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DISTRICT BULLETIN: Let’s celebrate 130 years of female district councillors

Published: 26 April 2024

In this email

CLLR BRIDGET SMITH: Let’s celebrate 130 years of female district councillors

MUST-READS: Our round-up of media and policy highlights

MAXINE CARRIGAN: How we… increased benefits take-up

NOTICEBOARD: Essential diary dates and opportunities

DCN EXECUTIVE BOARD UPDATE: What our leaders discussed on 10 April


Let’s celebrate 130 years of female district councillors

We need to ask why gender parity eludes councils

Cllr Bridget Smith, Vice-Chair, DCN; Leader, South Cambridgeshire District Council

2024 holds several important anniversaries for local government, not just the 50th birthday of the modern district council. Another significant milestone has so far received little recognition – 130 years of a woman’s right to stand as a district councillor.

The 1894 Local Government Act enshrined the right of women to stand as councillors on district councils – the late-Victorian versions of district councils – and enabled some women to vote in their elections.

The decades that preceded and followed were dominated by the powerful struggle for a woman’s right to stand and vote. These rights were hard won and courageously fought for.

“Courage calls to courage everywhere, as Millicent Fawcett’s statue in Parliament Square reads.

Courage remains an apt word. There’s no doubt it takes courage to choose to stand and become a councillor – to put yourself forward for external scrutiny, critique and public criticism, and to devote days, evenings and weekends to attending council meetings, holding surgeries, meeting with residents and campaigning. Having your face emblazoned on campaign literature that goes through the door of your all neighbours and friends also takes some getting used to!

But being a councillor is not only a privilege, it is one of the most rewarding vocations: our work transforms lives. This results in families being safely housed, refugees being protected and integrated into our communities and residents who are elderly and people with disabilities enabled to live independently in their own homes through adaptations.

District councils help shape communities and places – we regenerate areas, build the homes people need, provide parks and green spaces, protect local heritage and lead the drive to net zero locally.

In South Cambridgeshire we are just embarking on a joint venture that will deliver 38 new council homes built to Passivhaus standards, meaning that not only are they good for the environment but also good for people’s pockets as they will be considerably cheaper to run. We have also given communities just under £500,000 in recent years to help their own local drive to zero carbon.

This transformation takes courage, but it brings results that make me proud to be a councillor.

At local level, you see the impact of your decisions directly with an immediacy which is often lost at national decision-making level. Your neighbours and communities also have the relationships with you to tell you exactly what they think about the decisions you have made – the good, the bad and the ugly. They tell you frankly what is working and what is not. This makes policy making stronger and interventions more effective.

As one of the minority of district leaders who is a woman, I am very conscious of the fact that I owe my place to the courage of those men and women 130 years ago who made the powerful case for equality.

It’s a sad reality that as yet, few councils have achieved full gender parity with complete 50:50 representation, although we may hope that things move in the right direction on 2 May.

There are some positive signs, however, the number of women councillors has increased (it’s now 36% on districts), but we have much further to go.

As we mark 130 years of the right to stand, we must ask ourselves (as officers and councillors, as political parties, councils and local government organisations), the challenging question – why is it that so many women are still choosing not to?


MUST-READS: Our round-up of media and policy highlights

Cllr Sam Chapman-Allen, DCN Chairman, in Localis essay collection: Delivering local aspirations through strategic planning

Trevor Holden, DCN chief executive group chair, appears before parliamentary inquiry: Independence for Oflog ‘will boost improvement’

Jessica Studdert in The MJ (£): Total Place is unfinished business

Penna opinion article for DCN: Finance – the hot potato for local government

Room 151: Government’s use of exceptional financial support ‘at best careless and maybe reckless’

LGIU/Ipsos research covered by LGC (£): Half of the public concerned over deteriorating services

Nick Clarke, head of social care, Grant Thornton, in the MJ (£): It’s time to supercharge prevention

The MJ (£): LGA lobbied over income tax devolution amid White Paper preparations

The House magazine: Retail politics: The battle to ‘save the high street’

Lawrence Conway, Director, the Institute of Economic Development, in LGC (£): Give us a vision for the economy and the nation

Cllr Sam Chapman-Allen in the MJ (£): Looking forward to the next 50 years of districts

Matthew Taylor, Chief Executive, NHS Confederation in the MJ (£): Finding the right prescription

Maxine O’Mahony, Chief Executive, and Steve James, Executive Director, Breckland Council, in LGC (£): Community-led approach saved our health system £1.8m a year


How we… increased benefits take-up among vulnerable people

Wealden’s proactive approach led to 160 people receiving extra support

Maxine Carrigan, Benefits Team Leader, Wealden District Council

As the pandemic ended, it became apparent that residents needed help with navigating the system to find the financial help and support available to them. This was particularly the case with various discretionary schemes and cost-of-living support payments.

We seized the opportunity offered by the Household Support Fund going live to invite residents to an outreach session in August 2022 at the council offices. Following a big drive on promotion, we saw a constant stream of people on the day for face-to-face meetings. We offered advice on eligibility, the benefits they could claim and council tax discounts or exemptions, among other things.  We set up laptop stations so we could assist people to make claims for the Household Support Fund and council tax reduction.

The trial day was a huge success, and we have since held a further 11 events across the district, bringing a value of over £22k of additional benefits and discretionary schemes/discounts to over 160 of our residents.

All events were promoted via the council’s social media platforms, posters displayed around the local area and local shops and services promoted the event for us, boosting attendance.

I have invited along relevant internal members of staff, including those on the housing department, and we have engaged with external stakeholders such as Citizens Advice, Care for Carers, IT for You and People Matters, who have enthusiastically attended these events alongside us. This partnership provides a wider range of advice services and avenues for support in a single place.

Taking this service out into our district has meant that we can talk to people about the true cost-of-living challenges they’ve been facing and indeed still face. We’ve proactively sought to improve the significant lack of awareness of entitlement to benefits, offered reassurance and assisted people to claim what they are entitled to, to help them maximise their income.

These outreach sessions have been well received and have highlighted Wealden’s focus on helping our community by listening to people’s needs, assisting with financial support, and signposting further help where it’s needed. The work doesn’t stop here though, and there is much more we’re doing to provide a strong forward-thinking service and council that works for our community.

We have a strong value in our commitment to our residents, particularly those that are vulnerable and require additional support with their financial welfare.

NOTICEBOARD: Essential diary dates and opportunities for you and your council

50 years of districts DCN is still seeking member councils to showcase their innovation at a reception in Parliament to commemorate our anniversary on the evening of Wednesday, 5 June. Please email DCN@local.gov.uk if you are interested in participating.

Waste workshops Defra has is to hold two in-person workshops for waste officers on extended producer responsibility. One will take place in London on Monday, 13 May, starting at 10am, and places for it can be booked here. The other is in Manchester on Wednesday, 22 May, starting at 10am, and can be booked here.

Fifty trees free The Woodland Trust is offering district councils each 50 trees to commemorate their 50th birthday. The next delivery of the free tree packs will be in November, giving councils time to choose a suitable location or locations, and councils can sign up here. North Kesteven District Council has already planted its trees.

DCN EXECUTIVE BOARD NEWS: What our leaders discussed on 10 April

  • Local government funding
  • DCN funding reform priorities
  • DCN’s constitution

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