What’s in a name? Ask the Japanese!

By Chris Game

I happened recently to read two seemingly unconnected news stories in swift succession.  One reported Japan’s instantly historic victory over Ireland in the Rugby World Cup, with frequent mentions of the name by which the Japanese players (average weight: 100kg) are improbably known: the Brave Blossoms. Hold on to that image!

The second story was of a district council’s proposal to change its name in a bid to eliminate confusion and “give it a clear identity” (Local Government Chronicle, September 19th) – my first thought here being: Oh yes, and which of the dozens of possibilities might that be?

Maybe one of the 40-plus vague compass-point names: North Warwickshire, South and East Staffordshire, and the like.  Or one of those geographical feature names of the very last places you’d think of looking for a council HQ – Wyre Forest, Malvern Hills, Staffordshire Moorlands, High Peak, Three Rivers.

Or one of the almost-lost-in-the-mists-of-time names – like Birmingham’s neighbouring borough, Sandwell, its councillors and officers finally despairing of explaining that it’s absolutely not West Bromwich, just one of its six towns, but a commemoration of the sadly less-than-universally-famous Benedictine Sandwell monastery.  Or my personal favourite, Kirklees (Huddersfield in old money), whose real Kirklees Priory is the fictional burial place of the fictional outlaw Robin Hood – from Nottingham, 70-odd miles away down the M1. No confusion there, then.

It’s cheap and unfair, though, to mock the products of the task that faced local officers and councillors in 1972-4, when up to seven councils at a time, with real or long-established place names, were statutorily merged into inevitably artificial constructs – and required new, preferably meaningful but at least minimally divisive, district identities.

It was a near-impossible ask, the only slam-dunk winners being toponymists.  For theirs is the profession – the study of place name origins – charged with preserving a place’s culture through the origins, meaningfulness or associations of, in this case, its new name.

Like all professions, toponymists have an extensive jargon, which I’ll dip into here, focusing on Suffolk, given that one of its seven 1974 districts is the belated name-change seeker: Babergh (pronounced ‘Bayber’, please – that’s part of its problem!).  It’s predominantly rural – think ‘Constable Country’ extended north – with two main towns, Hadleigh and Sudbury, both of which lost their own councils in the five-council merger and neither name on its own being politically acceptable for the new contrived creation.

Of the other Suffolk districts, Ipswich was easy, barely changed since the Anglo-Saxon Gippeswich.  Almost equally historic Bury St Edmunds switched from one Eponym – a place named after a person – to another, St Edmundsbury, after its cathedral.

But then there’s Forest Heath.  If Babergh has an identity problem, then pity Forest Heath, which could be in almost any county in the country.  Toponymically it’s a composite Geonym, named after two geographical features: bits of Thetford Forest and the heathlands of Breckland.  Except it isn’t any more, having been merged yet again in April with St Edmundsbury to become West Suffolk DC – population 180,000, which seems quite large for a district … until you see East Suffolk.

Which brings us to Waveney. A six-and-a-half council merger in 1974, it was one of many that politically just couldn’t take the name of the largest and most recognisable, Lowestoft, and so opted for a Hydronym – a place named after something watery, here the River Waveney.

Probably almost as unrecognisable as Babergh, but then, again this past April, something toponymically rather touching happened.  A second ginormous district, West Suffolk, was created – its 250,000 population making it the biggest in the country – by combining one Hydronym with another, Suffolk Coastal.  How simpatico, I thought, though whether it’s compensation for the loss of nearly 250 councillors since 1974 is, I suppose, for residents to decide.

So, after all this, what or who is or was Babergh?  Well, it’s another Geonym, in that there is a Babergh Heath around the Waldingfield villages. But that name itself was seemingly a Choronym – a place named after a large geographical or administrative unit of land. Here it was Babergh Hundred, one of the areas of (very) roughly 100 square miles into which Saxon counties like Suffolk were for centuries divided for administrative purposes. And – pause for drumroll – that area was originally known as ‘Baberga’, or the ‘mound of a man called Babba’, and thus another Eponym.

