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Choose your battle councillor: forget all-out elections; it’s size that matters

Choose your battle councillor: forget all-out elections; it’s size that matters

🕔27.Jan 2015

It’s over-familiar and possibly over-optimistic, but I feel some Birmingham City councillors could usefully take on board the lyrical advice of Geoffrey Boycott’s favourite singer, Katy Perry: “Choose your battles, babe, then you win the war.” Chris Game gives some lyrical advice to city councillors on the fight worth picking. 

In the second of Paul Dale’s recent reports on Communities Secretary Eric Pickles’ steps to implement the Kerslake report’s recommendations, he referred to some councillors being “caught on the hop” by the minister’s “swift move to confirm all-out council elections every four years in Birmingham, starting in 2017.”

To which my personal reaction was to wonder what planet these people have been on for the past six weeks. I’m anything but an insider, but honestly it came as no great surprise to me.

Indeed, it didn’t seem a particularly “swift move”, or the “dramatic intervention” that Paul’s earlier report suggested had come as “a blow” even to council leader, Sir Albert Bore. On the contrary, it was clearly signalled.

First, the Kerslake Review highlighted Birmingham’s big size as a big problem – albeit not the Council’s core problem, and not so big that it should be completely broken up.

Second, it found (p.10) that:

The large number of councillors means the council is difficult to run and has encouraged individual councillors to micro-manage services. The size of the wards means some councillors are struggling to connect their communities with the council. The current pattern of elections by thirds has not helped the council’s ability to take strategic decisions.

In other local authorities … a review of council size and a change in the method of holding elections to the council have been shown to be a powerful tool to help a council improve.

From which followed its Recommendation 4:

The Secretary of State should move Birmingham City Council to all-out elections, replacing the current election-by-thirds … The Local Government Boundary Commission for England should conduct an Electoral Review … It should aim to complete its work to enable elections by May 2017.

No lack of clarity there, then. Moreover, Secretary of State Pickles specifically stressed, in a statement coinciding with the report’s publication on 9th December, that “he firmly approved of a finding that Birmingham should move to a system of all-out elections and have a Boundary Commission review of its wards … (my emphasis).

Surely, the whole point of being a minister is that when you firmly approve of something, you can do it – especially if you’re Pickles, and especially when the something is already part of government policy, as all-out council elections had been since its response to the 2012 Heseltine Report.

Kerslake had confirmed the minister’s authority (under the Local Government 2000 Act), so, apart from specifying the actual date on which he’d issue the Statutory Instrument, Pickles could hardly have made his intention in this matter any plainer.

In short, whole council or all-out elections from 2017 were never up for debate: a battle, as Katy Perry could have told protesting Labour councillors, you ain’t never gonna win.

For what it’s worth, much as I deplore most ministerial acts of manifest centralism, this one I really don’t mind. In our ultra-centralised governmental system, far more policy decisions should be made locally, far more revenue raised locally, and far more practices shaped to accord with local preference and convenience. But the electoral cycle, in my view, isn’t one of them.

As a product of tradition, we elect county councils and London boroughs in ‘whole council’ or ‘all-out’ elections every four years, and metropolitan boroughs by thirds in three years out of four. But unitary and shire district councils may have whole council elections, elections by thirds, or even by halves – which is plain daft; and, for anyone actually keen to find out if they’ve got a vote in any particular year, alienating and bewildering.

There is, then, a compelling case for greater uniformity, whereupon the question becomes the choice of system: by thirds, as we’re used to in Birmingham, or all-out?

All-out elections produce clear-cut results and, by giving councils a breathing space between elections, they may encourage policy consistency, forward planning and reduce the temptation to defer politically difficult decisions such as tax increases, planning approvals, or school and leisure facility closures.

They can, though, lead to dramatic swings in political control, produce large influxes of inexperienced councillors, and reduce the accountability that comes from politicians having to explain and justify their policies regularly to electors.

Councillors are bound to see things differently from officers, and also, as in Birmingham, disagree amongst themselves. Personally, I’ll prefer being able to judge the record not just of one of my three councillors, but of the whole council over four years, and then, to quote the old American phrase, to throw the rascals out – all the rascals in one go.

My point, though, is that this choice had already been made – by Sir Bob Kerslake and Eric Pickles. So let’s get over it, and quickly – because, while everything else electoral is still open for battle, the Boundary Commission is already on the case.

The City of Birmingham (Scheme of Elections) Order 2015/43 that Pickles laid before Parliament last week specifies only whole-council elections every four years, starting in 2017. Nothing about numbers of councillors or even single-member wards, because they’re the business of the Local Government Boundary Commission.

The Commission carries out loads of electoral reviews, most either to reduce exceptionally high levels of inequality between wards and divisions within an authority, or to address the size of a council – number of councillors – at the request of authorities themselves.

In these latter cases recent recommendations have generally been for significant reductions in councillor numbers – partly, no doubt, because that’s what the councils themselves appeared to have in mind. West Midlands cases included Bromsgrove, reduced from 39 to 31 members, Stratford-on-Avon 53 to 36, and Wyre Forest 42 to 33.

Some of these reviews also involve moves towards whole council elections and more or wholly single-member wards – as will Birmingham’s. Our city’s big difference is the reference by a minister, on the back of a critical independent report that asserts strongly that the council’s present size of 120 councillors is “unsustainable” and actually suggests a preferred number: “100 mainly single-member wards” (p.26).

But, if the Kerslake report’s assertions are strong and explicit, its evidence base on council size is close to non-existent. Internationally, it’s limited to a brief description of France’s second city, Lyon (population 500,000), and its two-tier system of city council (73 members) and nine municipal arrondissement councils (148 additional councillors).

The report suggests that a similar member/resident ratio would give Birmingham’s 1.1 million population 318 councillors – its main objections to which would seem to be costs (unspecified) and officer workloads, with any potential democratic benefits simply unmentioned.

For the record, Birmingham’s other two main European partner cities also have two-tier systems and consequently much higher total numbers of councillors. Frankfurt (pop: 700,000) has a 93-member city council and 16 local district councils with an additional 274 members; Milan (1.3 mill.) has a 48-member city council and 9 borough councils with 369 councillors.

Do you sense a kind of pattern emerging – of large cities with elective democratic devolution, rather than just administrative devolution?

The problem is that the Boundary Commissioners basically couldn’t care any more than Pickles does about such comparisons – or about formulae. In many, probably most, European countries council sizes are determined strictly by population-based or elector-based formulae: Swedish municipalities with under 12,000 electors have 31 councillors, 41 if between 12,000 and 24,000, and so on up to Stockholm’s 101 for its 900,000 population.

Here, Leeds’ 750,000 population merits just three councillors more (99) than Manchester’s 511,000 (96); Coventry’s 330,000 residents get 54 councillors, Wigan’s 318,000 get 75. That kind of electoral inequality simply doesn’t bovver the commissioners.

And that’s just one of Birmingham’s dilemmas. If it wants to make a case for a certain size of council – or for any multi-member wards – it has to do it specifically in terms of the roles, responsibilities, workloads and residents’ expectations of councillors in Birmingham, not by comparisons with other councils, either at home or abroad.

Whether such battles would be winnable is anyone’s guess, but at least, unlike all-out elections, they’re not already over.

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