Meet the Councillor: “Everywhere you look, our assets are under threat”

Pic: Callton Young

As the dust of the General Election settles, the bins still need emptying and the schools still need running. Many know little about them and most don’t bother to vote for them, but local councillors wield huge power over everyday lives. Eastlondonlines has spoken to some of the individuals who are responsible for spending £96bn of your money.

Jordan Lane speaks to Callton Young who is Councillor for the Thornton Heath ward in Croydon

For the ambitious, the role of councillor may not be viewed as the political endgame, rather perhap a stop on the road . Yet Callton Young wouldn’t want to be anywhere else; even though he spent 35 years working his way up in the Home Office.

Young, 60, of Thornton Heath, who was awarded the OBE in 2008 for his public service was driven to pursue a career in the public sector after finding himself side-lined at school. He said: “Teachers were less interested in me. By the time I hit 16, I thought I was stupid.” But, instead of turning to “trouble making”, he sought to change the attitudes of those who discriminated against him and others. 

After securing a BA in Politics, Young got an administrative job in Whitehall. From there, he patiently worked to get promoted every 18 months to 2 years, trying all the while to help create a “a society which recognises and allows for our needs”.

Eventually, he found himself as the first ever black senior civil policy advisor in Whitehall, after working for many years in the Home Office during both Tory and Labour administrations. As well as greater responsibility, the promotion came with a greater view of the issues at hand. “I hadn’t really, until that time, got a real scale of the challenge,” Young said. “But it gave me a chance.”

Callton Young with activists from the campaign group Windrush Action at a Home Office information event on the Windrush Compensation Scheme. Pic: Evie Breese

The most clear example of this chance being seized came when Jack Straw – the Home Secretary at the time – asked Young to head the team working on the Race Relations (Amendment) Act 2000.

After deliberation, Young gave a response that may well have been the most significant moment during his 35 years with the Home Office.  “I gave him a copy of the 1975 White Paper on race and told him to change the date to 2000.”  In his view, little had changed for 25 years. As Young told the story, he smiled, but it’s evident how serious he is about the need for actual progress in race relations. 

Years after that conversation with Straw, Young decided that he’d reached a crossroads. In 2016, he chose to change his approach to the fight and adopt a more ground-up approach, working with people in a more personal manner than he could from Whitehall. He believed that his “talents could be better used in the community.” So, he ran for councillor in Thornton Heath, for Labour.

Young’s win in May 2016 was the biggest majority of any byelection in Croydon since 1989, a feat that he puts down to engaging with voters in a face-to-face, real manner. This wasn’t enough, though. When asked about the nature of his job, Young jokingly asks; “Which one?”

As well as being a councillor, Young serves his community as the Chairman of the Croydon African Caribbean Family Organisation (CACFO), the Chair of Governors at St Giles School, and an advisor to Windrush Action, a campaign group seeking justice for affected by the Home Office’s hostile environment immigration policies. His ward has the highest concentration of people of Afro-Caribbean descent in London.

As an umbrella description, Young says that his job “is to work for the community” – despite the challenges. Of CACFO, Young said: “I consider it to be a community asset… But, everywhere you look, our assets are under threat.”

He’s also visibly devastated as he recounts a ban on Bashment music in Croydon which he worked to overturn. The ban – scrapped in November 2017 – targeted Jamaican music and Young describes it as “the very definition of institutional racism.” “Why would you try to cut someone’s culture out from under their legs?”

Now, his focus rests on the Windrush Compensation Scheme; he wants all of those who were wronged to feel confident in coming forward and righting as many wrongs as possible. He wants to make sure that nothing like the Windrush Scandal ever happen again.

And, showing the same attitude that led him into the civil service in the first place, he refuses to let emotions – however strong they may be – get in the way of producing results. “This isn’t just about venting anger, something positive has to come out of this.”

“My ambitions are to ensure that the Windrush Generation has a strong voice, politically and otherwise, so that not only do we right the wrongs – the depth of which we still don’t know – but that nothing like this ever happens again.”

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