So, Quite Interestingly, ‘Babergh’ turns out to be a Geonym AND a Choronym AND an Eponym.  Which, though it’s nothing whatever to do with me, still made me slightly sad: all that history and toponymy jettisoned in the ambition of becoming … the utterly bland and imprecise ‘South Suffolk’.

I know, moreover, exactly what my Japanese friends would say. Follow the Brave Blossoms!  Give up the pointless search for a name with some tenuous connection with the arbitrary boundaries of your area.

Check out the names of Japanese local authorities, and go instead for something beautiful, memorable, or both: Aomori – famous for expensive tuna, but named ‘Blue Forest’; Kagawa – home of Udon, the Japanese wheat noodle, but answers to ‘Fragrant River’; and even Fukushima – scene of the 2011 nuclear disaster, but still ‘Good Luck Island’.  Toponymists – who needs them!

chris game

Chris Game is a Visiting Lecturer at INLOGOV interested in the politics of local government; local elections, electoral reform and other electoral behaviour; party politics; political leadership and management; member-officer relations; central-local relations; use of consumer and opinion research in local government; the modernisation agenda and the implementation of executive local government.

The views in this blog are those of the author and not INLOGOV or the University of Birmingham.

An earlier version of this blog appeared in Local Government Chronicle. 

Our disenfranchised student generation

Chris Game

This week, were I still a university degree convenor, I would be meeting and re-greeting the first three-year generation of undergraduates to have missed out almost entirely on voting in the referendum whose consequences will significantly shape their remaining lives – much longer lives than most of those who collectively created the narrow Leave majority in that 2016 EU referendum.

I would be lecturing to many of them – David Cameron’s timely memoir at hand – about the workings of UK Government and explaining, early on, how institutionally this situation came about.

First would be context. How did EU membership, that five years ago, however badged – Common Market/EU/Europe/Single European Currency – just 8% of us considered ‘important’ in Ipsos MORI’s monthly Issues Index, become an apparently unavoidable subject for only the third national referendum in UK history?

Secondly, how did our quaint, uncodified, make-it-up-as-you-go-along British Constitution allow a hubristic Prime Minister to call a constitution-changing referendum with fewer conditions attached than their student bus passes?  For Cameron, any plurality would do.

Any written national constitution, which suddenly seems a whole lot more contemplatable than a week ago, would have explicit written safeguards regarding constitutional referendums.  Cameron still defends his rejection of, say, a 60% vote threshold, because Leavers, with their 51.9%, would have seen it as a ‘stitch-up’.  Never mind Remainers, with their 48.1%. Oh yes, and anyway, the referendum was only ‘advisory’!  He could, though, simply have followed a turnout-based precedent, like that imposed by Parliament on the 1979 Scottish devolution referendum.

Then, a near-identical majority (51.6%) voted for a devolved Assembly, but Parliament’s hurdle required 40% of all registered electors – hardly an outrageous figure for so momentous a decision.  The 64% turnout, though, meant a full-electorate Yes vote of under 33%, and that first devolution bid failed.

The same formula applied to the higher 72% EU referendum turnout would have produced a 37% Leave vote – and changed history, and my student audience’s lives.  For them, though, that’s barely the half of it.

Third topic, therefore, would be how two-thirds of their three-year student generation were deprived even of this say in their own futures by a collection of unelected, unaccountable, predominantly Conservative Lords (average age 70+) voting in what they openly acknowledged was their own party’s perceived electoral interests.

To recap, the law had been changed to enable 16- and 17-year olds to vote in the 2014 Scottish independence referendum.  And to no one’s great surprise, this cohort of probably the most politically aware and informed teenagers in history participated enthusiastically – moreover, in greater numbers than 18-24s.

