Diversity needs civility in public life

From the start of my teaching career more than 35 years ago to becoming the Leader of Newport City Council and the WLGA, I have worked alongside talented officers and committed councillors, who all work tirelessly to maintain essential local services and to improve lives in our communities.

The LGA’s most recent polling on resident satisfaction found that 72 per cent of respondents trusted local councillors, rather than MPs or ministers, to make decisions about local services. As councillors who live and work in our communities, we are the people who are best placed to deliver for our residents.

“We all have a responsibility to stand together against the rising tide of toxicity in our public discourse and to protect our local democracy

The world around us has changed dramatically, though, since I was first elected to represent the Gaer ward in 2004, and the role of a councillor has also evolved.

In Wales, we play an active role as equal partners with the Welsh Government in governing the nation. We are leading on multi-billion-pound city and growth deals that have the potential to unlock unprecedented economic growth in all four corners of Wales. We have shown resilience in rising to modern challenges by collaborating and innovating, always with our residents’ needs at the centre of all we do.

But while we’ve seen rapid change elsewhere, it remains stubbornly slow in achieving better representation in our council chambers. We all know that diversity drives better decision-making, and I know it is a priority I share with many other leaders and councillors across all parties and none.

The advent of social media has transformed how we connect with our residents. But it has also given rise to a torrent of ugly and hateful abuse by faceless keyboard warriors who view people in the public eye as ‘fair game’.

Women are especially subjected to intimidation just for doing their job. Not only is such behaviour a concern to the personal safety and wellbeing of councillors, it also undermines local democracy. How can we possibly expect to attract people from more diverse backgrounds to stand as candidates in local elections if this is the way they’re going to be treated?

We all have a responsibility to stand together against the rising tide of toxicity in our public discourse and to protect our local democracy. I am particularly pleased that the LGA, with the WLGA, and our Scottish and Northern Irish counterparts, are about to embark on a civility campaign to challenge this abuse and offer support to those who experience it.

As my time as WLGA leader draws to a close, I pass on the baton with an enormous sense of pride and gratitude. I plan to keep close links with the WLGA and the LGA, and will continue to be a loyal supporter of local government within Parliament as I take on my new role as a working peer.

Councillors have the toughest job in the public sector, but time and time again have shown that they’re more than capable of succeeding in rising to the challenge. I will continue to champion local government, and I wish you all the best running your councils in the current climate, as the road ahead continues to be full of challenges and seemingly insolvable problems.

As first was going to press, Baroness Wilcox was due to stand down as Leader of the WLGA, with an announcement expected on her successor. The LGA is running a conference on ‘Civility in public life’ in London on Monday 16 December. To find out more, please visit www.local.gov.uk/events.

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