Councils, councillors and constituents

On Monday I went to a seminar organised by the Centre for Mental Health on the Mental Health Challenge for local authorities. The point of the Mental Health Challenge is to assist local councils in opening up the discussion about mental ill-health and in taking actions that will help improve mental wellbeing for the community as a whole, as well as helping address the inequalities endured by those with mental health problems (the challenge is not about mental health services per se).

The first step for most councils (and one of the 10 parts to the Mental Health Challenge) is for each council to appoint a Mental Health Member Champion from amongst their councillors.  So far there are fifteen Mental Health Champions, some from metropolitan and unitary councils and at least two from rural county councils.

On this occasion I had my ‘work hat’ on, so was not in activist mode.  Because of the nature and purpose of the event, the councillors weren’t there with their political hats on either. Party politics wasn’t absent, but it wasn’t relevant either; the unifying ambition was better mental health for all, something which can’t be achieved by any one political party.  As it happens, none of the fifteen member champions so far are LibDem, UKIP or Green: three are Conservative and 12 Labour.

The Mental Health Challenge is new and growing fast, so these numbers will change soon.  But looking around me, and thinking of other times I have met councillors, I was struck by two things. The first is that more Labour councillors appear to have worked in the public or voluntary sectors – i.e. in environments or disciplines where talking about mental health is ‘okay’ – and it may perhaps be due to this that more Labour councillors and councils have sought to engage in this challenge so far.  The second is that they looked like a cross-section of the population.  Unlike the members of my county council in Suffolk, where most (54 out of 75) are white males – and most of these are retired.

The Suffolk population is not 72% retired white males.  And nor for that matter is 77% of Norfolk’s population. So where are the women, the men and women of working age, and the men and women from black and minority ethnic groups in my council and other rural councils?  Why can I see female (and male) councillors of working age in metropolitan councils, yet very few in rural ones? Is it simply that the Conservative & UKIP parties in rural areas tend to win more seats and membership of these parties is predominantly white retired males?  Quite possibly.  Is it also that retired business men (well, they mostly seem to be from business) want a retirement project which coincides with wanting to ‘give something back’ to the community?  Possibly.  Or is it that only retired men, for the most part, have the time and resources to travel across large rural areas, attending parish and town council meetings in addition to their county council business?  I think so.

Rural counties, by their very nature, take a long time to drive through – even if just driving in to the middle for council meetings. Council meetings tend to take place during working hours. Add these two things together and it’s easy to see how incompatible being a councillor is with holding down a job, let alone adding in running a household (which, let’s face it, is still mostly done by women).  So it’s hardly surprising there don’t seem (on first glance anyway) to be very many teachers, nurses and housing officers amongst our county councillors, or at least ones of working age.  Yet these councils, like the metropolitan ones, are charged with improving the community’s health and wellbeing, something in my view which needs an empathetic understanding of the issues faced by all groups in the community.

I’ve no doubt that the metropolitan councils face many of the same challenges as rural ones in encouraging residents to engage in local issues and of course actually persuading people to vote in the first place.  But I can’t help wondering what it is that makes them appear – on the face of it, at least – to be more representative of the people they serve, and therefore more relevant to their communities.

Other people have sought answers to this problem for a long time and whilst it’s clear that there are no quick answers, surely the questions have to include a re-evaluation of what rural county councils expect of their councillors? Representational balance is a long time coming, and it will take even longer if we don’t develop a deep enough understanding of the barriers for women, people of working age, and those from minority ethnic groups.

It does not surprise me that, when it comes to the Mental Health Challenge, there’s a lack of white retired males, though there is one notable exception.  The very first member champion was Michael Bevan, a Conservative councillor from Dorset, who got the idea years ago and ran with it.  Which just goes to show that one’s preconceptions – whilst often based on a reasonable premise – aren’t always borne out. Not when it comes to individuals, anyway.

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