Which was the Cameron Government’s problem, when all parties but the Conservatives in the House of Lords voted to lower the voting age similarly for the EU referendum.  Yes, 16/17s would probably vote disproportionately to Remain, but, much worse, it would be difficult to avoid later making the same concession for a general election – when many of this potentially 1.6 million might well vote other than Conservative.

After serious arm-twisting, therefore, the Lords’ vote was overturned – in what then, if hardly by today’s standards, seemed a particularly cynical manoeuvre.  Also excluded, and again in contrast to the Scottish referendum, were tax-paying EU citizens resident in the UK and longer-term British expats living in the EU, some of whom aired their material interests during the PM’s recent Luxembourg visit.

Even then the Lords’ coercion was called a disgrace, and, were a repeat contemplated in a second EU referendum – well, select your own noun. Personally, as someone with strong views on the issue but also a septuagenarian, I’d readily, were it legally allowable, have given my vote unconditionally to a 16/17-year old and would again.

Scotland subsequently – and unanimously, with the Ruth Davidson-led Conservatives changing their minds – extended the 16/17-year old franchise to the Scottish Parliamentary and local elections, and Wales is following suit.

England and Northern Ireland aren’t, apparently reasoning that, despite being responsible enough to pay taxes, marry, enlist, and face criminal charges, you have to be 18 to grasp the complexities of voting in about the world’s most simplistic electoral system – and that, like 19th Century women, the way to develop their political maturity is to bar their participation.

We will obviously never know how, or how decisively, the 16/17-year olds might have voted in the referendum.  There were certainly claims, usually based on somewhat questionable surveys, that the “result would have been Remain had votes been allowed at 16”. But crude arithmetic suggests otherwise.

The gap between Leave and Remain was 1.27 million votes – which, incidentally, Cameron’s memoir insists on calling “only 600,000 votes in it”.  In one specific sense – if only 600,000+ Leavers had voted Remain – it’s true, but potentially misleading to the casual reader.

Assuming a two-thirds turnout – slightly higher probably than in a General Election, because life-affecting causes energise teenagers more readily than party manifestos – a 70-75% Remain vote would have cut the 1.27 million majority to probably under 500,000 or 1.5%.  Which even most Brexiteers might have hesitated to label the ‘clear’, ‘conclusive’, ‘definitive’ Voice of the British People – initially anyway.

Not to worry. We know, thanks to NOP pollster supreme, Peter Kellner, that by mid-January this year the whole 1.27 million had disappeared anyway, at around 1,350 a day, through enough mainly Leave voters dying and enough mainly Remain young voters reaching voting age – and without one 2016 Remainer changing their mind.

Currently, however, the odds against a second In/Out referendum this year (12/1) are still enormously longer than on a General Election (3/1 on). This despite Boris Johnson’s failure to secure his 15th October date, carefully calculated to exclude significant numbers of potentially Labour-voting students who would fail to meet the 27th September registration deadline and be disinclined to journey home to vote.

That was the first Prime Ministerial plan to backfire spectacularly. Because it virtually guaranteed that student Welcome Weeks and Freshers’ Fairs everywhere will have their NUS/Electoral Commission ‘Got5?’ (minutes to register to vote) and partisan voter registration drives, social media campaigns, and even website info on whether their vote will be more effective from their uni or home address. What fun!

chris game

Chris Game is a Visiting Lecturer at INLOGOV interested in the politics of local government; local elections, electoral reform and other electoral behaviour; party politics; political leadership and management; member-officer relations; central-local relations; use of consumer and opinion research in local government; the modernisation agenda and the implementation of executive local government.

 

The views in this blog are those of the author and not INLOGOV or the University of Birmingham. 

The May Local Elections (Part 2): Rainbow and Other Coalitions

By Chris Game

A fortnight ago, planning how to open the second part of this two-part blog, I counted the number of EU countries with national coalitions: 18.  Then, in Italy, Matteo Salvini collapsed his far-right Lega Nord party’s coalition with the populist Five Star Movement, hoping to prompt and win a snap General Election. 18 became 17 – then 18 again, as Five Star agreed a surprise coalition deal – think Farage/Corbyn – with the centre-left Democratic Party.

