I WAS once told that to stand for election you must be either mad, brave or stupid.
Six months after being elected onto the City of York Council, I’m starting to think that, as is often the case, the truth lies somewhere in between.
As a 24-year-old graduate of the University of York who fell in love with the city and decided to stay and find employment, I am not the first to have also stood for council after leaving university, and I doubt that I will be the last.
To my knowledge there is at least one current councillor from each of the Labour, Liberal Democrat and Conservative groups who have taken this path.
I have been asked many times why I wanted to stand. The mismanagement of the previous Labour administration frustrated me, but my decision to stand was driven not only by the desire to ensure more sensible public spending, but to also be involved in shaping the direction of the city, protecting its historic character and working with residents to solve local issues.
Knocking on thousands of doors during the election campaign is an enlightening experience.
You learn a lot about the worries and frustrations of your neighbours, and also about yourself. The need to develop a thick skin, and quickly, is vital. There’s no time for nervousness or letting a slammed door or angry dog (or dog owner) throw you off pace.
Looking youthful as a councillor does, of course, have its particular downsides. At my first official council meeting, I overheard a former councillor ask whether the council is now accepting schoolboys into its ranks, which I found quite amusing. And when attending a parish council meeting I was asked if someone who looks like they are 17 is really old enough to do the job.
Given that I am four years older than the current youngest Member of Parliament, the SNP’s Mhairi Black, I don’t feel that my age is really that much of an issue. While I strongly disagree with her politics, she has conviction in her ideas and speaks with confidence.
In the end, you will not be judged by your age, but by what you achieve. Representing an area is challenging and inevitably some people will immediately dislike you without taking the time to speak to you, but it can also be incredibly rewarding.
Together with my fellow councillors Stuart Rawlings and Peter Dew, we have successfully raised the issue of damaged footpaths in my ward and managed to get them resurfaced.
This is sort of issue that is important to residents, as it affects them every single day.
Whether you are 24 or 64 years of age, your words as a councillor have exactly the same impact and with them you can make a difference to the lives of local people.
Not looking like a typical councillor does also have its advantages. The surprise factor means that people are more willing to engage with you, even if it is out of curiosity.
But there are also certain areas of the council’s agenda which are more suited to the younger generation.
As chair of the E-Democracy Task Group, I am working with Conservative, Liberal Democrat, Labour and Green councillors to look at ways to improve public engagement online, the take-up of services and the council’s ability to respond to its residents effectively. Being born the year after the first web page was served on the open internet, I have only ever known a world with the world wide web. Although this is just an accident of my birth year, it does give me a natural insight into the digital world, something which some of the older councillors are perhaps less interested in.
As more and more powers are now being devolved to the level of local government, there has never been a better or more important time to be involved in politics at ground level.
The Chancellor’s recent announcement that local authorities will soon be able to set business rates reiterates this point. Value for money must be at the top of every local authority’s agenda. Public funds should not be spent frivolously and, as taxpayers, we should think long and hard about what services we expect to be provided with our money, and then look at what is currently being provided by our own council.
Age shouldn’t be a constraint in politics, either at the national or local level. While wisdom normally comes with experience, it can also be stifled by an attitude of “this is how it’s always been”. So the next time a youthful councillor or council candidate knocks on your door, please don’t judge them on their looks, but on their views and their potential to represent you in this fast-changing world.
Sam Lisle is a Conservative councillor for Rawcliffe and Clifton Without on City of York Council.