Saxophone player and music teacher Mel Dawkins, Labour Councillor for St Stephen’s, was elected for the first time in May 2019. She talks to Neasa MacErlean about the City’s soul, cycling, how she sets her agenda and many other issues.
What is it like being a Councillor? Is it what you expected? Did you have to grow into it?
It’s two extremes — fun and hard work. It’s a 24/7 thing. You are king of doing things 24/7 — get-ting emails all the time and thinking. You’ve got to be able to manage time and know when to give yourself a break.
I enjoy meeting and talking to people from all walks of life. That’s an advantage….It’s good to help people if you can, directly and indirectly.
In the beginning it was a steep learning curve — new names, how to navigate the Council and of-ficers, who’s who.
I’m quite new to Canterbury [having moved from London to Kent in 2013, and to Canterbury in 2016] from as well as being new to politics. I’m learning all the back stories — the Council, the Canterbury Society and other organisations working to make the district a better place.
Do you have to take yourself more seriously? Or can you be yourself?
Part of my campaign was to listen and to be myself. It’s important to show you’re a real person. I was worried I wasn’t going to fit into the stereotypical role of councillor. I had to make a decision: do I try to change into that (whatever that is) or do I embrace what I am, and use that a strength. Being a councillor is challenging because you get picked up on stuff. Now that I’ve built up my strength I want to go back to being me.
There are traditions and an etiquette to being in Council. I can’t change who I am but I am more aware of my responsibilities. I’m a musician so I’m a bit Rock and Roll. But I can’t be all that ‘All right mate’ but, on the other hand, times have got to move on as well. If we want to accept peo-ple from all walks of life, we’ve got to accept people as they are.
Have you got to know the Conservatives and Lib Dems?
Yes, I do talk to them — especially on issues such as the graffiti wall. I got an approach from a Conservative councillor who wanted to be involved in it People approach you when you suggest something. The Conservatives are not horrible people. They get whipped into shape which is the annoying bit.
Can you say more on the graffiti?
It’s not really just graffiti: that’s just the tagline. The idea is of helping the whole city (and other towns in Kent) to develop. Canterbury is an amazing city filled with culture and beautiful buildings. But it could do more to bring together all the various communities. It seems to favour private schools, cathedral schools and universities — and not necessarily students in universities but people running universities. Canterbury was an epicentre of music at one point. If you want a city to thrive, you have to all the culture to diversify and grow. If you shut that down people will feel disenfranchised and, in the end, they will leave. It then becomes a place where people go to shop and go home again.
It would be amazing to revive the spirit of the city; bring together all our talent, creativity, diversi-ty and culture; and develop the soul of the city which represents everyone.
Can you update us on what you are doing on cycling? Your campaign ‘The Future of Cy-cling: Top Ten Asks’ is live and has much support from the Canterbury Society and other parts of the community.
I will keep pushing and pressuring Kent County Council on that. The first tranche of government money has gone through so I am pushing again with the aim of getting some money and commit-ment this time around. We had a meeting [on Zoom, on June 25] where everyone came together in Canterbury. Politics was put aside a little bit.
How much can Councillors collaborate across party? It is disappointing to see an absence of that so often.
It can work really well, especially when it comes to planning something. I’ll be interested to see how the Local Plan works out in that respect. It’d be nice if political parties worked together for the public interest. Sometimes politics can be great: it keeps everyone on their toes. But the whipping seems to ruin it. On the Emergency Covid-19 Committee meeting [on 6 August] — about bringing back democratic rights — I could see that some of the Conservative councillors were shifting in their chairs as they did king of agree with us but they were being whipped. There should be a little bit more room in political parties for people not to be whipped so much if they feel strongly about something.
It would also be nice to see more bodies involved. The Citizens Assembly has been talked of, and having that would be amazing. Politicians alone should not be running things. Organisations like the Canterbury Society have quite a big voice but they haven’t got any voting rights. They are just a pressure group, albeit a nice one. So they can’t change stuff. It would be good, instead, to have a combination of politicians, Council officers and the people who live in the town involved.
What about Black Lives Matter? I know you are interested in that.
I’m very keen to get involved. I want to live in a society where my friends are not treated differ-ently. It’s important to challenge prejudice. We combatted racism in the 90s, but it’s come back and no-one will talk about it. Black Lives Matter opened the door to talk about it again.
What would you say about the issues facing St Stephen’s now?
There are a lot of problems with rubbish and fly-tipping. I’m working quite hard on that. All the lit-ter money went to the coast and their bins this year. I hope that Hales Place will get some money next year….The pandemic has put a sock in everything, of course….There are issues in Beverley Meadow, in an area covered by trees where some drug-dealing is going on. Before lockdown I was helping set up ‘Friends of Beverley Meadow’ to make it safer for everyone. We’ll probably do that in the autumn.
How much do you and your fellow St Stephen’s Councillor, Terry Westgate, work together? (Terry Westgate is a Conservative, and currently the Lord Mayor of Canterbury.)
At the beginning we talked to each other. I have approached him. But we say hello to each other and that’s it. I rarely hear from him. We haven’t been working together.
What about your role within the Labour party? How much are you a Labour Councillor, and how much are you Mel Dawkins?
I liked what Ashley Clark [the Conservative councillor for Seasalter] said: you’ve got to choose a party. I am Labour and I have Labour values but I have to be myself. We are like a team and a family. There is something about being Labour that requires passion.
Our Labour MP Rosie Duffield has been attacked from within the local Labour party here. What do you think about that?
That’s been really unfortunate. But it’s fair to say that if we all just agreed with each other that wouldn’t be great either. It’s far better for people to talk openly than to nod and agree in public [but not in private]. Things can be resolved, and they will be. What happened with Rosie was part of a larger thing — both in the party and nationally.
What got you into politics? What do you do outside being a Councillor? Tell us a bit about your day-to-day life?
I’ve always been interested. I was an activist when I was younger (anti-war, anti-nuclear, anti-racism). I got more involved again as the Labour party became more socialist. I had a family [and her son is now 12].
I am a music teacher for children with autism. And I also play in bands. I play saxophone and electric guitar, as melZebra. I did an album recently called Born Deaf. I felt before that I always had to hide my partial deafness. It’s a hidden disability. People sometimes think I’m being rude or evasive but quite often I just don’t hear. I tend to lip read a bit but masks aren’t helping that.
Mel Dawkins’ Committees
Covid-19 Emergency Committee
Joint Transportation Board
Decision Review Committee (Reserve)
Licensing Committee (Reserve)
Planning Committee( Reserve)
Policy and Resources Committee (Reserve)