Either way, it’s around two-thirds, confirming both that and why coalition-working comes more instinctively to other EU countries’ national politicians, with their mostly proportional electoral systems, than it does to ours.  By my count, six of the EU’s current 18 comprise two parties, 11 three parties, and the Netherlands four.  Four parties, four colours: Liberals blue; D66 (not a code or road, just date of formation!) blue/green; Christians yellow; Orthodox Protestants orange.

Almost a complete rainbow, and certainly sufficiently close to have prompted my own ‘Rainbow search’ among the larger-than-usual number of NOC results in our own May local elections – defined, as detailed in the earlier blog, as explicit working agreements involving at least three distinct political groups.

That first blog bemoaned many councils’ reluctance even fully to report the nature and outcomes of these inter-party negotiations, let alone any implications – and sought to fill the information gap in a disconcertingly large table.  This blog’s far more modest table attempts to bring some order to those individual council numbers, and, I admit, to share my personal satisfaction in seeing broadly confirmed the albeit not terribly bold hypotheses that initially prompted the exercise.

Table 2 (002)

Hypothesis 1 was that coalitions, even if not labelled as such by the participating parties, would outnumber single-party minority administrations, which has certainly not always been the case even in the recent past, with both major parties being chary of ‘sharing power’ with either smaller fry or Independents.  Single-party minority administrations formed after the 2014 elections, for example, outnumbered coalitions by well over two to one.

Hypothesis 2 was that ‘Rainbow coalitions’, as defined above, would outnumber two-party coalitions. There were several back in 2014 – I recall particularly the at least four-group ‘Brentwood Accord’, as well as ‘regulars’ like Southend-on-Sea, Colchester (they’re naturally congenial in Essex) and Stroud – but nothing approaching this year’s 21.

Hypothesis 3 was that the party involved in the greatest number of coalitions would be the Lib Dems, and that the Greens would be much more extensively involved than even their greatly boosted councillor numbers would suggest.  Hypothesis 4, added admittedly after seeing their exceptional number of seat gains, was that ‘Independents’ collectively would feature in the most coalitions – partly because their usually smallish numbers can offer bigger parties a relatively cheap means of pushing them into majority territory.

The obvious problem in this instance of being proved so right is that behind almost every one of the 66 cases summarised in the table is a potentially recountable story, making selection somewhere between invidious and impossible. I have no structured solution, so will simply start with the biggest rainbows and stop when a tolerable word limit looms.

The first is easy.  It has to be the Unity Alliance now running Bournemouth, Christchurch and Poole (BCP) council, one of the two unitaries created just this April – it having been decreed that nine (all Conservative-run) councils and 333 councillors constituted far more local government than was good for Dorset’s 780,000 citizens, who would feel much better served by just two councils and under half the councillors. Not surprisingly, Conservatives won most BCP seats in May, but, with the Lib Dems and Independents hugely increasing their votes, they fell short of a majority. Hence the Unity Alliance, led by Lib Dem Vikki Slade and comprising – wait for it – 15 Lib Dems, 8 Christchurch Independents, 7 ‘Poole People’, 3 other Independents, 3 Labour, 2 Greens, and a one-member ‘Alliance for Local Living’.  Enough groups to make the Dutch jealous, and for a full, traditional Newtonian seven-colour rainbow.

Exceptional, yes, but Burnley came close, with Labour playing the grouchy role of the BCP Tories.  Having only narrowly lost their majority on the 45-member council, the 22 Labour members hoped to out-organise the disparate and less experienced ‘opposition’ at the full council meeting vote and hang on to the leadership. Bad mistake.  First outvoted, they then declined to join a five-group coalition of Burnley and Padiham Independents (5), Lib Dems (8), Conservatives (4), UKIP – since turned Brexit Party (3), and Greens (2).

