Cllr Alex Walker is the Leader of the Conservative Group on Milton Keynes Council.
I can’t pretend I was looking forward to this year’s Local Government Association conference. The thought of more meetings in musty conference halls is hardly something to relish. But in a way I hadn’t expected, those few days in Birmingham opened my eyes to something very exciting happening in parts of local government. Councils doing rather than debating what not to do, and all against the backdrop of Brum’s colossal regeneration.
One statement in particular that has stayed with me from the conference was from the impressive Irene Lucas CBE who at the end of a presentation on Sunderland’s local industrial strategy stated “people making decisions for the future are from the wrong generations.” Then calmly, in front of a crowd of Councillors who were mostly aged 60+, played a google advert where a newborn baby googled how to cut its own umbilical cord and took a selfie with its shocked parents. It perfectly and powerfully reinforced the point she was making.
There are great people in local government. Advice from those with long experience has been important to me and I’m grateful as a young group leader for the support I’ve received. But the truth is we need a mix of experience, and we aren’t seeing enough young people coming through on the political side or via the officer route. The average councillor age is rising and I can fully appreciate why many perceive local government as a preserve of the old.
There are reasons why younger people find it hard to get involved. As a young person myself I have a lot of sympathy with individuals who choose not to. It can be seen as an unstable sector. For those who follow the political route it takes up a lot time when you want to focus on a full time career, or perhaps you want to start a family. Local politics can be seen as too partisan and sometimes council groups, no matter what party, can seem closed shops.
I think the nation has done pretty well engaging younger people in political debate in recent years. The referendums on Scottish independence and EU membership has helped to spark interest. But there is a bigger national challenge about engaging young people in political life. We need to do more to engage young people in the political and decision making process.
The reason for this that I believe is vital is because digital is changing the way we live our lives. Local government policy can’t keep up and will never keep up, unless younger generations who are evidently excited by fast evolving technology, and see it all as an opportunity, are part of the decision making process.
The Local Digital Declaration, announced at the LGA conference by the Local Government Minister Rishi Sunak, is welcome. However, we need to be ambitious with how that funding and future funding is used. It was proudly launched with the quote: “Whether it’s an app to report fly-tipping, or slick online services to pay your Council Tax, many local authorities are at the forefront of digital innovation.” This is great, but we can do so much more, and no matter how much money is pumped into this or other initiatives, it needs the right people to shape how it is invested so we are not just improving websites, but actually integrating new technology into how a town or city operates, from waste management to public transport.
I am strongly of the opinion that the most successful Councils of the next decade will be those who can engage experienced minds with the creative and too often hidden talent of young people. That needs us in local government to better communicate the possibilities the future holds, and that despite the pressure Councils are under, we can still deliver innovative services. We also need to be more open. That means promoting diversity and inclusiveness, and encouraging political parties to give their talented younger members real responsibility, not just a bundle of leaflets. Youth and experience is the recipe for success.