This year’s local elections in May will be a chance to make significant strides for diversity in local government, as all seats across Wales’ 22 councils will be contested.
We all know the current situation in our council chambers; councillors are generally male, white and older than the average man or woman on the street.
Women account for only 28 per cent of councillors in Wales and six of Wales’ 22 council leaders, which represents a miserly high point.
A further 11 per cent of councillors are disabled, and only 1.8 per cent are from a black or minority ethnic background.
Councils need to look much more like the communities they serve, and communities should be represented in local decision-making. Research has clearly shown that ‘great minds don’t think alike’ as the best decisions are made when a range of voices is represented.
Anyone who cares about inclusivity and local democracy should, therefore, be pulling out all the stops to ensure barriers are overcome to secure progress.
“Councils need to look much more like the communities they serve”
That’s why the Welsh LGA (WLGA) has undertaken a range of ambitious actions and commitments intended to spur change and promote diversity in democracy. These include encouraging all political parties to commit to proactively improving diversity, supporting the use of voluntary quotas, and encouraging all councils to sign up to a ‘Diversity Councils’ declaration, to demonstrate a clear, public commitment.
We have also set up a ‘Be a Councillor’ website, with e-learning, advice, videos and case studies, and councils have developed local action plans and are undertaking local engagement work with partners. These are progressive actions that, together, will support the emergence of more diverse civic leaders.
Progress relies on concerted and coordinated action, and the WLGA is working closely with the LGA and our sister LGAs in Scotland (COSLA) and Northern Ireland (NILGA) to campaign for more diversity in democracy.
We have welcomed work undertaken by the Welsh Government to remove barriers and improve access to standing for councils.
Legislation has been introduced to make permanent the provision for remote council meetings, following its successful adoption during the pandemic. A new Access to Elected Office Fund has also been launched recently, to support disabled people standing for election.
Welsh Government reforms mean councillors in Wales are entitled to family absence provisions on a par with public workers, and payments for costs for caring responsibilities, while job sharing allows greater flexibility for people to take on senior roles.
One of the main barriers to change is the rise in abuse and intimidation of public figures. Not only does this trend impact on the safety of individuals and their families, but it also dissuades people from taking part in politics, especially women and people from black and minority ethnic communities.
The WLGA is working closely with the LGA, COSLA and NILGA on a Civility in Public Life campaign to support any councillors who may have experienced abuse, and to stand up against intimidation of councillors.
Being a councillor is far from an easy role, but it is hugely rewarding. You can get things done. You can give voice to the seldom heard. You can make a real difference to people’s lives.
It is up to all of us to encourage people from all walks of life to feel they can make a change in their communities by standing at the local elections.