Listening and learning is at the heart of everything Carl Walker is working to achieve in his new role as Deputy Leader of Worthing Borough Council.
Whether it's by taking the pulse of our local communities or collecting evidence and advice from experts in other parts of the UK, his focus will be on finding solutions to the big issues that are of most concern to people in Worthing.
Here Cllr Walker explains what he wants to get done - even if achieving world peace might take him a bit longer than other things on his to-do list.
Q. You have now been in the cabinet for two weeks. What are your first impressions of the role? Has anything surprised you?
It's been an incredibly busy few weeks but the thing that's surprised me most has been the amazing response from the people around the town. So many have contacted me to say how excited they are about the ideas we have, to support residents and improve the town as a whole. I'm an eternal optimist but I have to say that I'm sensing a genuine desire to bring about change and feel incredibly lucky that the people of Worthing have given us the chance to do that. A further surprise since becoming Deputy Leader of the Council is that I don't look quite as bad in a shirt as I thought I would.
Q. What have been the first things you have done so far?
There are three key areas. Firstly, I've been developing a town-wide Big Listening campaign. This will involve creating opportunities for our communities to be heard. I want to ensure that the outcomes of these listening activities are reflected in Council strategy and will drive everything we do going forward. Secondly, I'm working with officers to develop our Cost of Living Emergency action plan. Too many people are struggling to feed their families and I want us, as a Council, to pull every possible lever to make this dreadful crisis more bearable for our residents. And thirdly, I've been working with our amazing young people's team - Cllr Vicki Wells, Cllr Sam Theodoridi and our officers - on a strategy to really listen to and support young people in our town.
Q. Is there any person or group that you are taking inspiration from as you develop plans in your role?
There are so many local authorities across the country doing amazing work - Wigan, Newham, Tower Hamlets to name but a few. I'm all for learning from the very best practice, where authorities are trying innovative, exciting ways to make genuine change for their residents. I also take inspiration from people in our community. Before becoming Deputy Leader, I helped to found a local food bank charity, the Worthing Food Foundation. This is an entirely volunteer-led and volunteer-run organisation supporting hundreds of local families every week with food and essentials. It thrives due to the passion, commitment and amazing skills of our local residents - and leaves me in awe at the end of every shift.
Q. You've said that you want to put the community at the heart of everything the Council does. What does that mean?
Up until now, the huge potential for harnessing the views of our communities and translating them into Council policy has not been fully realised in Worthing. Our Council for the Community will set out to gain a deep understanding of what our residents and community groups want to see done, in order to ensure that Worthing Borough Council and the town itself are driven by those needs and aspirations. Our Big Listening campaign will be the first step in residents being heard, and being able to influence local decision-making in a way that is genuinely democratic and consequential.
Q. You plan to connect with those sections of the Worthing community that the Council may not have had close links to in the past. Who are those groups and how will you work with them?
Through my background as a community psychologist, I've learned that the way to effectively include those who have not felt connected is to change the way that we talk to people. As a Council we want to work with community organisations, residents' groups, schools and charities to find new ways to connect. This means being an equal partner with our communities rather than taking the traditional top-down approach. As a Council we're developing ways to be more 'place-based' - that is, working with residents in the local areas they live in and care about.
Q. The Big Listening event is due to begin in July. What are you hoping will come from it?
The Worthing Big Listening campaign will offer an opportunity to thousands of residents, in many different locations, to share their ideas across every area of Council activity. We want to know what residents love about Worthing and what they would like to see change. There will be many ways to make those voices heard, including evening events, online surveys, digital forums, work with specific community groups and schools and a Big Listening Festival.
Q. Young people have no voice in elections yet are a major user of Council services. What do you think needs to be done for young people in the borough?
I think there is the potential for some excellent provision for young children across the town. We had a lot of engagement with local community groups prior to taking over the Council and the message coming back was that we need safe public spaces for young people and more amenities and activities for those aged 11+. There is also the huge issue of mental health. I've worked on this before and produced a Worthing Young Person's Mental Health Guide for parents and carers. We need to join with other public sector organisations, schools and charities to do everything we can. For example, I'd like to see a Worthing Young People's Mental Health Festival to start this process off.
Q. Let's jump forward in time. You've been in post for 12 months - what have you managed to get done so far?
Firstly, we will have started the process of empowering residents to take control of decisions in their communities. We'll have also begun to deliver on our promise to build council housing and our Cost of Living Emergency declaration will have given real support to those most in need during such a difficult time. We also have ambitious plans to regenerate our town, create more green spaces and a vibrant, attractive and thriving town centre that supports fantastic Worthing-based businesses. I'm confident that all this will be beginning to take shape in 12 months' time.
On a personal level, I'd also like world peace and to look like Leonardo DiCaprio but that could take more than a year.
Cllr Carl Walker