Notes from a new councillor: How to change things

I am frustrated about the bureaucracy I recently encountered as a County Councillor. Oxfordshire Mind, which provides many valuable mental health services throughout the county, has a new initiative to promote mental health awareness throughout Oxfordshire.

The question I submitted to the Oxfordshire County Council Cabinet Member for Public Health was:

Oxfordshire Mind is seeking £308K funding for Mental Health Awareness for children and young people. This investment in Public Health would potentially save the NHS and Social Care millions of pounds a year in Oxfordshire. Will the Cabinet Member meet with Mr Dan Knowles, CEO of Oxfordshire Mind, and me regarding funding this scheme of prevention, ensuring better mental health for young people in this county in years to come?

The written response was that the Cabinet Member cannot meet with us as that would be showing favouritism to one charity over another. She informed me there is bidding process to go through for funding.

Being a new County Councillor, I was unaware of this and so now I know better! But asking the question, and having it publicly documented, has already raised awareness. So it is not a wasted effort on my part.

What I am learning as a new politician is that the more you press for things from different angles, the more likely it is that something gets done. Awareness-raising changes the conversation. I am now ready to go at this from another angle, and will not give up supporting mental health initiatives in my local area.

Those who have read some of my previous blogs will know I am keen on Mental Health First Aid. I worked with Norman Lamb MP to bring forward an Early Day Motion calling for parity of esteem for mental and physical health in First Aid legislation. We were invited to meet with a government minister. Soon after, May’s government announced that all secondary schools would have a member of staff trained in Mental Health First Aid. The legislation has not yet changed, but some good has come from our efforts.

I tell this story to show how things can change, and all of us can make that change happen. We can start the conversation, shift the paradigm, call for solutions to make society more equal and fair. We do not have to accept the status quo. So I will keep fighting for mental health awareness initiatives What will you do?

* Kirsten Johnson was the PPC for Oxford East in the 2017 General Election. She is a pianist and composer at

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  • Kirsten,

    You ask “What will you do?” We will have to follow your example and keep calling for solutions to make society more equal and fair.

  • I would keep studying the local press if I were you Kirsten. I would not be astonished if sooner or later the cabinet member is pictured posing with a charitable organisation. Time then to use the OCC Code of Conduct.

  • Neil Sandison 21st Aug '17 - 4:48pm

    Talk to your officers in confidence first but keep asking awkward questions when the replies do not stack up .

  • Kirsten, I commend your energy and enthusiasm but as a former Convenor (Cabinet Member) for Social Work I would say that you got a proper and correct answer and that there are perfectly good reasons for this.

    What you should do is to ask for a briefing meeting for your senior officers and your group leader. Does your authority have training sessions for new members ? If not, why not ? It is also perfectly sensible to have constructive one to ones with Cabinet members if they are willing to do this – you will achieve more by doing this.

  • Mick Taylor 21st Aug '17 - 5:43pm

    For many years there has been an officer-led campaign stop councillors talking to members of the public on the basis that it will prejudice their decisions. Far too many councillors have been taken in by this argument about fettering their discretion. So planning committee members refuse to engage either with developers or objectors and cabinet members refuse to meet with local organisations.
    It’s all completely mad. When I was first a councillor I used to meet with local people and local organisations all the time and listen to what they had to say. I did this as a planning committee member, as a cabinet member and as council leader. I always said to them that I would listen to what they had to say and consider it as part of my decision making, along with all the other evidence with which I was presented. If I agreed to represent their views then I also made that clear in whichever forum the matter was discussed.
    It’s called exercising my judgement, the thing councillors are elected to do.
    This whole process is not fettering their discretion but fettering their ability to make informed judgements on behalf of their communities.
    It must be stopped and I hope the party will take it upon themselves to adopt this as policy in the future.

  • @ Mick Taylor. I agree with all of that, Mick, but seeking to get a contract for one organisation outwith the tendering procedures is a minefield to be avoided.

  • Kirsten johnson 21st Aug '17 - 6:41pm

    Great advice, thank you everyone! I will take on board your suggestions.

    I have been along to a fair number of training sessions, but it is a steep learning curve! I am finding the officers and county staff very supportive and helpful. I will blog sometime, however, about the work-life balance and trying to negotiate meeting schedules with the majority of councillors who seem to be retired or not work at all. What do others who work do when it comes to fitting in more daytime meetings than one expected? Advice?

  • Two comments – one general and one specific. Some officers can be helpful, some less so, and in our neck of the woods some can be useless/disastrous. Not unlike councillors actually! It is important that our constituents can hear us clearly distinguishing between officers and the councillors who stand up for them.
    Secondly the school mental health issue. When I was Lord Mayor in Bradford last year my charity was Young Minds so I tried to do a bit of reading round the subject. Young Minds’ strong card is making sure that statutary mental health services connect with young people needing the services and vice versa. There is evidence that many young feel much better about getting seen and listened to within the mental health mainstream rather than talking to somebody in school even if they have had the “first aid training”.

  • Kirsten johnson 22nd Aug '17 - 8:39am

    Geoff, your comment about young people receiving professional help is very useful. We certainly need better funding for CAMHS to get young people seen more quickly by health professionals. Mental Health First Aid is about recognising the warning signs and getting young people to professional help. It is not counselling. Indeed, we are trained not to counsel but to make sure the person is safe, stabalise the situation (if possible), listen and observe, and then guide that person to the right professional help (whether that is calling 999; getting in contact with a Crisis team; encouraging them to see their GP).

  • Richard Underhill 22nd Aug '17 - 9:45am

    Far too many mental health cases wind up in prisons which are not well equipped to deal with them.

  • Kirsten johnson 22nd Aug '17 - 10:11am

    Completely agree, Richard.

  • Mick Taylor 22nd Aug '17 - 2:32pm

    @David Raw. Of course but refusing to meet and discuss with someone any issue of concern is not good either. As long as such meetings are open and don’t consider possible tenders then they should go ahead. I always asked for an officer to be present if I felt that the meeting could be misconstrued and as I said previously if I was advocating for a particular group then I made that clear and declared the relevant interest.

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