After reading an article titled Power to the People – Tackling the Gender Imbalance in combined authorities and Local Government from the Local Government Association magazine “First” it stated that 33% of councillors were women and that even though there has been a rise in voter turnout among 18-24 year old women, we need to encourage and sustain aspiring female councillors. This got me thinking about the council that I sit on, Eden District Council, I was very keen to look at how representative it is. It is extremely important that local government truly reflects the communities that we have been elected to represent. Eden District has a large geographical area, with one of the highest number of uncontested seats at local four yearly elections. I hadn’t realised just how many seats went uncontested and that for some wards this had been ongoing for some years, which in my opinion is not conducive to a healthy local democracy and neglects the community’s rights to a vote. If Councillors are going to be effective in their contribution to the work of Councils we need to be openly debating the issues and barriers to uncontested seats; look at how we ensure democratic viability; empower our local communities and increase transparency openness and communication.
In May 2018, as part of Eden District Councils scrutiny review topics, I put forward a suggestion to explore the reasons why 19 out of the 38 seats were uncontested in 2015. The Scrutiny Coordinating Board established the “Increasing Participation Task and Finish Scrutiny Group” to consider the ways in which the Council could encourage an increase in participation to reduce the democratic deficit. This was a cross party working group made up of Liberal Democrat, Labour and Conservative councillors and was chaired by myself.
By using a combination of desk top research looking into the current activities of Eden District Council and that of comparable councils elsewhere in the country; focus groups made up of serving councillors, party representatives and parish councillors and a questionnaire for members of the public, the report set out to explore the reasons behind this low participation. From the findings, the group identified three main barriers which have an effect on people coming forward as candidates for election – the perception of the council; the perception of the councillors and difficulties in accessing information. The report, which includes nine recommendations, has been put forward for consideration at the next Executive committee meeting in February.
My hope is that once these recommendations have been put into place it will encourage involvement, increase the number of candidates and inspire more people, especially from under-represented groups, to stand for election and reduce the number of uncontested seats in the future.
Councillor Lissie Sharp