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MENTOR - IT'S NOT ALL GREY HAIRED MEN

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How can you attract a more diverse section of the community to stand for election, asks Sally O'Reilly...
How can you attract a more diverse section of the community to stand for election, asks Sally O'Reilly

Diversity is a key issue in local authorities, where it is important that the culture of the council reflects the community it represents, with both councillors and officers coming from a variety of backgrounds.

However, the most recent figures available from the Employers' Organisation for Local Government and the Improvement & Development Agency show that white, middle-aged males are still dominating the make-up of councils - and they are actually getting older. The 2004 figures found that the age of the average member had increased from 55.4 years in 1997 to 56.9 years in 2001 and 57.8 years in 2004.

What's more, only 3.5% come from an ethnic minority background, compared with 8.4% in the community at large. Only 29.1% are women, an increase on the 1997 figure of 27.8%, but hardly a significant leap.

Head of programmes, leadership, at IDeA Judi Billing is hopeful that change is on the way. This issue has been addressed in the white

paper Strong and prosperous communities and should be a priority for councils and grassroots political parties.

'Work has been done successfully to attract more diverse people into becoming magistrates - there is a need to get more young, black people to take on this role, for instance - and the same approach is likely to be applied here,' says Ms Billing.

'Some people from ethnic minorities who are leaders in their own communities feel uncertain about being elected into a leadership position over the whole community and representing everyone, regardless of their background.'

Ms Billing adds that women are often put off the role because of the difficulties involved in balancing work and family with official responsibilities. In order to attract more women, she suggests more flexibility is needed on the part of councils.

To encourage a greater number of ethnic minority candidates to come forward, IDeA runs a number of courses, including a leadership programme for black councillors, to boost confidence. 'This not only gives advice about good practice, it also offers networking opportunities with people in the same position,' Ms Billing says.

Organisations which have made good progress on the issue include Ealing, Islington and Lambeth LBCs. In Islington, Liberal Democrats have adopted a deliberate policy of talent spotting community activists - a move highlighted in the white paper - encouraging them to stand for election. Rather than viewing the selection of a candidate for each ward in isolation, the party saw all selections across the borough as building part of an integrated team.

Former Islington leader Steve Hitchins is now a board member of the London Development Agency and an advisor on diversity to Liberal Democrat leader Sir Menzies Campbell. He believes other councils could learn from Islington's experience and that diversity policies put in place to reflect the community - such as Islington's visible commitment to activities like Black History Month and World Aids Day - do make a difference.

'We made sure that we recruited [councillors] from ethnic minority backgrounds and we encouraged, promoted and supported this group,' he says.

'It's very important that when people look at the council, they think 'I could do that'. You do have to keep assuring people they can do it. There are no qualifications needed, it is not an exclusive club. It is just a question of being elected.'

One of Lambeth LBC's new intake is already showing how much impact a new breed of councillor can make. At 27, Pav Akhtar is head of race equality at Unison and in May was elected to sit as a Labour councillor on Lambeth LBC.

'I come from a very different perspective to a lot of councillors,' he says. 'I know from my own experience that there is nothing worse than feeling that no one is listening to you and not knowing where to go to make your views heard.'

One of his innovations has been taking the meetings out of the town hall and into the community, so that members engage with young people face-to-face.

Mr Akhtar says: 'People do say to me: 'That's unusual,' but we are getting out there and meeting people and telling them about some of the brilliant work going on in Lambeth.'

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