This month, UK voters went to the polls to elect councillors to local governments in England, Scotland and Wales (and regional government in Northern Ireland). While the media gaze often fixates on Westminster and the significance of the elections for the major parties nationally, much of the most important public services and decisions are made by councillors. Following the elections, Spotlight approached four councillors – some new, some veterans – to hear what they think are the key policy challenges ahead in their area.
Ria Patel is one of the two Green Party councillors to be elected for the first time in Croydon, south London. The pair are now at the centre of a finely balanced council in the middle of a financial crisis and led by a new, directly elected Conservative mayor.
How did you get into local politics?
Outside of my councillor role, I am a studying psychology at university, and am currently on a placement year working for the NHS with young people and children with autism. Within the Green Party, I am a co-chair of LGBTIQA+ Greens fighting for queer liberation in our party and in society as a whole. I also spend my time volunteering across different organisations – for example, mentoring young people and ex-offenders, as well as at the Croydon Refugee Day Centre and Croydon’s Covid-19 vaccination centres, and I am a trustee at several charities. This, alongside my involvement in campaigns for migrant justice and climate action, fuelled me wanting to get involved in local government to have a bigger impact.
Why does local government matter?
Councils make important decisions that affect everyone’s daily lives. Having been born and raised in Croydon, I have seen the changes Croydon has gone through over the years. I would love to see Croydon as a town that is made for people and the environment, with its residents truly at the centre of every action the council takes. When standing in the elections, one of our three priorities was making Croydon happier, and this remains a key priority, as politics should be making people’s lives better. I want people to be proud of living here and celebrate Croydon.
Decisions made by councils affect your quality of life, through policies and budgets. Councils decide what the community’s priorities are and how money is allocated to services. By electing councillors who align with your values, you help create change on a local level. It is also important to raise concerns and scrutinise councillors to ensure we are doing the best by the general public.
What are the biggest challenges facing local government?
Balancing the budget whilst accounting for budget cuts and an increased demand in services, which has been heightened by the pandemic. In Croydon, this has meant cutbacks across many services as arranged by previous budgets. For example, last year there was a consultation on which Croydon libraries to close down or reduce opening hours for – an issue that hit close to home as I spent a lot of time in Sanderstead library as a teenager, one of the libraries [it had been] proposed [should] be closed. The Culture team in the council has been disbanded [too], but with Croydon being the London Borough of Culture in 2023, we are running out of time to arrange a full schedule to showcase what Croydon has to offer. This shouldn’t be left to voluntary staff.
Recovering from the pandemic is another challenge for local governments – there has been a loss of local businesses, increased by the pandemic, which has knock-on effects for people’s employment and housing, as well as broader economic impacts for the local area.
What do you think are the biggest challenges facing your constituents?
Speaking with residents on the doorstep, it’s clear that people are feeling the effects of the cost-of-living crisis. People are having to think so carefully about prioritising bills or food, and this shouldn’t be the case. Even before this crisis there has been an increase of visible homelessness in Croydon, especially in the town centre, which is mostly covered by the Fairfield ward Cllr Esther Sutton (Green), Cllr Chris Clark (Labour) and I represent. Croydon needs to take a proactive approach to providing help for those who most need it. We need to harness support from national government and support those struggling with the cost of living, facing homelessness or those who are already homeless.
We’ve heard from constituents that are worried about safety and the increase in youth violence. We need to listen to young people and develop routes out of violence. This is not an issue we can police our way out of – instead, we must support young people and improve the youth services being offered to prevent youth violence from happening in the first place. We can also work with the police to end discriminatory policing.
What is your most urgent policy priority?
Tackling the issues with youth violence and supporting those most in need, as explained above. Also, there is an urgent need for the council to implement the Croydon Climate Crisis Commission report, which was published in 2019, yet there has been little to no action. We already have the options available to close the gap between projected emissions and the net zero target by 61 per cent. If Croydon wants to stay within its carbon budget, we need the recommendations to be implemented now and start researching more creative options for the other 39 per cent.
Are you happy with your party’s performance in the local elections?
Yes, in Croydon we’ve elected the first-ever two Green councillors, and our vote share increased across the borough. Across the country we’re breaking records, and have elected Greens from South Tyneside to Wirral, from Oxford to Plymouth. In total, we now have 545 councillors on 166 councils, with major breakthroughs happening in these local elections. It shows that people are becoming more and more disillusioned with the two-party system and want a different way of doing politics, which is what the Greens are offering.