When Steve Bullock was elected in 2002 as the first Mayor of Lewisham, he introduced a similar model for a directly elected young mayor who was to be supported by a group of young advisers and a young citizens’ panel. The first young mayor, Manny Hawks, was elected in April 2004, and with his election began the longest-running young mayor programme in the UK.1
Zak is one of a group of 11 to 20-year-olds that currently meet once a week in Catford Civic Suite and advise the Young Mayor of Lewisham on a range of issues affecting young people. The role of the advisers includes working with the young mayor to look at key decision making reports; engage with service managers, policy-makers and councillors to ensure the voices of young people are heard in the making of plans for the services that affect them.
Part of the young mayor’s role is to allocate spending to youth services in the borough, and the young advisers also have a direct involvement in helping to determine how this budget is spent. As co-chair of the young advisers’ group Zak describes the importance of making sure all the young people involved get to have a say.
The involvement of young people in the democratic process of electing the young mayor enables them to participate in politics and political decision-making. The advisers also have an important role to play in getting young people involved in the election. “So what we do is get leaflets out to schools and start going around schools, letting them know, you know, the Young Mayor election is coming up, and if you’re interested in running for Young Mayor here’s a leaflet, here’s…an application form…”
“It’s mostly about looking at the group and leading it in a way that no one’s, like, shouting at each other and fighting. You know, making sure everyone is heard.”
The advisers are then involved in candidate training for those who are interested and want to find out more. “We’re able to talk to them about how we do it”. They also set up husting events where the candidates from each of the schools talk to young people and they also help to run the ballot. “And the young people in schools are then able to vote on people who they think have stood out the most for them.”
Local organisations often come to speak and listen to the advisers at meetings about local issues, opportunities and events. Zak says that one of the main issues they discuss is mental health. “A lot of young people struggle with mental health issues and don’t even recognise it.” Other topics include gender-based issues “like domestic violence against women and equal pay and the pay gap”. They have also been looking at stop-and-searches and policing, “We’ve had days when we had, like, role reversal activities. And I think that having police officers and young people see eye-to-eye will make that situation better.”
Zak believes that most change happens through conversation and a belief that young people can make a difference. He sees a key role of the young advisers as enabling young people to “contribute and make a better situation for everyone”.