Jayne Dowle: Local elections – Do not overlook these vital cogs in our democracy

Candidates vying to become the Sheffield City Region's mayor at a hustings event.
Candidates vying to become the Sheffield City Region's mayor at a hustings event.
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I DON’T know what it’s like where you live, but the end of this week is looking pretty busy in Barnsley. We’ve got the Tour de Yorkshire powering its way through town on Friday, grabbing all the headlines and social media coverage.

Before that, however, there’s an event which is hardly attracting any attention at all, save the odd poster in a window or front garden flag. Yet the local elections on Thursday, which also include the poll to decide who will become Mayor of the Sheffield City Region, have the potential to shape the future of the borough long after riders have departed.

More than ever this year, these vital cogs of democracy risk being overlooked. And although the row over the selection of Sheffield mayoral favourite, Barnsley Central MP Dan Jarvis, has threatened to rip apart the Labour party, people tend to keep their political passion quite private round here.

In fact, holding the local and mayoral elections on the same day seems to have confused and overwhelmed a lot of voters.

This sense of apathy is dangerous. A potential low turnout in one or both polls reflects badly on a town which needs all the help it can get to deal with serious social problems. Town centre regeneration, local job creation and investment in culture and heritage all have a part to play, and everyone should have a say.

So why the rectitude? Local problems can seem overwhelming. From the fly-tipping which scars our beautiful South Yorkshire countryside to individuals under the influence of various intoxicants passing out in the town centre in front of shoppers, there’s a growing belief that nothing can be done.

I still believe that harnessing community strength can help to make a difference. It’s just that increasingly, people don’t seem to know how. Two years ago, in the last round of major local government elections in Barnsley, voter turnout was just 26.9 per cent. Little more than a quarter of the adult population expressed a preference for whom they wanted to represent their interests and concerns. This goes against the grain of the General Election the following year, when 61.04 per cent of voters turned up in Barnsley Central.

Obviously, these figures pertain particularly to Barnsley. Yet I bet you would find a similar correlation in a lot of towns and cities across our region. It’s not that people aren’t bothered, they’re just not engaged with local councils and how they work.

What’s going wrong then? Councillors are often the first step towards getting something done, yet many seem more remote and inaccessible than the Pope. The first thing is for councils to find some money in the ever-stretched pot to promote what their elected members do and what they are responsible for. It would also be helpful to tell the public about the purpose of weekly surgeries and committees and how their problems might be brought to redress. Too many councils remain inward-looking, so preoccupied with their own machinations and staff re-organisations that they forget to look outwards and inform. I’ll give you an example. If you had a difficulty with your child’s school which wasn’t being addressed effectively by the headteacher, would you know which elected member to take your concerns to directly?

The process of local government is democratic, in that elected members act as scrutineers to the decisions taken by council officers. And so is recruitment; being a local councillor does not demand a university degree or even a certain level of education, just a passionate interest in local affairs and a desire to serve.

However, there’s far too much public confusion and lack of knowledge about how this local democracy works. Unless you’ve had direct dealings, you might not even know the name of your local councillor, never mind hold a grasp of how the ward system works. Too many councillors hide, but the best ones don’t just sit on town hall committees, they lead their community and are the first person to turn to in a crisis.

This is frustrating, because often minor problems can be tackled by a councillor before they escalate into full-blown battles. I’d put into this category issues with parking, nuisance neighbours and planning matters, but there are myriad others.

Also frustrating is that people will complain – and they do – about matters which affect their lives, yet seem unwilling or unable to approach it through the proper channels. Instead, every day my local social media fills up with individuals complaining about the pot-holed state of the roads or drunks and drug addicts. If the present council incumbent isn’t taking things seriously, why not make your frustrations felt and vote for a better replacement?

That’s why wherever you live, and whatever your political persuasions, I urge you to vote this Thursday. Don’t just tick the box. Choose wisely. And, remember; a good local councillor should be a bridge between the community and the council, not a barrier.