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All-out elections decision shatters myth that council can kick Kerslake into the long grass

All-out elections decision shatters myth that council can kick Kerslake into the long grass

🕔23.Jan 2015

In the first days after the Kerslake Review of Birmingham city council’s governance capabilities was published a view was propagated among some Labour councillors that most of the report’s recommendations were advisory and could safely be ignored, or kicked into the long grass.

It is unclear how this belief materialised and who was responsible for generating such nonsense.

Some allies of council leader Sir Albert Bore, such as Mohammed Afzal, chair of the employment committee, who was by implication heavily criticised in the Kerslake Review for being ineffective, stated publicly that only the first two recommendations had to be carried out.

These are to establish an independent improvement panel to provide the “robust challenge and support the council needs”, and that the council should publish a report setting out how it had implemented Kerslake’s recommendations by December 2015.

As to the rest of it, Cllr Afzal told his committee members, it’s up to us whether we do it or not.

I have placed the word ‘implemented’ in bold print since it is clear from the wording of his report that Sir Bob Kerslake, Permanent Secretary at the Department for Communities and Local Government, appointed by Communities Secretary Eric Pickles to sort out Birmingham, does not intend that his work should be destined for the highest and dustiest shelf in the Council House.

And with local elections and a General Election around the corner, neither does Mr Pickles.

One of the themes of Kerslake’s Review is that Birmingham council, under both Labour and Tory-Liberal Democrat control, has been all too eager to duck difficult strategic decisions, kicking the can down the road for future administrations to wrestle with.

The equal pay saga, which has left the council facing a £1.2 billion compensation bill, is an obvious example of failing to face up to the responsibilities of public office.

Kerslake puts it like this:

Part of the problem in Birmingham is the culture of short-termism. There is an inability to focus on longer term problems, including transforming services, that is holding the council back. It also encourages members to become too involved in operational issues.

We believe that….. changing the electoral cycle to all out elections can have a significant impact on a council’s ability to change and adapt, provide stability in decision making and aid long term planning and vision.

It would have been absurd, having ordered the Kerslake Review, for the Government to sit back and assume that the council would willingly change the bad habits of a lifetime. Indeed, it is becoming clearer almost by the day that the council’s future no longer lies entirely in its own hands, as I argued immediately after Sir Bob’s report was launched.

This much has been confirmed privately by Sir Albert Bore who has written to all Labour councillors warning that “steps have been taken within the council to keep us in the game”. Although he does not spell it out in so many words, if the council fails to act quickly to implement Kerslake it could simply cease to exist as a locally elected administrative unit, to be replaced by government-appointed commissioners.

The improvement panel has been confirmed. That was expected. But what was not expected, at least not by city councillors duped by the “it’s all advisory” line, was a swift move to confirm all-out council elections every four years in Birmingham, starting in 2017.

This decision, taken by Mr Pickles, caught the council on the hop and prompted a storm of invective on Twitter, mostly from councillors and politicos who regretted the latest example of Government interference and centralisation. Surely, they reasoned, Birmingham council ought to be taking such an important decision, not Mr Pickles.

It would, though, take a gambler with an incredibly steady nerve to put any money at all on the council voluntarily moving from a system where a third of the council is re-elected every year, with no elections at all in the fourth year, to one where the whole council is re-elected once every four years.

Mr Pickles placed an order before Parliament on 22nd January that will in due course place in law Birmingham city council’s duty to hold all-out elections once every four years. This will have two obvious implications – it will make a change in political control easier to achieve and it will give a four-year period in office to the winning party.

Paradoxically for Mr Pickles, the decision is likely to assist Labour since Birmingham as a whole usually favours the Labour party over the Conservatives or Liberal Democrats. There have been exceptions though, notably in 2004 when an all-out election was held following a boundary review. It delivered a Tory-Lib Dem coalition that lasted until 2012.

The move to all-out elections is only the first stage of what appears to be a rapid roll out of the Kerslake recommendations. In an email to Labour members Sir Albert sets out a timetable for the council’s response to the review’s recommendations.

A proposed action plan will be taken to the Labour group on 2nd February to be followed by a meeting between Sir Albert and the leaders of the Conservative and Liberal Democrat groups to see whether an all-party approach to Kerslake can be agreed.

Sir Albert continued:

The intention is also to consult with others – overview and scrutiny chairs, MPs and other external stakeholders, prior to 16 February 2015, when the draft plan will be presented to the cabinet.

The draft plan will also be shared with the independent improvement panel.  There are some critical areas that the council needs to rapidly progress to put the organisation on a surer footing for the future, including:

  • A clear vision for the future council and its operating model
  • A medium term council and financial plan to take us to 2020-21
  • Strategic alignment of our policy, service and financial plans
  • Sufficient senior leadership capacity to transform the organisation and deliver sustainable change.

More detailed delivery and implementation plans for each of the recommendations in the Kerslake Report will need to be worked up with relevant members/officers/partners over the coming months.

We have drafted a first cut at prioritising what needs to be delivered against the Kerslake requirements, aligned to the reporting date in the report of December 2015.

One important issue upon which Sir Albert will hope to get cross-party support is the Boundary Commission review recommended by Kerslake which could reduce the number of city councillors from 120 to 100, or even fewer. It might also radically re-draw Birmingham’s 40 wards.

Kerslake argues that the wards in their present shape are too large and represented by too many councillors. He is inclined to replace large wards represented by three councillors with a higher number of smaller wards represented by one councillor.

This has already proved hugely unpopular with all political parties and it is highly unlikely that the council will voluntarily agree to ‘lose’ 20 members.

Kerslake asks whether the wards are too big for councillors to represent residents effectively.

Fifteen of the 20 wards with the largest population in England are in Birmingham. In total 73 per cent of the largest wards in the country are in the city. The result is councillors have a heavy workload and can find it challenging to represent all their residents.

The population of Birmingham is growing quickly and is expected to increase by a further 150,000 by 2031. This is the equivalent to Birmingham absorbing a town around the size of Reading.

The council projects that four wards in the city will have more than 40,000 people in them by 2031. As the population of individual wards grows larger, fulfilling councillors’ role will become even more challenging.

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.

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.

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