Mary Reid's blog

Wedded to people

Yesterday I presented a webinar on 'Elected representatives and community engagement' as part of the Creative Councils programme. You can view it here. Warning - it lasts for 90 minutes, but just looking at the slides alone won't give you a proper idea of the content.

The audience largely consisted of council officers so I wanted to explore, from my perspective as a former councillor, some of the differences in motivation and outlook between councillors and officers. Councillors, after all, represent the residents to the Council and they want to get re-elected. Their reasons for supporting good community engagement may differ from the reasons that officers have.

I spend quite a time looking at how things are done in Kingston, with lots of examples from South of the Borough, starting with an explanation about how Neighbourhood (aka Area) Committees work. Then I give examples of task groups, street meetings and community panels, which are forms of deliberative community decision-making. 

I always find it quite difficult to know how to pitch these discussions. Public engagement has been so much part of the culture in Kingston Council for over 20 years that it is not easy to imagine what it must be like to work in a council that does not encourage it. I am sometimes surprised to realise that a practice that seems quite commonplace to me is taken as new and innovative by someone else.

Asked for a final comment about inflexible council chambers I said, "There's nothing to stop you holding your Council meetings in a school hall.  We get very wedded to buildings when we need to be wedded to people in local government"

What Liberal Democrats in Government have done for you

This excellent graphic comes courtesy of Mark Pack.

Young Kingston matures

I took a bit of a gamble when I was Mayor. All Mayors use their year to fundraise for their chosen charity, but in my case I decided to set up a new one, Young Kingston. There was a risk that people would not get behind my vision, that little money would be donated and that the charity would not be sustainable.

But it worked. We raised over £23,000 during the year, which was a terrific start, and we have added to that figure since, with sponsorship from Chessington World of Adventures and Kingston Philharmonia among others.

For me, the most important thing is that in the last five years we have given away many thousands of pounds to young people in the borough to fund their dreams and their projects.

The criteria for the awards are simple. The applicants must be in the age range 5 to 19 (or 25 if they have a disability), and they must live or study in the Royal Borough of Kingston upon Thames.

Young Kingston will awards grants of up to £500 to support projects that are led by young people and that provide some benefit to the wider community. They are allowed to have adult help and we can supply CRB checked advisers if the young people need advice and extra encouragement. (If you're wondering how to apply, go to the website).

We have backed dance performances, a film festival, and the construction of a garden in memory of a teacher, amongst others.  In several cases we have provided grants to cover training which will allow the young person to then share their skills with others - these have included a range of sports coaching courses.

Another strand of our work is the encouragement of excellence. Young Kingston gives grants to young people who represent the Borough at a national level - this is particularly important for minority sports, where there is little national funding for competitors. We are particularly pleased to have helped members of the Special Olympics ten pin bowling team. We have also supported a young actor who had been accepted into the National Youth Theatre. In all these cases the benefit to the community lies in the glory they bring to the Borough.

Last year Young Kingston sponsored the International Youth Arts Festival, which is based in Kingston, providing funds to train a key volunteer and backing some of the performances.  The same offer is available this year.

The decisions about grants are taken by a Grants Panel whoich is made up of young people aged 14 to 19. They also act as ambassadors for Young Kingston in their schools.  Inevitably, they grow up and move on, so we constantly need to find new volunteers. This week I went along to the Schools Council Forum, which brings together the members of the school councils in each of the secondary schools in the borough. I told them about the opportunities that Young Kingston offers and asked if anyone would like to join the Grants Panel. To my delight ten young people volunteered, so our future is assured.

I should add that Young Kingston is not, strictly speaking, a charity but a charitable fund administered by the London Community Foundation. They provide us with admin services and invaluable advice to our steering group.


Cycling round

Featured on Liberal Democrat Voice

VelodromeI had such a good day yesterday in the Velodrome watching the Track Cycling World Cup. We had applied for tickets for the cycling in the Olympics, but didn't get any, so jumped at the chance to see this test event at the venue.

