Monday, 19 June 2017

Council of Europe - supporting local democracy in Tbilisi, Georgia

I've just come back from Tbilisi.

The Council of Europe invited me to address a conference aimed at supporting local government reforms in Georgia.  As you may expect I was honoured and humbled to be asked to participate in such conference.  This was my first invitation to such an international event.

As one of the UK's 18 delegates to the Congress of Local and Regional Authorities on the Council of Europe these invitations may come my way - however I did ask why, of all the delegates from the UK the Council of Europe had invited me.  As it turned out I was the only Congress delegate outside Georgia in attendance.  So - had I known - the question should have been why out of all the 300+ delegates from 47 countries did the Council of Europe consider inviting me.

I was told that the secretariat was particularly interested in what we've achieved in Frodsham in terms  of revitalising and energising local democracy.  They've been watching and reading!

So what was so interesting.

If you think back to 2007 - there were 16 candidates for 16 places on Frodsham Town Council.  All candidates were elected unopposed.  FTC did very little and, so far as I am concerned did what little it did badly.  One of the reasons I became a local politician was because I was so annoyed by the fact that Frodsham residents were paying a higher council tax than most areas in the old Vale Royal and we saw precious little for that.

The first 4 year term I served on FTC from 2007-2011 was soul destroying.

Decisions were made by a group of councillors who deliberately excluded Cllr Riley and me.  These were councillors who were either members of the Labour Party or Labour Party sympathisers.  Ironically these were councillors who asserted they were 'independent' - however they stated on their declarations of member's interests that they were members of the Labour Party.  

They made it hard to bring new ideas and new thinking forward.

Now I have absolutely nothing against people supporting lawful political parties.  In fact I positively welcome it.  It is no secret - none of us have a monopoly on wisdom - even if some pretend that they have it!  Our political system relies on challenge and dialogue to achieve the best policies.  It can be a bruising process - literally the school of hard knocks - if you are on the receiving end of it!  But life would be boring if we all held the same views.

Anyway the experience of that 2007-11 council led me to find a coalition of the willing from all parts of the political spectrum to reform FTC.  That Frodsham First coalition was made up of people who voted for every mainstream political party.

Now whatever you may think of Frodsham Town Council from 2011-2015 it achieved many things.

We got new energy efficient Christmas Lights - that paid for themselves with the energy savings;
Our Christmas festivals were energised and became even better;
We got comprehensive defibrillator coverage in Frodsham;
We got a local winter gritting scheme;
We got a new play area at Churchfields;
We firmly established the Mayor of Frodsham as the ambassador of the town and as our first citizen;
We separated this 'first citizen role' from the Chairmanship of the Council to ensure our first citizen was, and was seen to be politically independent;
We brought youngsters into celebrating our community through the involvement of our schools and the Junior Mayors; and
We brought in the 'Freedom of Frodsham' and the concept of celebrating members of our community who have gone above and beyond in serving us.

The aim, of course was to build community cohesion and pride in Frodsham.

This local pride and celebration was what the Council of Europe liked - alongside my descriptions of local government arrangements in the UK.

I was also honoured to be the sole male asked to take part in a debate about greater female participation in local democracy.  FTC has been gender balanced since 2011 - and we should all celebrate that.  I explained how CWaC and Cheshire East are all led by women.

I encouraged the conference to watch 'Made in Dagenham' to gain an insight into the struggle for gender equality in the UK.

That said I was more than a little troubled that we didn't go on to discuss LGBT rights - but that will come.  I did raise that in the plenary sessions of the whole Congress in October.

I was really impressed with the desire for reform in Georgia and their willingness to embrace and embed democracy.  

And finally I will always remember the few hours I spent in the country as the flight in was very eventful. We had significant turbulence and the mother of all thunderstorms to contend with.  On landing the passengers gave a heartfelt round of applause!