Black councillors speak on their experiences at Stevenage Borough and North Herts District Councils

Councillors Sam Collins and Michelle Gardner have shared the reality of being a Black councillor. Pi

Councillors Sam Collins and Michelle Gardner have shared the reality of being a Black councillor. Picture: Archant - Credit: Archant

As Black Lives Matter demonstrations continue to spread across the world, we spoke with two Black councillors at Stevenage Borough and North Hertfordshire District Councils about the dual responsibility they hold.

What is a local councillor? According to NHDC’s website, a local councillor is an elected official who “represents public interest as well as individuals living within their ward”.

Of the 39 councillors on Stevenage Borough Council, Cllr Michelle Gardner is the only Black representative. Cllr Sam Collins is the only person of colour of the 49 councillors on North Hertfordshire District Council.

At the last census report (2011), the Office for National Statistics reported Stevenage was 87.7 per cent White, with Black (3.3) Asian/Asian British (5.8) and Mixed or Other ethnic groups (3.2) making up the remainder of the town’s ethnic breakdown.

For North Hertfordshire, Black and ethnic minorities constituted 10.5 per cent of the overall district’s population in 2016.

In light of the recent protests in Hitchin and Stevenage, the Comet has interviewed the sole Black representatives at SBC and NHDC on their thoughts on diversity and inclusion.

Cllr Michelle Gardner has lived in Stevenge for more than 50 years. She was encouraged to join Stevenage Borough Council by former councillor and mayor Sherma Batson MBE – and was elected as Bandley Hill ward councillor in 2012.

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Cllr Sam Collins, who grew up in London and moved to Hitchin in the early 2000s, was elected Hitchin Highbury ward councillor in 2018.

Both agree there is an “added weight of responsibility” when you are the sole Black face at the council – arguing that they balance representing their ward and speaking on behalf of their respective town’s Black communities.

Cllr Gardner said: “I came into the council because Sherma at that time was the only Black councillor and wanted me to join her. She was the first female Black mayor and Albert Campbell was the first Black mayor several decades before. What’s shocking is we had to wait all that time before another Black mayor came along.

“Under her wing, I learnt in my first year what was expected of me. It’s hard being a councillor – I’ve learnt that despite your best efforts, you can’t please everyone but you do your best.

“As a councillor, it’s my job to help whoever I can – regardless of race or ethnicity.

“But, I have to admit, now that Sherma is no longer with us and even though it’s not obvious it’s a lonely place. I’m the only Black councillor out of 39.

“I feel that responsibility and inclusion is something I’ve been trying to encourage in my time as a councillor.

“I think sometimes, people don’t necessarily understand that it is difficult for me as a Black person, operating on my own. People prefer not to think of Black and White but we can’t be colourblind.

“I would say that Stevenage Borough Council really are trying to link in with the community – what we need though is the community to reach back. I don’t think they will if they don’t feel their voices are going to be heard or represented.

“I often ask myself how can I get the BAME community to feel a part of it? Unless you’re in touch with the Black or Asian communities, you can’t necessarily represent them.

“I feel like that job is down to me, and it really can’t be done with just one person.

“I look forward to welcoming more members of the BAME community onto the counci.”

Sam speaks similarly in his experience as a councillor, saying that when he was first elected two years ago, he and former councillor Deepak Sangha were the only people of colour who served on North Hertfordshire District Council.

He adds: “The council, and politics in general, clearly isn’t diverse enough.

“When I was growing up, if you said I would go into politics I would have laughed at you. Kids from my background, and particularly my ethnic background, rarely go into politics.

“Growing up in the 80s and 90s, politics wasn’t something that you saw as an option when you’re young and non–white.

“We need to reach out to those in our community, who are doing fantastic things like the Black Lives Matter protest in Hitchin, and say come and join the council. We need to hear their voices too.

“But, when you see that wall of white faces in the council chamber, it doesn’t look particularly welcoming. There also needs to be more age diversity. Personally, I think the council needs to be doing more in terms of engaging with young people.

“The first time I went into the council, I remember asking myself: Does this really represent the community I live in?

“As the only Black face in the council chamber, of course you realise that you are essentially the representative of an entire ethnic group. It’s an important task and it’s a responsibility.

“I think, and hope, that we will see more non–white faces in the council chamber in the near future.”

In response to Cllr Gardner’s comments, SBC’s leader Sharon Taylor said: “As a co-operative council serving the people of Stevenage we were appalled by last month’s brutal killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis.

“Racism should play no part in modern society and certainly not in the delivery of public services.

“We are talking with our local communities and our partners to identify actions to drive the eradication of prejudice and discrimination in all its guises.

“We stand united against hatred and injustice in any form. Our motto rings true now more than ever the heart of a town lies in its people. We will continue to put all of our people at the heart of what we do.”

And Cllr Stears-Handscombe, North Hertfordshire District Council’s leader, said: “As a Council we welcome people from all communities and of all ages who want to get involved in our work, including becoming Councillors.

“It is important to us that we are open and inclusive to everyone, regardless of their ethnic background, and we would very much like to see more Councillors step forward in the future who represent a diverse cross section of our North Herts communities.

“We are looking closely at how we can be more welcoming and inclusive, which is one of the aims of our administration’s Council Plan agreed last year. This will be discussed at our Cabinet meeting next week.

“Councillors help to make vital decisions about our work in our local communities, so we encourage individuals from all backgrounds and of all ages to step forward and become a voice for residents in their district.”

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