Local Democracy Reporting Service celebrates first birthday

If you’re looking for a moving human drama, a laugh-out-loud farce, or a shot of honest political outrage, be honest – would you head to a planning committee meeting at your local town hall?

If you said yes, you’re probably a councillor, but you’d also be right.

Every council meeting has a story at its heart if you look hard enough. Call me a democracy nerd, but seen in the right light even the operation of the driest sub-committee can be a bit of thrill, as people do their best to hash out the rules of living side by side as fairly as they can.

Back in September, 10-year-old Olivia Gordon Clark stood up in Islington Town Hall and spoke passionately against the removal of a statue which she loved, after going house to house collecting signatures to keep it in place.

Olivia’s campaign garnered London-wide attention and she succeeded in saving the Angel Wings statue, but that’s only half the point.

There aren’t many places in the world where Olivia could have her voice heard, and not just heard but freely and publicly reported.

And yet the gap in the reporting of stories like Olivia’s has been steadily widening, with much of the debate playing out in town hall chambers going unreported, due to the prioritising that resource-stretched editors have been forced into in the hunt for clicks.

UK law expects an admirable level of transparency from local authorities, and documents are published ahead of meetings for the public to view if they fancy digging through dry reports, but what has become a rarity is the reporter as a familiar fixture at every level of council meeting, on speaking terms with councillors and officers alike, providing a level of accountability and scrutiny by their very presence for which putting in a call to a press office is no substitute.

To meet that need, the Local Democracy Reporting Service was established in 2018.

50,000 stories have been published by the BBC-funded LDRs, provided in partnership with local news organisations across the country.

In my time with the service, working out of the offices of the Hackney Citizen, I’ve covered everything, through the council prism, from housing to health to crime to environment to politics and back again.

The issues debated at Hackney, Camden and Islington Town Halls have a direct and measurable effect on Londoners’ lives in a way that stories from, say, American politics do not.

LDR stories contain first-hand, impartial accounts of elected representatives speaking their minds, provide an opportunity for front-footed scrutiny of local governing bodies, but also support councils by bringing attention to successful policies.

It’s still early days, but turbulent and divided politics and easily propagated ‘fake news’ make a strong fourth estate at the local level essential.

I’m proud to be a part of it.