Toby opened the session, by asking ‘What do you want to achieve?’
The first area was around making change in a council with councillors who are in their 90s. The main response from the group was to encourage new people to become councillors. FTC councillor, Mel Usher, spoke about how new councillors were recruited for Frome. An advert was put in the local paper, asking ‘Do you want to do something for Frome’, then only two questions were asked of the applicants: ‘What will you do for Frome?’ and ‘What are you really interested in?’. Objective people then made the selection and the result was 17 new people wanting to stand for 17 seats.
The Clerk from Shepton Mallet then replied, saying that strategy might not work for other councils which are in areas smaller than Frome, with depressed populations, without ‘middle-class, engaged’ residents. He also noted that if there are less than 5 or 6 people standing, they’ll lose general competence, and that one solution is for the 1972 act to be updated.
The next question was around what advice Clerks can give, except ones in the legislator book. Toby suggested that you can take advice but make different decisions.
The discussion then moved onto engaging younger members of communities. The group generally agreed that young people need to become involved and get angry about the status quo, to allow for change. Several people in the group spoke about introducing School Councils and Youth Councils to their areas, as engaging children towards the end of Primary School.
Toby then spoke about risk, and asked “What is your [council’s] attitude to risk?”. A change of attitude can take years, but it’s worth putting the work in for. Mel Usher also added, “How do you judge risk? If no-one’s dying, we can afford to take risks. If we’re not making mistakes, we’re not pushing far enough. If no-one can hurt you, give it a go.” An example of an innovative thing a council can do is Top Up Street Cleaning, it can be high profile, and is low cost.
Conversation then moved to communication. Many people agreed that having a social media presence was very valuable. Also, that you can create a general town facebook page/website, if the current Town Council pages are rubbish/non-existent. Getting out and asking people what they think, removing obstacles to communication (such as money), asking isolated people what they think, having clear money/budget information, and providing free food and drink at events to incentivise the community to get involved were all great suggestions from the group.
Councillors and clerks were also asked what they can do to get individual residents involved and engaged to fundraise, lobby and focus on things that matter to them – which Councils can support and facilitate.
It was also noted that there are no advice bodies which serve councils, and a Councillor Network was brought up as an idea.
The conversation then moved to political skills: how important it is for young councillors to have tactical political training, and for every councillor to have communication and engagement skills (not just party-political councillors). A challenge was raised, that “if we’re trying to innovate, why should we encourage people to be trained in behaviours that have existed for decades?” It was recognised that there is value in these skills, that if people know how the current game is played, they’re better equipped to challenge it. Alternatively, teach others to question everything – if you don’t understand or agree with anything question it, as many situations can be like the ‘Emperor’s New Clothes’.