As already indicated, though, there are several councils for whom coalition government has become the norm in recent years – and for whom the instability insinuations of the ‘No Overall Control’ label are particularly misleading. Colchester is one example.  A political mapping of the district will show that for most of the past 20 years it has been predominantly Conservative blue – except for the Colchester/Wivenhoe patch in the east where the University of Essex happens to be.  Which accounts for the Lib Dems having generally been the largest party on the council and for the past decade having headed a Lib Dem/Labour/Independent coalition every bit as stable as most single-party administrations.

As already indicated, I have no profound conclusion or message with which to close this extended blog.  So I will end with two of the numerous cases that invariably make this kind of ‘research’ worthwhile. If there were an ‘Admire the nerve!’ award, it would surely go to North Kesteven’s Cllr Richard Wright, Leader of the Conservative group which lost, by a margin, control of the council it had dominated for 12 years.  Wright, however, comes from the John Cleese/Black Knight ‘Tis but a scratch’ school.   Unfortunate, he conceded, but it was “a protest vote, not on local issues … about the ongoing deadlock between the national parties on Brexit.”  The solution – obvious!  The Conservative Group would “no longer exist”, the council would be run by the ‘North Kesteven Administration’, led by him, with Conservatives in all leading roles – oh yes, plus a couple of Independents to make the executive “more inclusive”.

Finally, one of several ‘well, you’d not have guessed that a few years ago’ outcomes. Hartlepool achieved local government notoriety in 2002 for electing H’Angus the Monkey, the football club’s mascot, as its first elected executive mayor.  Stuart Drummond, for it was he, became the first elected mayor to win a third term, following which the townspeople voted to abolish the post. Whereupon Labour resumed its long-term dominance of the council – until, following a well-publicised internal personal and ideological split, the party lost its overall council majority, mainly to candidates of the recently formed Hartlepool Independent Union (HIU). Within days of this May’s election, the Labour council leader and two other Labour councillors defected to the Socialist Labour Party, the HIU formed a coalition with the Conservatives and the Veterans’ and People’s Party, and the subsequently elected Chair of the influential Regeneration Committee is … former Labour council leader, Cllr Akers-Belcher.  And still there are people who reckon local government is boring!

chris gameChris Game is a Visiting Lecturer at INLOGOV interested in the politics of local government; local elections, electoral reform and other electoral behaviour; party politics; political leadership and management; member-officer relations; central-local relations; use of consumer and opinion research in local government; the modernisation agenda and the implementation of executive local government.

With thanks to Democratic Audit for allowing us to re-post this blog.

The views in the blog represent those of the author and not those of INLOGOV or the University of Birmingham.

The May Local Elections (Part 1): From Results to Outcomes

By Chris Game

There’s this northern borough council, generally Labour-controlled, but where in the May elections, despite only a third of seats being contested, the party’s candidates lost variously to Liberal Democrats, Independents, UKIP and Greens, and thereby its overall majority. Next day, Friday 3rd, the Council published ward-by-ward results and listed the now seven political groups, from which it was clear that none reached the requisite 50%+1.

And that was the sum of pertinent information emanating from the Council’s website for the rest of the month, apart from announcing the appointment of the new mayor – a Liberal Democrat, although there was no mention of that evidently secret and classified detail.

For any hint of how and by whom the council would be run citizens had to wait until Thursday 30th for the brief announcement of the outcome of an “extraordinary meeting of the full council” – though whether a formal EGM or merely a bizarre event wasn’t clarified.  The perfunctory statement listed the five members of the new Executive. These obviously couldn’t remain secret, but, despite their appointment resulting from a multi-party election, there was again no hint of their representing three of the seven political groups.

That alone qualified it as one of the ‘Rainbow coalitions’ (see below) in which I personally was particularly interested. But it transpired (local newspapers and social media, of course) that two more groups were part of this multi-party agreement, making it in effect and reality an anti-Labour coalition.

