It’s the chats away from the agendas that lead to the best stories

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.

For Anthony Lewis , LDR at WalesOnline, the job is as much about the chats around the meetings as it is the stories found in the agendas…

Anthony Lewis

With the first anniversary of my time as a local democracy reporter fast approaching, it’s been quite enjoyable looking back at the sort of things I’ve become involved with so far.

It seems an age since that first week stepping in to a new office at Wales Online in Cardiff and a completely new role as one of the first batch of LDRs.

The first couple of weeks were all about getting used to what was expected of us and getting settled in to our new surroundings.

Being a Cardiff boy myself, the change was probably less stark than it was for my colleagues from the other side of the River Severn.

I confess to being a bit nervous as well as excited about the new start as it wasn’t just a new start for me but very much a new start for local journalism as a whole in the UK.

I felt both great freedom and great responsibility to be able to delve deeper into council life than most titles had done for many years.

Although raised and educated in south Wales, I was also getting to know new areas.

Merthyr Tydfil and Rhondda Cynon Taf are vastly different areas to the inner city part of Cardiff I knew as a child.

With the dramatic scenery, incredibly steep roads and immense industrial history, I was eager to learn more about the issues and challenges facing these deindustrialised areas.

It’s no secret that communities in this part of the world have struggled from the collapse of traditional heavy industry and that they have their fair share of problems.

But I immediately warmed to the genuine and kind-spirited welcome I got from councillors and residents alike (even as a journalist).

I get the sense they did truly welcome the fact that there would be someone following council business more closely.

There’s always going to be a bit of trepidation from councils about increased scrutiny especially when it has been absent for so long.

But over the months, the regulars at the council offices in Merthyr Tydfil and Clyach Vale have grown accustomed to my face and are always happy for a chat.

This is a crucial part of it for me.

Following the agendas is all well and good but to make this work building good relationships with key people are vital.

Another crucial part is getting those personal angles to otherwise dry agenda items where possible.

This makes stories come to life and makes local government matter to people.

Some of my favourite examples of this include speaking to parents in Penrhys who were trying to stop their special needs class from being moved from their local primary school to a larger school further away.

Going up there and speaking to them made me realise this was far more than just about the class. It was about a village. and what affect this decision could have on the school and the wider community.

Moving to Merthyr, one of my favourite examples of people telling the story involved a young girl with autism whose mother was fighting against the council to keep her at home.

A petition got the backing of hundreds and I spoke to her mother and a family friend about how much they didn’t want her to be taken into residential care following a four year battle with the council.

The emotional element of this story just hammers home how vital decisions made by local government can be and how equally vital it is for people to know about these decisions.

Looking at some of the more successful stories I’ve done, one of the most controversial was about the system Merthyr council is using to track footfall in the town centre.

Their use of the Geosense system tracks the MAC address in people’s phones to track their movements and gauge footfall in the town centre.

This is something that got huge amounts of reaction online with people uncomfortable about this approach.

Another major story I covered was the introduction of free sanitary products in Rhondda Cynon Taf.

Speaking with the councillor who championed the cause and following the process through scrutiny until it made its way to full council, I heard stories of tragic period poverty and rarely had I seen such consensus in a council chamber!

Following this, councils across the UK have followed RCT’s lead on an issue of real concern to young girls everywhere.

Last summer I covered a large protest outside Merthyr Tydfil council against proposed reduction in breakfast club hours.

I got to speak to trade unions, parents and breakfast club staff who gave me a true idea of the effects it could have.

Then followed one of the most heated debates I’ve witnessed in a council chamber to date. It was quite the day.

It has been great to see my work regularly featured on Wales Online and in various local newspapers as well as on the BBC.

I even recall the Daily Mirror using my story about 100 houses in Merthyr Vale being demolished because they are no longer safe for people to live in.

I’ve also worked collaboratively with my fellow LDRs on stories about council use of a carcinogenic weed killer, Brexit and snow. Three things I never thought I’d say back to back!

I’ve really enjoyed my (nearly) first year in the role. I cover two really interesting areas. I know there is always scope to look deeper and that really excites me. Hopefully I can continue to bring good quality interesting stories to light for the public interest and do so in an engaging and useful way.

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

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