The building itself is stunning. The timber external facing echoes the steeply curved wooden track inside.

In fact, seeing the whole Olympic Park for the first time was a bit of a revelation. All the main buildings are now ready, and they are working on the landscaping, including a bumpy BMX track next to the Velodrome. I've been impressed by the designs of the sports venues which all capture the essence of the sport within. The only really dull building is the media centre ...

Chris HoyThe crowd of 6000 were hugely enthusiastic, but kept their loudest cheers for Chris Hoy (left) and Victoria Pendleton.

Given all the comments recently about the coverage of women's sports in the media, I was struck by the egalitarianism within track cycling - male and female events were given equal status in the programme, and the crowd gave them equal support. In fact, we have to thank a former Mayor of Kingston for that.

Eileen GrayEileen Gray CBE, who was Mayor in 1991-92, was almost single handedly responsible for turning women's cycling into a high quality international sport.

Eileen was a top class cyclist herself, and was one of the first three women to cycle for Great Britain, back in 1946. She then founded the Women's Cycle Racing Association and served as its President for 13 years. Ten years in, she broke through any remaining gender barriers and was elected President of the British Cycling Federation, which she also did for 13 years.

Finally, in 1984, due to her pressure, women's cycling became an Olympic sport.

But ever onwards - she then became the first female Vice Chair of the British Olympic Committee.

In the meantime, she got herself elected as a Conservative councillor in Kingston, and was a very popular Mayor.

Now you might think that would be enough for one life, but Eileen then did something that has benefitted literally hundreds of thousands of young sportspeople. She dreamt up the London Youth Games.

But it was more than a dream - she made the games a reality in 1977, chairing the committee for many years.

Each year, 25,000 young Londoners take part in the games, in 33 different sports. Teams are entered for each London Borough, and Kingston always does pretty well considering it is the smallest Borough (apart from the City of London, which doesn't really count!).

In 2010 Eileen was celebrated in the British Cycling Hall of Fame at the age of 90.

It's only fitting therefore that Eileen should be chosen to carry the Olympic torch as it makes it way through Kingston on 24th July. I imagine she will be one of the oldest in the country to do so, too.





Liberal options

I am actively involved with the Social Liberal Forum, which is an organisation open to Lib Dem members. As it mission statement says "The Social Liberal Forum campaigns for the adoption of policy - by the Liberal Democrats and the government - that seeks to promote social justice and actively narrow gaps in power and opportunity between rich and poor".

You can read the rest of the statement here.  The SLF claims that it represents the mainstream of the Liberal Democrats, and exists to ensure that social liberal ideas permeate throughout the party. 

SLF was founded over a year before the Coalition, but since the General Election its stance has been to welcome the Coalition and the opportunities it provides, whilst trying to influence its policies.

For example, it was heavily involved in the opposition to the NHS Bill. In fact, our policy motion to Spring Conference last year directly led to a number of concessions and amendments to the Bill.  It has recently put out a statement entitled "Unworkable and unnecessary elements of Heath Bill should be dropped".

I was elected to the SLF Council in the summer of 2010, and soon found myself taking on a number of roles, including that of membership officer.  Membership has grown very rapidly from around 100 to over 1500.

Last summer SLF held a well-attended conference and drew in, as a speakers, Vince Cable, Chris Huhne, Simon Hughes amongst others. I'm now in the throes of planning the next conference in July and we already have an impressive line-up.

A couple of weeks ago a new group that opposes the Coalition, Liberal Left, was launched. A number of its key people are also on the SLF Council, and they don't see any conflict, as they all support social Liberal values.

Then last week Liberal Reform emerged, set up by some party members to promote economic liberalism amongst other things.

Confused? You'll be even more so when you've read Introducing… Lib Dems Against Factionalism

I enjoyed the humour, but the key thing for me is that these groups are not in any real sense 'factions'. They are not fighting each other, but all trying to encourage healthy debate about the party's policies.  It's a matter of emphasis, not differentiation.

