Councillor Clucas proposed the motion, noting that she expected that everyone present had been appalled by the events in Minneapolis in the last few weeks. She stressed that the death of George Floyd clearly showed that action cannot be left just to the USA.
She emphasised that racism occurred everywhere: in housing, employment, education, law, governance and representation, although it often went unnoticed. She added that actions spoke louder than words, and explained that the motion sought to build on the positive momentum of the recent Pittville Park protest. She was proud of Cheltenham residents for making their voices heard, and thanked officers and the police for their help in keeping people safe and the protest peaceful. The council must work together with partners to make a difference and ensure its processes and policies are free of racial bias. The motion asked the council to look at a range of areas, including holding a conference in conjunction with black and minority ethnic partners to review its decision making protocols.
Councillor Willingham seconded the motion, emphasising that if the council failed to act and get its own house in order, it would be complicit. This could only be done through dialogue with communities and proper training for members and officers, and services must be delivered in a just and equitable way. He acknowledged the disproportionate effect of the Covid-19 crisis on black and minority ethnic communities, and warned that difficult economic conditions could be exploited by extremists to stoke fear and prejudice. He asked members to support the motion, describing it as a positive step on a long road.
One member added that she was disappointed that the phrase ‘black lives matter’ still needed to be said in the 21st century, and emphasised the importance of questioning our own assumptions. The journey to a fair and equal society would not be easy, but everyone could contribute towards it.
One member added that as local councillors, they were responsible for everyone in their wards regardless of skin colour. He cited peaceful protest as a hallmark of the democratic process, and praised the recent gathering in Pittville Park as a good example of this. He stressed that peaceful movements should not be hijacked by those who wished to be violent. He acknowledged that it was difficult to identify and combat unconscious prejudice, citing a study which found that a white candidate for a job was three times more likely to be appointed than a black candidate with the same qualifications. Prejudice could not be legislated against, but assumptions could be challenged, and a more equal society built. Another Member thanked Councillors Clucas and Willingham for bringing the motion before the council, and condemned violence at protests as counterproductive.
Several Members emphasised that while it was essential to eliminate conscious discrimination from its procedures, unconscious discrimination was just as important. One Member added that other systemic issues like economic exploitation were part of the problem too, and warned against judging the past by today’s standards. He also stressed that it should not have taken the unlawful killing of a black man to finally debate these issues.
One Member expressed his sadness at how familiar the story of George Floyd was. Racism will not just go away on its own, but needs to be actively combatted through proper education. He reported that the council had adopted new equalities policies, which will be continually reviewed to ensure that they do not become complacent. The council must take an active role in combatting discrimination and engaging with affected communities. One Member thanked her colleagues for their work in putting together the motion, and noted that partners including the Council of Europe had advocated protection of minorities for a long time.
Several Members recalled the racism that they saw while growing up, and their despair at seeing that it still existed. One Member added that having attended the Black Lives Matter protest in Cheltenham, he had found it uplifting to see how young many of the attendees were. He stressed that if things were to change, education was needed not just for children but for all of us, and that if the council does nothing, it tacitly condones the situation.
One Member related her experiences with racism as a child, and suggested that some introspection was needed regarding why there were no BAME Members on the council. One Member noted that positive and compassionate police engagement was important. He also condemned violence at protests but reminded Members that the broader causes of this needed to be taken into account. One Member agreed that there was no ‘quick fix’ for racism, and while education was key, it could not do it alone. He emphasised the need for smart targets and concrete proposals. He believed however that the underlying issue was not education but culture.
One Member reiterated the earlier point about all 40 councillors being white, and suggested that a lack of diverse experiences on the council affected the level of debate it could offer.
The Mayor agreed that he hoped the events of the last couple of weeks would kick-start a change of culture, and handed over to Councillor Clucas to sum up. Councillor Clucas thanked Members for their contributions to the debate, and responded to a number of points made. She agreed that the council must listen to and engage with communities who were not represented. She added that people cannot be simply instructed to change: instead, the council must look at broader community- and education-based solutions. She accepted that the council was not diverse enough, and should look at working with organisations like Operation Black Vote to support BAME candidates.
RESOLVED (unanimously) THAT
Following the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis and other brutal activity, Cheltenham Borough Council puts on record its support for Black Lives Matter and its total opposition to any kind of racism.
Cheltenham Borough Council believes in action, not just fine words. In conjunction with the Police and Crime Commissioner, Cheltenham Borough Homes, Cheltenham Trust, Festivals and other partners, Cabinet is requested to look at holding a conference for Cheltenham’s BAME community organisations, to discuss how we might work closer together to challenge bias, both deliberate and unconscious, and racism in all its forms.
To that end, Council also requests that all policies, the organisational structure, appointments process and working environment of the Council be interrogated by Cabinet to ensure they reflect the Council’s stance on these matters.
Council would request the Police and Crime Commissioner, Cheltenham Borough Homes, Cheltenham Trust, Festivals and other partners to work together with the Council, to ensure that effective action is taken.
In addition, Cabinet is asked to look at how we can support other councils in less diverse areas through the LGA, by means of exchange programmes and secondment schemes and, for members, unconscious bias training,
Further, that Cheltenham's national representative on the Council of Europe, is requested to raise these issues at the Council of Europe; and the Cabinet member to raise issues through Council of European Municipalities and Regions in relation to local government and how, together, we can best fight bias, racism and brutality in all its forms and provide a voice to action, so that in deed and word, Black Lives Matter.”
The meeting was adjourned.