Democracy, decision-making and good governance are strengthened when councillors reflect the people they seek to serve and represent.
That’s why, with a bumper set of local elections due in May, the LGA continues to work with councils to increase the diversity of candidates putting themselves forward, via its Be a Councillor campaign.
We all need to continue to encourage people from our black, Asian and minority ethnic (BAME) communities, LGBTQ+ groups, people with disabilities, women and young people to stand for election, given that councillors remain disproportionately white, male and aged over 60.
But we also need to see more diversity in the leadership of local government, by helping councillors in their existing roles and providing a bridge to more influential and senior positions.
This is a key aim of the LGA’s leadership programmes, and particularly of its ‘weekender’ events for BAME, women and younger elected members.
We also hear from Cllr Stephen Cooksey, Leader of Mole Valley District Council, who has a hearing disability, about the importance of confidence, and why he has spent 48 years in local government (see below).
‘Disability provides insights into council services’
Councillor Stephen Cooksey (Lib Dem) is Leader of Mole Valley District Council and a member of
Surrey County Council.
I have always wanted to play a part in improving life and the environment for the community in which I live, and to give residents a genuine voice in the way communities are governed. Local government has been my way of achieving that.
I was first elected in 1971 and, except for a very short period, have remained a councillor (this is my 48th year).
In May 2019, my party gained an overall majority in Mole Valley and I had no hesitation in taking the opportunity to become council leader, with a mandate to achieve – within the constraints imposed by central government – the radical changes that I, my colleagues and our residents were keen to see.
I have an inherited hearing disability, which has become more severe as I have grown older. For many years it was an irritation, but not a real problem. Except for a few inevitable misunderstandings – the hidden nature of disability does cause problems – I don’t believe it has affected my work as a councillor any more than it did in pursuing my professional career.
The increased number of meetings and discussions, both in person and virtually, that comes with being leader has emphasised the disability. But with help, advice and goodwill, I believe that it has been overcome.
Both councils on which I currently serve have been excellent in providing assistance, and have sought and found innovative developments that have helped greatly. They continue to look for improved systems and consult regularly.
In addition, my wife, who is also a Mole Valley cabinet member, has played an invaluable role in helping me. However, there are inevitable consequences, which can be frustrating – but everyone has some problems to overcome if they are to participate in public life.
It is important that people with disabilities should be encouraged to play a full part in local government. After all, dealing with a disability can offer an invaluable insight for councils providing services for all members of the public.
Disability shouldn’t hold back people with principles, ideas and a desire to serve the public from playing a full part.
I suspect confidence is the greatest deterrent, and councils should seek to build confidence by taking every opportunity to assure potential councillors that dealing with disability needs is high on their agenda. Once confidence is assured, the road to leadership is wide open.
My advice to prospective councillors with disabilities would be to not doubt your own stamina and ability, nor the willingness of councils to understand and assist – there is genuine goodwill to help overcome disability and build confidence.
Councils need to be welcoming, approachable and able to demonstrate a real desire to help aspiring members fulfil their potential, regardless of their disability, and I have always found that to be the case.