentions, but I do know that Councillors are just people too. They respond the same way you and I do – if you are aggressive, they will likely be aggressive back. If you yell at them, they will listen but they may shut down and not absorb the information. If you have an honest conversation, where you express why you’re frustrated and how it’s affecting you, the Councillor will likely empathise and take the feedback onboard. Treat your Councillors like regular people, and you will have the best results.
5. Stay in touch
If you want to have a long-term impact on your local politics, focus on building long-term relationships. Just like you stay in touch with friends or your professional network, try and stay in touch with your Councillors. Share ideas as they come up, and check in once in a while. They will appreciate it and it helps to build an effective relationship!
I could write more but this post has gotten longer than intended. Leave a comment if you have any questions or want me to elaborate on any of the above!
My experience has been exclusively in London, so I am not sure Councils works the same everywhere. My assumption is that the five rules apply to all cases, nationally and internationally.
Written by Eleni Polychroniadou