Ambitious for young people

29th June 2001 at 01:00
Glasgow's youth spokesperson has an advantage over other councillors - she is just 26. Catriona Renton talks to Julie Morrice about her priorities.

Picture a local councillor. Does your imagination conjure up a severe matriarch in twin set and pearls or an ambitious man in a well-worn suit? Whatever your idea of a local authority politician, you probably didn't think of somebody like Catriona Renton.

At 26, Ms Renton is Glasgow City Council's youngest councillor and the first Labour member to represent the "unwinnable" seat of Kelvindale. Blonde, smart-suited but with Glaswegian approachability, she talks with passion and energy, barely pausing for breath, about what the city should be doing for young people.

As the council's youth spokesperson, Ms Renton has been charged with assessing how well it is meeting their needs. "I think Glasgow's a brilliant city. It has brilliant facilities, a varied culture, wonderful, warm people. But there are extreme levels of poverty and deprivation and a terrible health record. We want to give this generation of young people a real chance. We want them to know we're ambitious for them."

One example of Glasgow's youth policy is making the city's swimming pools free to all under-18s. Ms Renton is proud of this, believing it is a direct way of affecting people's lives, and they have responded. During the first week of the Easter school holiday 27,800 under-18s went swimming, compared to 7,000 in the same period last year. "There were queues in Castlemilk," says Ms Renton. "It has captured people's imaginations."

The city intends to issue a Kids Card for five to 12-year-olds who have registered by the end of the summer and a Glasgow Young Scot Card for 12 to 18-year-olds. Both will offer discounts at sports centres, free access to libraries and museums and special offers at high street shops, local businesses and on public transport.

"There is a development group looking at other ideas," says Ms Renton. "It's about opening up the city to young people."

Consultation is at the heart of Ms Renton's politics. She wants to find out what young people want from their city, and so student councils, youth clubs and community networks of all kinds are being approached for ideas. Ms Renton has arranged to consult all the schools in Glasgow and has asked them to select a broad cross-section of representative pupils: the first representatives, from 12 schools, went to the council chambers on May 15.

"I want to get the kids who don't get on to the school council and into the school play. I want to hear what kids in residential care think, and young homeless people.

"We have to make the council seem relevant and accessible to them. It's not about politicising them, but showing that politics is an effective vehicle for change. There is no point in consultation unless we deliver and show we have listened."

Ms Renton's interest in politics began at Balliol College, Oxford, where she studied French and German. She worked for an MEP in Brussels as part of her course. and was secretary of the Oxford Union. Her first job after graduating was working for Dennis Canavan, the independent MP for Falkirk West.

It is rare to meet a young high-flyer with a social conscience, more particularly one who wants to make a difference at the unglamorous level of local politics, but Ms Renton has chosen to come home to Glasgow. Standing for election was the logical result of her conviction that parliaments and councils should be more representative of the electorate. The dearth of ethnic minorities, women and particularly of young people on local councils rankles with her.

She manages to sustain a full-time job as a campaigner for Oxfam, fitting in meetings and surgeries during lunch breaks and using her annual leave to attend conferences. Enthusiasm seems to keep her going.

"It's challenging but I do love it. I love both my jobs," she says.

Ms Renton wants people to realise that their local authority has a direct impact on their lives and that they can have a say in that process. She admits she was unaware of the nitty-gritty of council services before she joined.

She runs a young people's surgery on the first Thursday of the month at her local secondary school. "They were pretty sceptical at first," she says, "but if one gets a result, you find all their friends turn up the next time."

She gives the example of a Muslim girl who couldn't go swimming at school because there were boys in the class. Ms Renton spoke to the director of education and provision has now been made for Muslim girls to have single-sex swimming.

"The great thing is that the girl can see that she herself has made a difference," says Ms Renton.

"Young people are a priority," she says. "We realise they haven't had a voice in policy changes, but we are scrutinising every department, highlighting good practice and addressing the gaps. Lots of departments and businesses are working together to make things happen for them."

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