The Association of Green Councillors (AGC), a network supporting more than 700 Green Party councillors now sitting on county, borough, district, city, town and parish councils across England and Wales, held its annual conference on 19-21 July.
The event followed the local elections in May this year, which produced the Green Party’s best results in history: 362 seats on 120 different principal authorities (a net gain of 194 seats), with Green councillors now part of the ruling administration on 14 councils.
Hosted by Stroud District Green Party – which has nine members on the district council and is part of the leading cooperative alliance of Labour, Green and Lib Dems – the conference enables elected and aspiring councillors to meet, discuss strategy and share ideas, as well as explore one of the UK’s pioneering green towns.
Climate change and how to combat it was a topic that recurred throughout the weekend, with Stroud councillor Simon Pickering discussing how the district is planning to become carbon neutral by 2030, while Councilor Jonathan Essex from Reigate and Banstead Council spoke about how to get your council to divest from fossil fuels and invest in sustainability.
Guest speakers from Action on Empty Homes and Debt Resistance UK provided useful information on how attendees can take action on these issues in their local constituencies, and there were also opportunities to input into national Green Party working groups on drugs policy and climate change.
Sharing knowledge about the day-to-day work of a councillor was another highly useful element of the weekend, with practical tools and tips on how to manage caseloads, use social media more effectively and challenge secretive council commissioning. Portfolio holders, cabinet members and leaders shared their experiences of the realities, opportunities and challenges of being in power.
“When the AGC network was first set up, the conference was an informal gathering of a handful of people,” explained Sally Pickering, AGC Coordinator and Stonehouse Town Councillor. “After our massive success in the local elections this year when we more than doubled the number of Green councillors in the country, Green councillors are already making a difference in their communities. This weekend [was] a great opportunity for them to learn from the successes of others so that they can do even more."
Newly-elected councillor Adrian Ross, Vice-Chair of the Lewes Council and councillor of Lewes Bridge ward in East Sussex, said: “It was great to get advice from experienced councillors, and the achievements of other councils were inspiring and helpful in thinking about what we might be able to achieve over the next four years.”
Martin Fodor, councillor for Redland ward in Bristol, added: “I’ve always valued AGC, as it brings councillors together with aspiring councillors and helps us share experiences. This gathering was no exception, and we were buoyed by the substantial election successes and the chance to help many new councillor groups and sole councillors where before we hardly featured around the country.“
Case study: Gloucestershire Greens and the importance of information
At the conference, Rachel Smith (Gloucestershire County Councillor) and Stroud District Green Party activist Tim Davies led a session for Green councillors on the right to information and how to use it, from the use of the Freedom of Information Act and the environmental information regulations, to encouraging councils to take proactive measures to publish information that is in the public interest, especially in the context of outsourcing and asset disposal.
They used the case study of the Javelin Park incinerator to demonstrate the importance of gaining access to detailed information at an early stage in a campaign. Controversially, the contract between Gloucestershire County Council and the contractor UBB was not made available, even to elected councillors, and when it was eventually judged to be in the public interest to be published, the council was found to have renegotiated the contract in secret (now the subject of a high court legal challenge.)
Smith, Leader of the Green Group on Gloucestershire County Council, said: "The Javelin Park incinerator story shows how important access to information is. Getting detailed access to contractual information has revealed that, despite the Conservative County Council's administration insisting the incinerator will be good for recycling, when the price to burn waste plummets as it does in this contract, any incentives to support and improve recycling rates in the county will evaporate. With the incinerator firing up this summer, this is exactly what we are seeing happening with the reduction in funding for food waste collection, and the scrapping of third party recycling credit payments."
Tim Davies, Green Party activist, added: "Councillors and the public have a right to information and it is crucial for effective scrutiny of the delivery of public services and the use of public money. Campaigners and councillors should not give up when a council denies them information."
This article was compiled with contributions from Sally Pickering and Rachel Smith.