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‘120 councillors is too many’, Boundary Commission tells Birmingham

‘120 councillors is too many’, Boundary Commission tells Birmingham

🕔22.Jun 2015

The Boundary Commission has indicated it is likely to reject a plan to keep Birmingham city council at its present size with 120 councillors, Chamberlain Files can reveal.

A cross-party submission to the commission put the case for maintaining the status quo, or even increasing the number of councillors to 150.

However, after receiving the submission Boundary Commission representatives met with Birmingham’s political leaders to make it clear keeping the current size is not acceptable and runs counter to recommendations in the Kerslake Review which suggested 100 councillors as a maximum number.

It is understood the council was told to think again and given two weeks to submit alternative proposals.

Details of the tough stance emerged after the council refused to publish its submission to the Boundary Commission. Asked by Chamberlain Files for details, a spokesperson claimed at first the document was in draft form.

When it was pointed out council leader Sir Albert Bore and chief executive Mark Rogers stated in a written report to the Kerslake improvement panel that the submission had been completed, (page 8) the spokesperson replied:

You are right – it wasn’t a draft – but it isn’t a public document so I can’t send it to you at this stage.

Other off-the-record inquiries to senior figures at the Council were also met with a ‘it’s only a draft’ response.

Sir Albert, Conservative group leader Robert Alden and Liberal Democrat group leader Paul Tilsley agreed to a cross-party approach and put their names to the 120 councillor proposal.

Cllr Alden told Chamberlain Files:

There was a cross-party draft submission submitted. This is now being looked at again and tweaked.

The Boundary Commission is due to publish its proposal for the future size of Birmingham city council by the end of the month.

A second stage of consultation will follow reviewing ward boundaries. It is possible the number of wards may increase, but the number of councillors could be reduced from three to one in some wards.

The council will move to all-out elections under the new boundary arrangements from 2018, where all councillors defend their seats once every four years.

The date for all-out elections was put back from 2017 following a plea before the General Election by Cllr Tilsley to deputy prime minister Nick Clegg, giving Birmingham valuable breathing space.

The prospect of 20 councillors effectively facing the sack as a result of the Boundary Commission’s review has set off panic behind the scenes with politicians attempting to second guess the new format and lobbying for position.

The council’s formal submission to the Boundary Commission ran to more than 100 pages, according to someone familiar with the situation.

It reflected the views of Sir Albert, who earlier in the year told Chamberlain Files the number of councillors could be increased to 150 to properly represent Birmingham’s growing population.

Sir Albert claimed that on a pro rata basis comparing Birmingham to neighbouring councils the city has fewer councillors than the average.

Lord Kerslake, in his review of the council’s governance capabilities, made it clear he believed there are already too many city councillors in Birmingham.

The Kerslake Review noted:

The council currently has 15 of the 20 wards with the largest population in the country. By 2031 the council projects that four wards will have populations greater than 40,000.

The council is already the third largest in the country, larger than the United States Senate, so simply adding more three member wards and/or increasing the number of councillors is unlikely to be a sustainable solution.

By moving to predominantly single member wards, reducing the number of councillors and at the same time increasing the number of wards it is possible to alleviate the pressure of population growth while increasing accountability and saving money.

For example, by creating 100 mainly single member wards the average population of a ward in the city could be reduced to just 10,730 from 13,413.

This would result in a direct saving of around £1.6 million over 5 years. We are not making a recommendation on the number of wards in the city as that is for others to determine but our view is there needs to be a significant reduction on the current number of councillors.”

In a guidance note, the Boundary Commission sets out its aims for the Birmingham review:

In deciding the optimum number of councillors, the commission says it will consider three factors:

  • The number of councillors required to conduct the business of the authority taking decisions as individuals, committees and working groups
  • Scrutiny arrangements for council decision making and outside bodies associated with the council
  • The representational role of councillors in their communities.

As far as the boundary review is concerned, the commission says it is looking at:

  • Securing electoral equality: where each councillor represents roughly the same number of electors
  • Reflecting community interests and identities
  • Providing for effective and convenient local government: ensuring that wards can be represented effectively.

The commission makes it clear Birmingham could end up with a mixture of one-member, two-member and three-member wards.

A Birmingham city council spokesperson said:

We have submitted a report to the Boundary Commission and have no further comment to make at this stage.

The Council’s lack of desire to publish a document it has submitted to a formal consultation process about its own size and shape may lead some readers to think there is some way to go in meeting many of Kerslake’s other criticisms of how the local authority operates.

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