Why on earth, though, couldn’t even residents, never mind the rest of us, have these developments explained in sensible grown-up language?  Well over 30 years ago, an INLOGOV colleague (now De Montfort Emeritus Professor Steve Leach) and I worked on a research project for the Government’s Widdicombe Committee on the Conduct of Local Authority Business, one secondary but important aim of which was to open up and normalise the role of politics, including party politics, in local government – to emphasise, indeed, that politics “are in fact the life blood of local government”, what local government is actually about – and to end the prissiness still sadly but obviously pervading the culture and corridors of some town halls.

Tantrum over, but the fact remains that extracting even this basic ‘Who governs?’ information from dozens of ‘hung’ or ‘No Overall Control’ (NOC) councils can be a real chore.  Which in turn means that, even in a highly reputable House of Commons Library research briefing in late July, that’s how these ‘results’ indefinitely remain.

It was the map in that briefing, reproduced below, that finally prompted these two linked blogs, of which this is the first – protesting to the world at large, but particularly councils themselves, that election RESULTS, even colourfully and interactively presented, are not necessarily the same as OUTCOMES.  Moreover, when they’re not, it is the outcomes that are ultimately more important and, I’d suggest, usually more interesting.

commons library council control map

For the sake of those, like me, with ageing memories, I’ll start with a headline summary of the May results, which involved councils all or one-third of whose seats were previously contested in 2015.  Conservatives again won most seats (3,559), but lost over 1,300 and thereby control of 55 of their 198 English councils.  Labour, with 2,020 seats, also lost net councils, reducing their total to 91. Liberal Democrats won 1,351 seats, and doubled their English councils controlled from 11 to 23.  Greens won 263 seats, easily their highest figure this century.  UKIP took 34 seats, 167 fewer than in 2015.

Finally, and perhaps most remarkably, considering how heavily the electoral system is stacked against them, was the impact of the variegated so-called ‘Independents’ – with over 600 seat gains, control of the previously Conservative Uttlesford and Labour Ashfield councils, plus the Middlesbrough mayoralty.

Back, then, to the map.  Uttlesford and Ashfield are there, in the vicinities of West Essex and Nottinghamshire, but their hexagons shaded an inappropriate grey, along with Epsom & Ewell, perpetually (well, since 1937) controlled by its Residents Associations.  They deserve something far more distinctive – hence my added aquamarine rings – also more than a passing mention, but, as effectively majority party groups, they are not what these blogs are primarily about.

The appropriately white or empty boxes are councils without elections in this year’s cycle – mostly the London boroughs, but also councils undergoing ‘re-sizing’ by the Boundary Commission.  Which leaves us with the profusion of black hexagons.  There are 79 in this count, which includes elected mayoral and ‘Alternative Arrangements’ councils – far fewer than in the noughties when the Lib Dems were regularly winning a quarter of the vote, but still nearly one in every four elected councils, and still, in late-July, recorded as under ‘No Overall Control’.

It’s an unfortunate label.  First, it’s much too close to, and certainly risks being interpreted as, ‘out of control’.  Secondly, it carries (or at least did before Brexit) the suggestion that the narrowest single-party majority is somehow democratically superior to and operationally sounder than a necessarily negotiated partnership of two or more parties or groupings.

At the very least, it should be signalled, particularly by an affected council, as temporary.  Which in turn should surely at the minimum mean the council communicating – along with ward results and within a couple of clicks from its website home page (to either ‘council governance’ or ‘councillors’) – the basic party arithmetic, that inter-party negotiations are in progress, and that final decisions will be taken at, and announced and explained immediately after, the council’s forthcoming Annual Meeting.  Hardly rocket science, but the proportion of councils who manage it well remains disappointingly small.

