Arriving at Norwich airport at 4am is quite an achievement on a Sunday morning when it’s still dark and the road signage is poor. Needs must however and last month this is where I set off from for Armenia as part of a team from the Congress of the Council of Europe where I’m a member of the UK delegation. The Congress is made up of locally elected representatives of the 47 member states of the Council of Europe (so wider than the EU). Part of its remit is to uphold the principles of the European Charter of Local Self-Government so monitoring visits are carried out to member states by local representatives from other countries along with an academic expert and a senior member of the Congress secretariat.
This was my first such visit. The journey was something of a sensory overload taking me from Norwich to Yerevan via Moscow. Norfolk is a long way geographically and culturally from the oldest Christian nation, but by late morning the next day I was listening to the Mayor of Yerevan explain his ambition for a new transport system and better housing for his residents. Plus ca change. Mayor Marutyan was elected in October 2018 following the ‘velvet’ revolution in April of the same year. An actor, comedian and film producer by trade, he is one of the new politicians coming to the fore throughout the continent. Shaky 20th century infrastructure and other unresolved issues have left him with enormous challenges. Yerevan is a very green city, but as choked with traffic as most capitals. It might have been even greener had it not lost thousands of trees when the Soviet Union crumbled and the state could no longer supply it’s people with fuel. The Mayor’s response to our questions showed the same commitment to improvement and change I’ve seen in towns and cities round the UK and the same frustration with central government when it came to getting things done.
The following day brought contrast with a visit to a stunning village which sat alongside the remains of a collective farm and still proudly used the House of Culture from the same era – children proudly showed us folk dancing and karate with all the zeal and joy of any contestant on Britain’s Got Talent. Here local representatives work alongside members of a huge diaspora who have returned to support the communities their families fled at the time of the Armenian genocide. Again, some exceptional challenges alongside the mundane, but this village is doing well. A daily bus takes its young people to the university in Yerevan and they have a free, strong Wifi signal, the like of which rural Norfolk would give its back teeth for.
So a visit of contrasts. Evidence that some institutions and behaviours had changed little from the time when instruction came direct from Moscow, but we did meet bright, capable young people in the civil service and NGO’s – the staff of the Ombudsman who defends human rights were exceptional. We also saw what might be identified as ‘Big Society’ in action through the work of a super-diaspora. Clear policy objectives in local planning showed mayors and councillors were ambitious for their people. A privilege indeed to have been part of the team. My next task? To get Norfolk County Council to improve the signage on the new airport distributor road…
Bryony 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 those of INLOGOV or the University of Birmingham.