In May 2019, after many many years of hard work by local councillors and activists, the people of Witney voted for a huge change at a very local level. The election took us from holding just two seats to taking control of the council, forming the first Labour and Co-operative controlled council in David Cameron’s back yard.

I’m immensely proud to have become the first woman leader of this council and as you can imagine it’s been a huge learning curve. As I reflect back over the years that got us to this point, on a journey lead by our established councillors; Laura Price, Duncan Enright and Andrew Coles, it’s hugely noticeable that co-operation has been the key to our success.

Taking co-operative values into the community, brings public support into the chamber

A great example of this has been our work and commitment to tackle the climate crisis. When I became leader I knew it was important to set our targets high and lay out some ambitions goals for our new council. We declared a climate emergency and committed to being carbon neutral by 2028, and not as an act of lip service or to go along with a national trend, but because I truly believe that if we are going to properly tackle the climate emergency, we must co-operate at all levels of local government and in our communities. This huge statement attracted local climate activists, some of whom were already engaged with us politically, but many were new faces.

As a small town council, we don’t have the capacity or resource to carry out a big citizens assembly, like our neighbours in Oxford, so we had to be even more creative. Last summer we held a public meeting, packing out our Corn Exchange. We included high profile speakers, and held a public policy building session, allowing our residents to be a proud part of the work we do in our town, while also building co-operation with our community. Our Mayor, Duncan Enright, committed to planting a tree for every child born in Witney in his year as Mayor, a very thoughtful and well received initiative. Many residents have continued to be involved, attending our newly formed Climate & Biodiversity Committee meetings, contributing and sharing their expertise.

Town and Parish councils are vital for our parties’ success in local government, and ultimately national government, so why aren’t they given more recognition and how can we change this?

Small is beautiful. Smaller councils are more local and closer to the people they serve. Place shaping by talking to people where they live and work feels most comfortable and is a proven way of sharing co-operative values. And yet we don’t recognise the value of our smaller councils – town and parish councillors are not represented by the ALC and they are not members of the LGA. This hugely dampens what our smaller councils can achieve, but most worryingly, crushes the diversity within our town halls. Town and Parish councillors do not receive an allowance, and rarely do they receive expenses for their travel and care responsibilities. It seems to be accepted that mothers pay a babysitter to care for their children so they can have the privilege of carrying out an unpaid role. Surely this limits who we are attracting to sit on our councils and to stand for these hugely important roles that shape our communities. Diversity improves debate, so if we want properly democratic councils, we must do better.

Covid recovery: Co-operative values are key to rebuilding our economy and local government is best placed to nurture a new bottom up economy

The coronavirus pandemic has only made the economic divide in our communities more glaringly obvious. It has punished those in lower paid, unsteady work, those in insecure housing and those with care responsibilities. It’s absolutely crucial that as we enter a recovery period and look to rebuild our economy, both locally and nationally, we resist further austerity cuts and belt tightening. Instead we must nurture a new bottom up economy, focus on building wealth within our communities and maintain our newfound neighbourhood support networks by being kind and helping each other. I have experienced the power of community, as council leader and by working with locals to set up the Witney Baby Bank, in response to this crisis. Many families are struggling to access the basics they need. The Witney Baby Bank is run by a group of volunteers to support families by providing them with essential baby items and women with menstrual products, free of charge. Since starting the service it’s startlingly obvious how many families need this extra support and it is utterly heart warming to see the number of volunteers coming forward, offering their time and generous donations. These people are the key to a successful rebuild, they are co-operators in the making. Let’s bring them in and work with them to prove the value of strong communities. Whatever their current political alignment, they’ll come to see that co-operation and social equality founded on a vibrant bottom up economy is the politics we should all be aiming for.

My year as leader of Witney Town Council has been full of challenges, not to mention our country navigating through Brexit, a devastating general election where I stood as a candidate, and this current pandemic. I’m so proud to have served my community in this way, and to have changed the face of council leadership in Witney, as the first woman leader. I have loved leading changes in the town where I live, but ultimately, doing this while holding down a job and raising my children as a single mother has been hard. The new leader will face similar challenges and I wish her the best of luck in continuing the success of our hard working and committed Labour & Co-operative group. I’ll be happily sitting on the back benches, focusing on continuing to tackle our climate emergency, embedding co-operative values into our community and advocating for more diverse and democratic local representation.