It’s a comment we often hear, and one which seems to have become fashionable to utter: “We need more young people in politics.” So how do we achieve this?
I was elected to my council seat in Essex aged 18. I decided to become a councillor because I wanted to help my local area and because I truly felt I could make a difference.
I decided to stay a councillor for seven years because I’ve witnessed firsthand the brilliant work that can be done in local government and I have been inspired by colleagues across the country.
Councils, as we all know, have gone through hugely challenging times. A large part of what has helped local government to adapt and thrive is the diversity of experiences councillors bring to the fold.
Having a diversity of age, I believe, will also be vital to ensure the continuing success and innovation of local government.
I previously sat on the national executive of the youth wing of the Conservative party, and have recently organised networking events for younger supporters of the Conservatives. What this has shown me is there is no shortage of keen young people who want to be involved in local government, and who have the skills and intelligence to do so.
The problem, however, is that the current structure of local government means it is inherently designed with barriers that prevent younger people participating – especially at a county council level.
I’ve been incredibly lucky so far. First, by starting my career at one of the Big Four accounting firms – a company which was incredibly understanding of the commitments needed for local government.
Second, by having some fantastic council leaders who supported me when I needed it, and who understood the unique challenges that being young and at the start of your career can bring.
Others are not so lucky, and we need to find a way to make local government embrace them too. An important first step is meeting times – we need to look at how we can ensure these are not prohibitive to those with full-time careers.
But I think we also need to show young people that being a councillor is about more than meetings. We need to demonstrate the vital role we can have in our communities. By showing young people that it is actually about solving problems and being a champion for your home, we can demonstrate the very real value of being involved.
Perhaps most significantly – we need to make it clear that young people are wanted and welcome. Yes, they will make mistakes. Yes, they will bring their own challenges. Yes, they may lack experience in some senses. But, ultimately, local government will be better served with a more diverse pool of councillors, and fresh sets of eyes and ideas.
Stephen Canning (Con), Essex CC