Cllr Taylor O’ Driscoll represents Westway Ward on Tandridge District Council.
Young people often perceive councils as groups of older people gathering to talk about flowers and building extensions and conservatories. Many young people feel that councils don’t listen to or care about their concerns.
I feel this is a sad situation since a significant proportion of our society, the proportion that represents its future, believe that they cannot influence the future of their own area and make it a better place to live in.
Many feel that there is no point voting in the local elections because they are choosing between a ballot of retired professionals looking for a final pay day before sailing off into the sunset.
It was this disillusionment among young people, which I also felt as a 20-year-old wanting to make my community a better place to live in, that inspired me to stand to be a district councillor in last year’s local elections in Tandridge in Surrey.
I felt that if the existing councillors of all political parties weren’t going to try to listen to young people, a young person on the council will make them listen. I was elected to represent Westway, the ward I live in, by 15 votes over the incumbent councillor.
When I was elected, I felt intimidated by the council and some of its members. There were and still are a lot of bold personalities on the Council, and elaborate rules of debate that I wasn’t used to. Many didn’t expect me to win my seat, and there was a sense of shock that a 20-year-old was elected to the Council – let alone a 20-year-old Conservative.
When I made my nervous first speech on behalf of my residents after I was elected, I was openly laughed at by some very prominent councillors in the party of the councillor I unseated. I found at this stage, making my speech to the Annual Council meeting as the first of the Class of 2021 to speak as a councillor, that many councillors simply don’t appreciate the needs of young people.
That’s why I think young people generally don’t think it’s worth turning out to vote in local elections. Because they feel their voice doesn’t matter. Because they feel that they aren’t going to be listened to. Because they feel that nothing will change. But not turning out at local elections is not the answer to solving this problem.
We need more young people to stand to represent their communities at their local council. A young person can help bring a fresh perspective with innovative and exciting ideas, which some councillors may not have even thought of. This helps to ensure that a wider proportion of our community is represented by a group of councillors with a wider skillset and a broader range of experience, as opposed to the stereotype of retired headteachers and accountants, ensuring that more in our community are properly represented.
And if several young people are elected, then the local council will be able to consider more intelligently how it can deliver for the next generation, since the most directly affected area of our society will have the capabilities to help make the decisions.
Since my election, I have managed to deliver positive change for my residents in Westway. My proudest achievement so far was proposing a motion to exempt care leavers from paying council tax until their 25th birthday. I feel that young people’s needs have been pushed up the agenda since I was elected, and that young people in my ward feel that they are listened to. There is a lot more to be done, however – and while having one person on Tandridge is positive, I stick out like a sore thumb compared to other councillors.
We need more young people willing to stand up for our local communities as councillors, representing the youth perspective. If we had more of them, existing councillors would no longer ignore the needs of young people, and take them for granted.