Which is why I’ve sometimes attempted myself to tidy up these electoral loose ends and complete the picture.  And why, particularly with all the talk of the party alliances that nationally might have got us somewhere over the past three years, and certainly have saved Westminster from being the laughing-stock of the EU, it seemed a good time to illustrate just how creative and adaptable local politicians can be when faced with potentially tricky post-election numbers.

The tables that conclude this first blog are unavoidably lengthy and, particularly with there apparent rainbow fixation, deliberately idiosyncratic.  They have already appeared on the LSE’s Democratic Audit blog, and I would like to thank both LSE and particularly Alice Park for her invaluable advice and assistance. The table obviously constitutes the raw material for the second interpretative blog which will follow this one tomorrow.

Rainbow coalitions will feature prominently and require a final definitional word. However presented by the participants themselves – more frequently nowadays as ‘Alliances’, ‘Pacts’, or even a ‘Together Group’ (you know who you are!) – if there is an explicit working agreement involving at least three distinct groups, totalling 50%+1 council seats, that here is a Rainbow COALITION; no majority, and it’s a coalition.

RESULTS AND OUTCOMES OF MAY 2019 LOCAL ELECTIONS

table small1

table2smallagain

chris gameChris Game is a Visiting Lecturer at INLOGOV interested in the politics of local government; local elections, electoral reform and other electoral behaviour; party politics; political leadership and management; member-officer relations; central-local relations; use of consumer and opinion research in local government; the modernisation agenda and the implementation of executive local government.

With thanks to Democratic Audit for allowing the reproduction of portions of this blog.

The views expressed in this blog are those of the author and not INLOGOV or the University of Birmingham.

Childhood Obesity – how young people can thrive and lead happy, healthy lives

By Ketan Sheth

Brent represents an exemplar of the incessant and thrilling renewal of London with the diverse and welcoming environment, which makes the borough an exciting place to live and, for children, a stimulating place to grow up. However, Brent is also disproportionally affected by some of the key public health concerns for our youngest residents. No London borough has higher childhood overweight and obesity rates, currently at 44% for children in Year 6. Just one out of five children meet the recommended minimum of one hour of daily moderate to vigorous physical activity.

Urgent action to address this issue is required and that’s why I have set up a task group bringing together a whole raft of stakeholders to see how we can work together to tackle this urgent crisis in our community. A multidisciplinary childhood obesity task group includes experts and professionals from the Brent Council, Public Health, NHS, education and charity sectors as well as parent representatives – all committed to reducing the share of children with excess weight.

Through multiple evidence sessions, the current approach to childhood obesity in Brent is scrutinised and novel ways of tackling the problem designed. Bringing together such a wide range of experts is refreshing. There is an unequivocal acknowledgement that, for all too long, the various stakeholders have worked in isolation, where a comprehensive, holistic approach is required. Indeed, tackling childhood overweight and obesity is a joint responsibility.

However, the intended beneficiaries themselves are rarely directly involved in policymaking for their health and wellbeing. Hence, Lander Bosch, PhD student in health geography from the University of Cambridge, embarked upon the challenge to identify barriers to, and facilitators of, children’s physical activity in Brent’s built environment as part of his doctoral study. Rather than looking at the borough from an adult perspective, Brent children were able to have their say in the study. He joined a diverse group of 35 primary schoolchildren and their parents or carers, living in all parts of the borough, on their commute to or from school – traversing 60 miles across Brent. Along the way, elements of the environment the children liked or disliked were discussed and many creative interventions that could improve the neighbourhood for them were suggested. These included, for instance, a mobile reporting system for antisocial behaviour and ways to calm traffic around schools.

Having the opportunity to get to know Brent through the eyes of an engaged and welcoming group of primary schoolchildren is extraordinary, and results in strong advocacy for these young people. The insights from Lander’s research are fed directly into the discussions of the childhood obesity task group, to ensure the voices of Brent’s children are strongly represented in the novel policy framework aiming to increase levels of physical activity, while reducing childhood overweight and obesity.

