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Councillor cull: good news or bad news?

Councillor cull: good news or bad news?

🕔12.Sep 2016

Last week saw final proposals for reducing the number of councillors in Birmingham from 2018. It also witnessed a Yorkshire MP tell his fellow Members he wants fewer councillors across the country, but paid lots more money. Chris Game, from INLOGOV at the University of Birmingham, picks apart the proposals. 

It’s unfortunate the great lexicographer Samuel Johnson was also, as Boris (no relation) once put it, such a slobbering, sexist xenophobe. Not least because it makes it tricky to use in full (so I won’t) Sam’s otherwise handy quote about something unexpected resembling “a dog’s walking on his hind legs. It is not done well; but you are surprised to find it done at all.”

Last week’s unexpected something was Tuesday’s 9.30am parliamentary debate on local government reform, introduced by an MP who’d just written a report on the subject, and with contributions exclusively from other Members with personal knowledge of what they were talking about.

It was one of the so-called Westminster Hall debates that take place in the Grand Committee Room just off the Hall, and allow individual MPs to introduce and have recorded in Hansard usually 90-minute debates on issues of importance to them.

Tuesday’s selectee was the Yorkshire MP, Alec Shelbrooke, and his self-published report, available free to all, is entitled simply A Future for Local Government in England – definitely no question mark, although the fact its prescriptions brought Dr Johnson’s quote to mind could fairly be interpreted as my thinking one wouldn’t have been out of place.

I didn’t feel that, like Johnson’s grandstanding dog, either the report or Shelbrooke’s presentation of it were done particularly well, but the fact they happened at all and have an undeniable topicality seemed worth at least our passing attention – which, for my own amusement I’ve dressed up in a ‘Good news, bad news’ format:

Good news (at least for councillors): in Shelbrooke’s local government future councillors should be paid considerably more than the basic allowance most of them receive today (ranging in the West Midlands from Staffordshire Moorlands’ £2,902 to Birmingham’s £16,267). He suggests £37,481 p.a., or half the current salary of a backbench MP.

Bad news: it would be a full-time salary paid to rather fewer than the roughly 16,000 principal councillors (outside London) England has at present. To be precise – and using the figures detailed (p.27) in the report, though not, I think, in the Hansard record – it would be 13,929 or 86% fewer.

Good news: single-member ward sizes of Shelbrooke’s proposed county-size unitary councils would increase “to 15,000 people per councillor without creating a democratic deficit, as councillors are enabled to devote extra time to their constituents” (p.4).

Bad news: he’s done his sums wrong, confusing people with electors – among other things. His calculated 2,253 councillors for England minus London would each represent an average of well over 20,000 people. That’s around 150 times the French ratio (pop: 66 million; councillors: ½million+), or 10 times the Danish ratio, which is about the highest – UK excepted – in the current EU.

Coming closer to home, the West Midlands region in Shelbrooke’s massacre of the almost innocents gets off comparatively lightly, with a councillor reduction of a mere 84%, from 1,702 to 276 – compared, for instance, to the South East’s 88%, from 3,573 to 435. That’s him; the next bit’s me.

Applying that West Midlands percentage without any adjustment to Birmingham, it so happens we get the perfect inversion of the 2018 reduction in councillors from 120 to 101 that the Local Government Boundary Commission confirmed last week. Instead of retaining 84% and losing 19 councillors, we’d lose 84% and retain 19 – representing what would be single-member wards of around 57,000 residents each, apparently across the whole country.

Whether, for the biggest cities, that’s what Shelbrooke really envisages isn’t clear. Considering his own six years’ councillor service was on Leeds City Council, this seems odd, and the people/electors confusion is irritating.

He is, though, absolutely clear and precise about the number of local elected representatives he wants at the end of his self-described “complete upheaval”, and that’s very few indeed. So few, I’d suggest, that the outcome would be not so much a democratic deficit as a definitional deficit: a scale of operation that is way past being sensibly describable as ‘local’ anything.

Moreover, Shelbrooke’s extreme precision over councillor numbers and cost savings is almost bound to deflect attention that might otherwise be paid to some of the more reasonable and certainly debateable proposals he mentions more fleetingly.

Salaries for councillors, for instance, is both an important and highly contentious issue. Scottish councillors are paid salaries, as are those of several European countries – a practice that a former colleague, Professor Colin Copus of De Montfort University, has recently advocated extending, at least in part, to England.

In his recent book, In Defence of Councillors (Manchester UP), Copus argues (pp.167-8) that it would be “a simple move” to require all executive members to be full-time councillors, which many of course already are, and paid a salary plus full pension entitlement – sufficient at least, presumably, to enable them to purchase his challengingly priced book.

A wholly unitary system, five-yearly all-out local elections, elected mayors in conjunction with a leader and council system (my ironic emphasis), additional tax-raising powers for councils … there’s no shortage in Shelbrooke’s report of serious and at least arguable proposals, but unfortunately virtually all are relatively glossed over in his eagerness to quantify the precise extent to which he wants to delocalise our sub-central government, and, as a true modern Conservative, how much money he can save by doing so.

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