Every Lib Dem membership card carries these words:The Liberal Democrats exist to build and safeguard a fair, free and open society, in which we seek to balance the fundamental values of liberty, equality and community and in which no-one shall be enslaved by poverty, ignorance or conformity.

Those are the principles we all agree on and I'm proud of them.

I want to say one more thing about all this. I am Chair of Kingston Liberal Democrats and one of my tasks is to encourage and develop members. I would guess that many members are not interested in aligning themselves with one or other of these party groups, but have joined because they like the things we are doing on Kingston Council, or have been inspired by our MP, or feel comfortable with the general principles of the party.  Others take clear policy positions from right across the spectrum of the party. Locally I am careful to embrace all our members (well, not quite literally) and make them feel at home in the party that I love.


Diary of a Games volunteer - and still no chocolate

Apparently they didn't use any volunteers in the last Olympics. I learnt this from a Chinese student as we were queueing up to go into Wembley Arena for our Orientation session last weekend. She told me that although her home was in Beijing she had to wait for the London Games to get a chance to be part of it.

That's the phrase - be part of it. We heard it over and over again. From Jonathan Edwards, from the ubiquitous Eddie Izzard, from Seb Coe. And I must say they have done an excellent job in motivating people to sign up.

In fact, in 2010 over 240,000 applied to be volunteers - or Games Makers, as they insist on calling us - at the Olympics or Paralympics. Of those 80,000 were shortlisted and 70,000 offered roles, with others being kept in reserve.

There are dozens of different roles - from driving VIPs, looking after athletes in the village, writing press releases, accreditating journalists, catering, venue management as well as supporting each one of the sports.

I've looked back at my application form and have been trying to see what criteria they used to shortlist me.  I offered no sports skills, no first aid skills and only basic language skills. I had to fill in my experience in three skills area, but only allowed 80 characters (yes, characters) for each. That clearly favoured the tweeters. 

I was hoping to work in Government Relations, or alternatively Website and New Media, but got shortlisted for my third choice, Events. I can only assume that the number of hours of volunteering that I already do was the clincher.

The organisation of applicants has been excellent - we are regularly updated by email and have a dedicated website which answers all the questions we could possibly ask.

So last August found me with another 20 or so applicants at the Excel centre where we were welcomed in person and given some insight into the processes. A short film (Eddie Izzard again) exhorted us to sell ourselves to the interviewer, but the interview that followed was rather disappointing. The young man (who was also a volunteer) said he hadn't read my application form and seemed intent on getting exactly the answers he wanted, discounting anything peripheral. 

Further disappointment followed. Eddie Izzard had also promised chocolate from Cadbury's, the 'Official Snack Provider', but there was none left.

So I was somewhat surprised to get an email on the very first day that offers were made, offering me a role as an Events Team Leader in the Paralympics based at the Excel Centre, which I accepted straightaway.

Which brings me to last weekend, when I turned up with 10,000 others for my first training session. All volunteers had to attend one of these. During the afternoon some imaginative presentation techniques were used to introduce us to many people working in the organisation, to athletes and to other volunteers. And to the uniform - hmmm...more of that later.

Cadbury's provided entertainment but we still didn't get the promised chocolate. 

The next three training sessions will be specific to roles and venues - more about them later.

You will have gathered that I am not indulging in the prevalent cynicism about the Games. I have always enjoyed watching them in the past, and have managed to buy some tickets for athletics and handball (eh?). I intend to watch the three cycling races as they go through Kingston, and to cheer the Olympic flame as it sets off from the Hook Centre on 24th July. And next week I'm off to watch a trial event in the Velodrome - I can't wait to see the Olympic Park for the first time. London has done a terrific job; the buildings are actually finished (remember Beijing, or Athens for that matter?).

So, yes, I'm unashamedly enthusiatic about the Games.



The Johnson-Livingstone crime file

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