I hated covering councils in the 1990s — but now love being a local democracy reporter

This month marks the first anniversary of the Local Democracy Reporter scheme, which saw the BBC funding almost 150 reporters in local newsrooms around the UK. With 50,000 stories now published, the service is used by hundreds of publications. This week on BLN, we’re publishing a selection of articles written by Local Democracy Reporters to mark the end of the first year.

Today, Tony Earnshaw, LDR for Kirklees, on why he loves his job — and the reaction from councillors to his presence in the council chamber

Local Democracy Reporter Tony Earnshaw with retired Captain Ian Fillan (centre) and Captain Chris Hosty in front of a painting of a WWI trench scene by John Hodgson Lobley on display at Huddersfield Drill Hall.

Back in the early 1990s I was a local government reporter in a North Yorkshire
town.

I can’t say I liked the job. There were too many dry, drawn-out meetings in the
council chamber for my liking, too many councillors droning on and enjoying the sound of their own voices, too many molehills made into mountains by people with an agenda. And I was the one writing it up. I could feel my lifeblood ebbing away…

But that was then. I was no’but a lad in those days, and both too inexperienced and too naïve to fully grasp and appreciate the complexities of politics — local or otherwise — and to navigate a course through it all.

Flash forward too many years and here I am ensconced in Kirklees as the
borough’s resident Local Democracy Reporter, or LDR. What’s more, I’m loving it.

All of us grow up over time. We mature, gain experience of life and all it throws at us.

What’s more, we come to appreciate the workings of our local authorities as we become a part of the fabric of the society and towns in which we live.

Thus it is that as a “comer-inner” to Huddersfield — I’ve only lived here for 28 years — I’ve seen big changes in the town. Some have been good, some not so good. But all of it affects me in some way, shape or form. So now I’m very much interested in the workings of my local council. What’s more, I’m older.

Far from being bored witless in meetings these days I’m energised by the cut-
and-thrust of exchanges in the council chamber. Every council should have its
characters and Kirklees has its share, though they lack the bombast and
occasional vitriol of our national figures. No Churchills here.

What is present instead is, by and large, 60-odd elected members working hard for the borough and for their wards. Yes, there are spats and exchanges across the political divide — goodness knows, we need that — but there is also
intelligence, dynamism and industry from all parties and groups.

A product of local government reorganisation in the 1970s, Kirklees boasts two “major” towns in Huddersfield and Dewsbury plus outlying satellites such as Heckmondwike, Cleckheaton, Holmfirth, Mirfield and Batley.

I can imagine that the good folk of those communities might baulk at being described as satellites but there is an argument (from some) that they have been forgotten as money is pumped into regenerating Huddersfield and Dewsbury.

And money — or the lack of it — is what many want to talk about at Kirklees
Council meetings.

Austerity continues to bite and the Labour-led administration has been wielding the axe. None of it has gone down well and they have been roundly attacked for it.

But at the same time successful funding bids totalling hundreds of millions of
pounds are set to transform the area’s roads and railways, its neglected town
centres, and to assist in building partnerships with our university and colleges.

This, then, is the content coming out of innumerable council meetings. And I
cover most of them. It’s not dry, far from it.

Nor is it always pleasant. The child sex grooming scandal is being investigated as I write. The row over Castle Hill rumbles on. Library services are being squeezed. Green Belt is being swallowed up for housing schemes. Our roads are pitted with potholes, some of them seemingly rivalling the Grand Canyon for depth.

There is anger over rail services, bus gates, bin strikes, over spiralling town centre violence, gang culture, knife attacks, gun crime. Our hospital is under threat.

It’s the job of LDRs like yours truly to cover this stuff. We observe and engage,
scrutinise and investigate, dig and explore, sometimes picking scabs from still
festering wounds in an attempt to help the healing process.

And whilst I, like some colleagues, have occasionally been sniped at, the majority of comments tossed in my direction have been complimentary, supportive and welcoming.

It’s a poor councillor, council officer, senior manager or chief executive who
recoils from robust analysis of their decisions.

I’m friendly with people from all colours of the political spectrum. Friendly, yes.

Friends, no. A certain distance is crucial.

One has to draw the line somewhere.

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The stories behind the stories, from the regional press in the UK

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