South Leeds elected three new Councillors in the local elections on 3 May 2018. We asked them to tell us what the experience was like, here is Gohar Almass, Councillor for Beeston & Holbeck Ward.
I agree with Martin Luther King Jr when he said, “ Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter.”
I have lived in Beeston, Leeds for just over a decade, all of my three daughters (9, 6 and 1 year old) were born here and currently attend our local schools and Beeston has become a place I love, and somewhere I now consider to be my home, as the saying goes home is where your heart is. However, regardless of being born thousands of miles away from Leeds, part of my upbringing was that I’ve always had a strong belief in “community” and I have been an active member within ours, having always sought to be aware and involved in the issues and events that affect our neighbourhood.
In recent years, social media has given many more people within our community a platform to make their voices heard, indeed technology & social media have brought power back to the people, a platform , where they can celebrate success, foster new relationships, but also to discuss and campaign on the local issues that concern them.
One such issue that I heard more and more about was from the people of Holbeck, who write regularly about prolific street prostitution within and around the residential areas, often taking place during daylight hours, and from which findings of condoms, human excrement and hypodermic needles Unfortunately has become part of daily life.
It seemed to me that locals did not feel listened to, that most people in the surrounding areas including some leaders in the community were too busy with their daily routine, and that burying their heads under the sand avoiding and ignoring issues around them was a means of maintaining the status quo.
I found many of these stories of drugs and prostitution disturbing and I said to myself “enough is enough”, I decided I must enter local politics myself if I want to bring about any change since my party’s philosophy also suggested it safeguards the interests of the many and not just the few.
This certainly was not an automatic or easy decision, though I have been a Labour member for over a decade and a campaigner for our party and have been doing a lot of community and social work I never contemplated to actually contest an election. Even though many people around me seemed to think it would be a natural progression for me, it never really appealed to me, but sometimes circumstances push you into doing things and the aforementioned issue worked as a catalyst in making my mind up.
In recent years there has been an influx of working girls from other areas, this has been due to the perception that Holbeck provided a safe haven for them to practice in. I found this to be hugely worrying, however ,it was the murder of Daria Pionko, a 21 year old Polish sex worker, just before Christmas 2015, that really catapulted the “managed approach” to the top of my agenda. Tackling the controversial experiment became my number one priority, and so I threw my hat in the race and was chosen by the local branch to contest to run as a Labour Party candidate in the council elections this year.
During the subsequent election campaign I spent many hours, walking miles each day, touring the neighbourhoods of LS11, talking to residents, and hearing their concerns. It became overwhelmingly apparent that residents of Beeston & Holbeck Ward including Cottingley Hall had many varied concerns about life within our community, and these extended far beyond that of the Managed Zone. Residents of the Ward have an average life expectancy of 9 years less than their counterparts living in North of the city, and this is a result of variety of factors including high rates of suicide, high unemployment, poor housing, and rising levels of drugs and alcohol abuse to name but a few. Additionally, the area is blighted by significant levels of burglary,car crime, littering and fly-tipping, as well as anti-social behaviour from neighbours and gangs, all of which are, in part, a byproduct of the transient communities created by irresponsible and unaccountable private landlords.
But it seemed a valid and loud social media campaign regarding the Managed Zone had overshadowed these difficulties, what residents told me was that they felt their concerns about with wider issues were falling by the wayside, lost in the tsunami of anger and resentment created by that campaign.
During my election campaign, myself and my family were on the receiving end of much personal & racial abuse, social media trolling and unfair judgement. People who had never met me judged me without fair trial; I was a new candidate and yet many seemed to perceive that I should be judged on the history, decisions and actions of others.
Opposition campaigning frequently singled me out in a combative and negative manner, the political argument was presented as a “negative campaign”, highlighting many negatives within our area but without offering positive solutions. At times it seemed focus on personal slurs against me and my character, rather than having a focus on change and real engagement with voters. However, I am not someone who is easily cowed by such tactics, so many people in our community are vulnerable and are denied a voice, so this just encouraged me to stand up and be counted all the more, as Mahatma Gandhi said “First they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you, then you win.” And Election results proved it all.
The wise words of Sir Winston Churchill echoed in my ears: “The truth is incontrovertible. Malice may attack it, ignorance may deride it, but in the end, there it is.”
It would be unfair not to mention the real heroes, the hardworking extraordinarily generous, genuine, kind and caring people, I refer to them as the silent majority, who are the real asset and solid pillars of our community, who continue playing their positive role without making a lot of noise and expecting nothing in return, who love our neighbourhood and hope for a better tomorrow, from whom I learnt as the saying goes that not only “courage is what it takes to stand up and speak,but also it is a great courage to sit down and listen“ to the collective wisdom of our community.
Finally, this is my message to our community in the words of my hero, the late Mother Teresa RIP, who said “I can do things you can not, you can do things I can not…together we can do great things.”
I’m your full time Councillor if you need my help call me directly:
- Phone: 07445 878333
- Email: Gohar.Almass@leeds.gov.uk
- Facebook: Cllr Gohar Almass
- Twitter: @GoharAlmassKhan
This post was written by Cllr Gohar Almass