Campaigning with UK local councils

If you're working on a truly local issue, or a national campaign that plays out at a local level, councils could be the right target for your actions.

A local council may be the right target for some issues. But consider your targeting carefully before you begin. Says one councillor:

“... the standard of campaigning to me is poor. I've had disability charities angry with me for cutting social care, when my council isn't responsible for social care; lobbying that thought I represented a rural area (nope); lobbying that was insulting about councillors’ workrate (picking that one up at ten to midnight was a joy)..."

“Please please think about the recipient: they are not going to be a full-time politician; they are probably picking your email up after a day at work or an evening meeting; they are most likely to be far more interested in their ward than in any city-wide or national issue; and the route to influence in that area is more likely to be the leader or chief exec of the council rather than a backbencher."

Emailing councillors

Getting wholesale access to contact details for UK local councillors is a challenge: there are over 20,000 of them, for a start, and changes are constant. 

You could send people off your site to the free www.TheyWorkForYou.com service, or decide you'll have people emailing the leader of their council (rather than their councillor) only, and ask them to choose their council from a drop-down box. This relies on people knowing the name of their council. 

But if you want to provide a tool which allows supporters to email their councillors by putting in a postcode, then you'll have to pay for the data. Matching the postcodes, which change frequently, to the current councillor(s) for that ward is an enormous job, and it'll go out-of-date in days. 

You could buy a campaigning tool with this functionality (most of the big ones will have it as one of the modules) or go to a data supplier and buy the data outright on a rolling contract. Most of the suppliers you will find are brokers for exactly the same data - so push them hard to win your business. 

The crucial question is how often they will push updates to you - and how quickly they update their records after an election. So, for example, if there are elections in May; if you want to email all newly-elected and re-elected councillors in June, how quickly will the supplier compile, check and get you that info? Three months is the standard - but is pretty rubbish for responsive campaigning. Also, what about segmentation? Can you get by party, geography, position (e.g. Leader, lead member for housing, chair of scrutiny etc.)? 

Look at the cash cost for an annual contract - don't pay more than a couple of grand, and consider sharing the cost between two organisations and alternating mailings/campaigns.

Suppliers

Local petitions

Since 2009, local councils have been obliged to provide facilities for petitions to be debated by councillors, so petitions can be a useful tool for a genuinely local campaign. At the very least, the petitioner would usually have the chance to address the council and have the issue debated. 

But before you set up an online petition, check out the relevant council's rules and procedures, and find out whether it has its own petition tool. Most standard online petition tools won't be compliant, and you don't want to find out your petition is invalid after collecting hundreds of signatures.  

There will be rules about the information that needs to be in the petition (e.g. all signers have to give their address to prove they live in the council area) which vary council-to-council (here are the rules in Redcar, for example ) and it will need to be checked by the council officers before the petition is declared valid.

It would be wise to take advice from the democratic or committee services at the council before you start. A petition to a local council is much more likely to get the right response if it's carefully targeted and either in on the e-petitions site of that local authority (check the Petition your Council site to see if they have one ) or on paper, so the addresses and numbers can be verified by the council officers. 

Local authority petition case study: Ramblers

Rachel Alcock, former Campaigns Officer at the Ramblers
 

At the Ramblers we conducted the majority of campaigns at a local level. Warwickshire Council announced that they were planning to cut funding from their Rights of Way team, responsible for the protection and preservation of footpaths, bridleways and cycle paths etc. This would have had a hugely detrimental effect for local walkers, as well as having a knock-on effect for the tourism industry. 

The main campaigns team at the Ramblers supported the local Ramblers Warwickshire volunteers to set up their own petition to ask for the cuts to be reconsidered. 

Most councils now stipulate the number of signatures needed and where the people signing need to be located. Warwickshire applies the following rules:

Type of meeting Min signatures to present petition Min signatures to debate petition
County Council 1000 5000
Area meeting 100 1200
Community Forum 20 150

 

The local Ramblers volunteers managed to gather enough signatures for the petition to be presented at a meeting of the County Council – and together with meetings held with councillors the Ramblers were successful in halting the worst of the cuts. 

There is often a Democratic Officer in place who can help you ensure that your petition is well structured and properly received when submitted, but we discovered that petitioning councils in this way is often an underused resource.  For example, Warwickshire Council currently does not have any open petitions on their website, and the most recently closed petition received only 42 signatures. 

At the Ramblers I also campaigned on issues in London. We asked people to directly email their council, but the responses received were nowhere near as positive as the reception of the petition. More often than not they were dealt with by someone from the Customer Services team, without ever being seen by a councillor or someone more senior. I would strongly recommend using these petition facilities, especially if you have a group of local people who can sign up quickly, and encourage their friends to do the same.

More examples

A few examples from the eCampaigning Forum email list on effective campaigns that have worked well to change local government practice, and details on the tactics and tools used.


 

 

Resources

  • Urban Forum Local Action guide Focused on real-world activity by community groups, this guide gives a useful overview of local government systems and routes to influence.


This article summarises a discussion on the eCampaigning Forum email list. Thanks to everyone who contributed.

by ECF Discussion Summaries published May 01, 2012,
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