The borough most certainly offers great possibilities for real measures that can improve the health of its youngest residents, and all stakeholders fully support their implementation.

ketanCllr Ketan Sheth is  Chair of Brent Council’s Community and Wellbeing Scrutiny Committee.

 

 

 

All views in this blog are those of the author and not INLOGOV or the University of Birmingham.

Fieldwork from my Spare Room – Who’s with Me?

By Bryony Rudkin

I’m in the middle of my fieldwork. For some of my fellow students this means travel far and wide, inoculations and visas. For me, it’s sitting at home with a mug of coffee watching webcast council meetings and the greatest danger is missing couriers delivering parcels to my sons. Don’t get me wrong. My curiosity is immense and I am deeply immersed in a series of meetings in two different authorities, my ‘new box sets’ as I call them. One debate brought sentimental tears to my eyes, another had me cringing with embarrassment. Not sure the ethics process quite prepared me for this, but I’m pressing on regardless.

One aspect of this endeavour which I hadn’t considered in detail before has become more of an obsession though. Who else is watching with me and where are they? As I sit here in my spare room in Ipswich, what do those councils make of my repeat viewings of their business? Who is recording my engagement with the process, my location, the time of day (or night) at which I log on? Is this information reported to anyone? Communications officers, councillors, anyone? Wanting answers, I took to the most authoritative source I knew and asked my local government friends on Facebook. Their responses were mixed – some had no idea, some said data was collected but they didn’t think it was reported. One colleague told me to look out for a report to his council in December and another told me 2000 people had watched one particularly fractious Planning Committee meeting. Another friend, not from the sector but with an interest in data, helpfully pointed me to a chapter in his book on the subject.

Useful as these anecdotes were, I needed more, so went looking to see what formal evidence there was on who watches webcasts and where. My first ‘find’ was a church in Tennessee which broadcast a weekend of services and had figures on who had logged on to their website but seemed to want a donation before it would give full detail. My husband told me their algorithms had already captured too much about me from my one visit, so I moved on quickly and struck a small, but rich seam of evidence from Wales. In 2013 the Welsh government had made £1.25m available to local councils for the installation of broadcasting equipment with the aim of improving local democracy and so, according to the then minister responsible, “…members of the public should be able to see how decisions affecting their everyday lives are taken.”

Fast forward a few years and those councils started reporting back on the outcomes. I found several papers submitted to formal meetings of Welsh local authorities and some valuable insights, not least from Torfaen where it was observed that “Webcasting allows people to view meetings at any time of the day or night and wherever they are, whether that be in Pontypool, Cwmbran, Blaenavon or anywhere in the world”. Being conscious of their reach could be significant to a council wanting to know if the cost of the broadcast equipment and platforms on which to publish it was worth it. Not really worth it to the council tax payer to be broadcasting planning applications in Pontypool to Seattle perhaps, but the same paper also observed its own officers were also logging on to watch meetings, with several people watching on the same devices on occasion.

I found reports back to English councils too. The Wirral, for instance, reported in June of this year that there had been some 8753 viewings of its 67 webcast meetings (live and recorded) in 2018/19 and also acknowledged the value of broadcasting meetings with significant public attendance where overspill rooms had to be set up to accommodate all those wanting to see decision making taking place.

My research looks directly at the way councillors behave in meetings, what happens when they make decisions and if knowing they are being recorded doing this makes a difference. Webcasting has made this research easier to carry out, but my interest is now piqued as to who is watching alongside me and I have more contacts to speak to and data to find. If you need me, I’ll be in the spare room watching a screen….

bryony talkingBryony Rudkin is a PhD student at INLOGOV, Deputy Leader of Ipswich Borough Council and Portfolio Holder for Culture and Leisure. Bryony also works with councils around the country on behalf of the Local Government Association on sector-led improvement, carrying out peer reviews and delivering training and mentoring support.

 

All views in this blog are those of the author and not INLOGOV or the University of Birmingham.