Local elections: Gen Z councillors hope to shape communities

By Sophie Madden
BBC News, West Midlands

Published
image copyrightGetty Images

A growing number of politicians from Generation Z are stepping forward to represent the places they live.

In 2018 the average age of an English councillor was 59 and only a sixth were younger than 45.

BBC News has spoken to four newly-elected members aged 18-23 and a 29-year-old council leader about the reasons they stood and why they think more young people should take an active role in local politics.

'Be the change'

image copyrightWilliam Gill
image captionWilliam (second from left) became actively involved in politics when he started delivering leaflets with West Bromwich West MP Shaun Bailey (second from right)

William Gill, 18, represents Great Bridge, on Sandwell Council in the West Midlands.

His was one of nine seats the Tories gained on Friday, the first time the party has held a seat on the authority for six years.

He is also still studying for his A-levels.

William said: "When I walked into class on Monday, my politics teacher said 'How am I going to give a politics grade to someone who is an elected politician?'

"I think it was always going to be a difficult task being 18 with a part-time job and A-levels, being able to maintain and balance them all, but it was an opportunity that I wanted to take.

image captionWilliam Gill is one of the first Conservative members of Sandwell Council in six years

"We have an area known as the Sheepwash which is a local nature reserve.

"I remember going there 10 years ago with grandparents walking the dog, and I have memories of how beautiful it looked.

"Since then It has gone downhill, from neglect more than anything, so it is about making sure the natural beauty of the area is maintained.

"Our community has a hell of a lot of potential which needs unlocking and also making sure people like myself that are young aren't neglected by current system.

"Really and truly if the system is not working for people in Great Bridge, then a change needs to happen and I wanted to be that change.

"Whether I was 18 or 80, as long as I am representing the ward to the best of my ability, the area is happy, I don't see a difference.

"My situation is drastically different to someone with 60 or 70 years of life experience, and I think it is a good thing to have people from all walks of life in [the] council house."

'Local politics matter'

image captionLily Fitzgibbon is taking a gap year before studying politics at University of Bristol

Lily Fitzgibbon, 18, represents Bishopston and Ashley Down on Bristol City Council.

Her interest in politics stems from concerns over climate change and she represents the Green Party.

"There is a tree, the Ashley Down Oak, which has been slated to be felled.

"The overwhelming majority of residents don't want it to be cut down, it is on council land by council flats and they want it to remain and keep their green space.

image copyrightGreta Thunberg/Twitter
image captionLily was energised by environmental activist Greta Thunberg's visit to Bristol, which drew a huge crowd

"I think local politics is something young people don't know about, it is not their fault, it is a lack of education with the focus on the national stage.

"Sometimes an issue the council is dealing with affects a young person's life more than what is happening in Westminster, so getting more young people voting locally is the first step in seeing young people more engaged and more young people standing.

"Young people have the experience of growing up with climate change hanging over our head, growing up through austerity.

"There are a lot of issues young people are facing which older generations haven't had to deal with in the same way."

'A different perspective'

image captionOlivia Lyons, 29, is now the leader of Cannock Chase District Council after spending three years as a member

Olivia Lyons, 29, now leads Cannock Chase Council in Staffordshire after being a Conservative councillor for three years.

"It is a total honour, I think being elected is one of biggest honours you can have," she said.

"I've always grown up involved in the community, my family were heavily involved, my father was a member of the Lions and the president of a working men's club, so I had grown up doing community fairs, and events like that.

"Then, the year before [I was] elected it had recently been announced Rugeley Power Station was closing and being redeveloped.

"Particularly at that time, people who had been at university were struggling to get jobs and that really spurred me on.

"It wasn't easy... people thought I was quite young, with not a lot of life experience.

"My very first council meeting, or certainly the first where I ever stood up and spoke, someone shot me down and referred to me as a 'young lass'.

"When you are nervous anyway... it was not pleasant.

"I've got a routine for dealing with case work, regular surgeries, I do work full time and it can be incredibly busy; having a routine is important.

image copyrightOlivia Lyons
image captionThe more people who get involved with politics the better, Olivia says
image copyrightOlivia Lyons
image captionThe young councillor says she has always been active in her community

"I think [younger people] approach things from a different perspective, you've got fresh ideas.

"Everyone has a different perspective, if you listen to everyone's opinions you might think of things in different way.

"I would encourage people to get over that initial fear and go and try it out, talk to someone, an existing councillor, about how to get involved.

"The more people who get involved, the better."

'A fresh perspective'

image copyrightAlex Wagner
image captionThe barrier to young people getting involved in politics is not that high, Alex Wagner says

Alex Wagner, 20, was elected to represent Bowbrook ward on Shropshire Council for the Lib Dems.

Growing up in rural parts of the county he was heavily involved with his small community, which shaped his drive to help out with local issues.

image captionThe 20-year-old is the youngest member on Shropshire Council

"The barrier to entry of local political parties isn't that high.

"I would generally encourage people, whether red, yellow or blue to get involved in this style of politics, it is the best way to impact change, which is part of why I really think it is worth doing.

"People want younger councillors, they don't want it to be the preserve of the retired, they want people with a bit more energy, a bit more oomph, with a fresh perspective who will work hard and get stuff done.

"I'm a new councillor at 20, but we've also got new councillors in their 30s, 40s and 70s, and it is nice going into it on an even keel.

"The main issues that have come up on the doorstep are really simple stuff, people think the council is spending a lot of taxpayers' money badly, the roads are in disrepair, accessibility around Bowbrook is poor."

'An extra dynamic'

image copyrightCiaron Boles
image captionCiaron Boles (second from right) thinks age has been a barrier in getting people to vote for him

Ciaron Boles, 23, has just been elected as a Labour councillor for Moorside on Bury Council.

He had just finished his masters degree in international political economy when the chance to run for a seat arose.

"I thought OK, I've studied it now, I've done it in papers, done it in exam questions, now it is time to put it into practice and see what difference that knowledge will make in council meetings and add a new dimension to the thinking," he said.

He said his age was "absolutely" a barrier in convincing people to vote for him.

"A fairly old couple were speaking to me for about 20 minutes about everything from state of roads to the state of the national party.

"They said they were really impressed with me and I thought 'Great, I've persuaded two people', then they closed the door and I heard in the most broad northern accents, 'Bit young for me that'.

image copyrightGetty Images
image captionCiaron wants increased political engagement to lead to more people voting

"I don't think it is just about bringing in younger people, it is having an extra dynamic so the cogs keep turning.

"It is bringing in new faces and different ways of thinking.

"Things like the Black Lives Matter protests were so big, so many people are politically engaged, but it is turning that practice into people voting.

"There is no doubt young people are as politically engaged as ever… it is just creating an environment that makes them feel more comfortable to join in."

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