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Boundary Commission on Birmingham: An open letter from the chair, Max Caller

Boundary Commission on Birmingham: An open letter from the chair, Max Caller

🕔03.Aug 2015

Chris Game raises some interesting and important points about the Local Government Boundary Commission for England’s electoral review of Birmingham City Council, writes Max Caller CBE. I am grateful for the opportunity not just to address his points but also to let Birmingham residents know more about the process and how they can get involved.

1. What should we expect from the review?

Every electoral review is driven by evidence. We know that each council is different and faces its own challenges. That is why we approach each review without preconceptions about the right number of councillors. Similarly, we draw up ward boundaries on the basis of evidence about community interactions, geographic features and the specific circumstances of the area in question. Throughout the process, we rely on the evidence provided to us by councils, councillors, local organisations and individuals to build our recommendations.

In coming to our conclusion that 100 councillors is right for Birmingham, we looked at evidence from a range of sources on the way the council takes decisions, how decision makers and local bodies are scrutinised and the representational role of councillors in the community. Critically, we also looked at how the council needs to change so that the number of councillors will be right for the city long after the Commission has completed its work.

2. Why the apparently predetermined obeisance to Kerslake’s 100 councillors?

The Commission approached the review without preconception, predetermination or prejudice. We have come to the conclusion that 100 city councillors is right for Birmingham on the basis of the evidence we have seen over the past few months.

The Kerslake report is not a blueprint for the Commission but neither should it be underestimated. It was produced by an individual with a wealth of local government experience who was supported by several experts in this particular field and its findings prompted the Commission’s decision to review the council’s electoral arrangements. The report provides an important context for anyone who wants to know why the council is changing and why it needs to change. The Commission makes no apology for taking the content of the report seriously.

Nevertheless, the report is just one piece of evidence we considered. It is important to note that the submission by the Leader of the Council and its Executive also proposed that 100 councillors would reflect the changes the council is making now and over the coming years and their view was backed up by the council’s improvement plans which mark the start of the change process.

3. What Kerslake ‘evidence’ that Birmingham should have a significantly smaller council did the Commission find so compelling?

The Commission came to its conclusion after considering a range of evidence. There was no single argument or piece of evidence that, on its own, persuaded us.

Kerslake effectively spelled out the challenges facing the city, including the size of the council, and how it should seize the opportunity to play a more strategic regional role. But the Commission was also persuaded by evidence contained in the council’s improvement plans: reduction in committee places, new roles for district committees and clarifying roles for members and council staff which told us that the process of change had begun. Finally, a compelling vision for the future governance of the city came from the Leader and Executive who spelled out to us several potential scenarios for improving the governance of the city in the next few years which could be accommodated effectively under the 100 member model and which supported the council’s submission to the Improvement Panel.

Whilst we gave equal consideration to the submissions that described the status quo in detail and lobbied for no change, we did not believe that they represented a realistic approach for the future governance of the city.

4. Can we assume that, given the uniqueness of this review, the Commission will see a need to seek the views of local people on the number of councillors our city should have, and therefore undertake a “specific consultation exercise”, as described in its guidance?

We do not propose to hold a public consultation specifically on the number of councillors for the city. The Commission has previously held consultations on council size where it has equally strong arguments that point to more than one potential answer. We will also look to consult the public if we do not feel we have received sufficient evidence to justify any number. In this case, the Commission believes it has been able to draw on a significant quantity and quality of evidence in this preliminary stage and that the case for 100 councillors is clear.

Our task now is to get local views on the right size and shape of council wards for 100 city councillors. But before we draw a single line on a map, we want to hear local residents’ views. That is why I am encouraging anyone with an interest in their council to get in touch with the Commission through our website (www.lgbce.org.uk). We always try to build ward boundaries that are based on local evidence so it is well worth getting involved.

As we draw up new wards for 100 city councillors, the changes from the current arrangements will be substantial. For example, we are likely to see a mixed pattern of wards emerge across the city in place of the current uniform pattern of three-member wards. There is no longer a legal requirement for each of Birmingham’s wards to elect three councillors. This means that the Commission will be free to draw up wards that elect one, two or three members depending on the evidence we receive.
If you want to influence the changes, we would like to hear from you.

5. If Birmingham is deemed not to merit a council size of more than 100 members, what are the evidence-based reasons from its being driven even further out of line with other major metropolitan councils?

The Commission does not believe that councils should be batched up by type of authority and treated the same regardless of their unique circumstances. So the table of statistics on the number of voters per councillor in various local authorities will be fascinating to those of us interested in English local government but it tells us nothing about Birmingham’s challenges or its plans for the future.

Furthermore, an approach that sought to band authorities in the way outlined in the article could also be interpreted as justification for increasing the number of councillors for Birmingham. We have heard a lot of evidence over the past few months but no one has seriously argued for that.

Interestingly, the Commission has recently carried out a review of one of the authorities in the table. A few weeks ago, we completed an electoral review of Knowsley Council. Chris Game’s table suggests we should have given them a council size of 60 members for the bizarre reason that such a figure would put them in line with South Tyneside, Walsall and Wolverhampton. In fact, Knowsley put forward a case to reduce their council size by 18: to 45 members. They had their own vision for how the council and the role of members had changed since the last time they considered the issue as well as a clear idea of how they would lead their area in the future. As such, we were happy to endorse their approach.

We see increasing numbers of councils taking a long term view about the type of institution they want to be in the future and the Commission – in around 90% of cases – has felt able to endorse those cases rather than impose our own idea. In the same way, we have felt able to endorse the view put to us that 100 councillors reflects the future development of the council here in Birmingham.

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