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Game: If a 120-member council is too big, the reasoning had better be good

Game: If a 120-member council is too big, the reasoning had better be good

🕔02.Jul 2015

This is basically a critique based on a guess, says Chris Game as the Local Government Boundary Commission for England is expected to announce its view on the recommended size of Birmingham City Council. For a supposed academic, that’s pretty iffy, so I’ll start with some explanation and some investment in a bit of insurance cover.

The guess, in truth, is stronger than it sounds. It was Paul Dale’s recent blog suggesting the Local Government Boundary Commission England (LGBCE) is about to reject the city council’s submission to retain the 120-member Birmingham City Council at its present size.

Paul reported that a cross-party submission had proposed “maintaining the status quo, or even increasing the number of councillors to 150.” The latter bit almost beggars belief, but more of that later.

The Commission’s response, apparently, was to inform Birmingham’s political leaders that “keeping the current size is not acceptable and runs counter to recommendations in the Kerslake Review which suggested 100 councillors as a maximum number.” The Council was given two weeks to submit alternative proposals.

Chamberlain Files understands the Commission will publish its recommendations on size on 21 July.

The emphases are mine and their questioning forms the basis of this post. It amounts to getting my retaliation in first. But, since the retaliation is to something that’s not actually yet happened, I’ve covered myself at least skimpily by framing my concerns as broad questions that I hope to see addressed and answered in the Commission’s response.

Question 1: What should we expect from the review?
The quick answer is: a carefully reasoned proposal, based not on pre-determined views, national formulae, or comparisons with other any authorities, but on substantiated evidence relating specifically to the characteristics and needs of Birmingham and its residents.

That’s a one-sentence summary of the LGBC’s 50-page Technical Guidance, which I’ll amplify with a few direct quotes.

An electoral review is about delivering “improved electoral representation”. “Our recommendations are based on evidence”. “We have no predetermined view of its outcome”. “We have no absolute numbers in mind”. Where needed, “we can and will carry out a specific consultation exercise.”

“We believe each local authority should be considered individually and not compared with others of similar geographic or population size”.

We won’t “apply strict mathematical criteria for council size”, and we don’t like arguments based solely on population growth projections or financial savings.

Our view of the right council size is based mainly on: “the governance arrangements of the council, its scrutiny functions, and the representational role of councillors in the local community”.

Question 2: Why the apparently predetermined obeisance to Kerslake’s 100 councillors?
Without Sir Bob Kerslake’s highly critical review of the city council’s organization and governance, there wouldn’t be an electoral review, and one of Kerslake’s concerns was very definitely the current operation of the 120-member council. It was also the source of the 100-member alternative – but NOT as an explicit recommendation.

There were 10 main recommendations, the Electoral Review recommendation (No.4) being that four-yearly all-out elections should replace the current system of election by thirds, and, reflecting the report’s principal electoral concern, in predominantly single-member, rather than three-member, wards.

As I suggested in an earlier blog, however incensed councillors might feel, if they focused their attention on trying to fight Kerslake and Pickles on all-out elections or predominantly single-member wards, they’d be wasting their time and probably alienating, in the Commission, potential allies.

Similarly, arguing for an INCREASE in council size ought to have ruled itself out as pointlessly provocative. So if, as Paul suggested, council leaders even tentatively proposed an increase to 150, they too have serious questions to answer.

Opposing an arbitrary cut of a sixth of the council’s current membership, however, is a different matter.

Council size was treated differently in the Kerslake review from election by thirds. It easily could have been a recommendation, but it remained merely a “view” of the report’s authors that “there needs to be a significant reduction in the current number of councillors” (p.26).

It’s not nit-picking. Words have meanings, and a view simply doesn’t have the force of an explicit recommendation.

The 100, moreover, wasn’t even a view; more like a conveniently round-numbered illustration: “For example, by creating 100 mainly single-member wards, the average population of a ward could be reduced to just 10,730 from 13,413. This would result in a direct saving of around £1.6 million over five years.”

“Just 10,730” would be nearly half as many again as the highest average ward population of any other single-tier authority, EVEN IF that authority too (Leeds) were forced to switch to single-member wards.

No one knows such things better than Max Caller, Chair of the Boundary Commission, and he indicated as much in an interview with The Birmingham Post’s Neil Elkes. “Stop griping”, he virtually pleaded through Neil to councillors. Engage with us, suggest a realistic number that’s right for you, and come up with evidence and facts to support that number.

Question 3: What part of the Kerslake ‘evidence’ that Birmingham should have a significantly smaller council did the Commission find so compelling?
Given the LGBCE’s protestations about being independent, having no predetermined views, and being unimpressed by arguments based on financial savings, it will seem odd if its council size proposal appears to have followed Kerslake not just to the letter, but beyond.

And odder still, for a body promoting electoral representation, if Kerslake’s other ‘evidence’ is seen as a clincher: that the main determinant of the number of councillors should be the number of unelected officers (p.25):

“Other local authorities [references to which, of course, the Commission discounts as largely irrelevant] have … concluded that a lower ratio of members to officers could help effective governance by enabling officers to support members better in their community role.”

So – I hope I have this right – the former unelected Chief Exec’s argument is that the fewer councillors we have, the better served and governed we’ll feel, and, in the Commission’s words, the more improved will be our electoral representation.

By that standard, with our 1:2,900 councillor/residents ratio, the UK is already comfortably the best locally governed country in Europe. Indeed, we should pity the sad Spanish and Italians (1:600), the Germans (1:420), and above all the French (1:120), who must be as envious as they are of our international (male) footballers.

Question 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 needs and their “representational role in the local community”, and will therefore carry out a “specific consultation exercise”, as described in its Guidance?”
In the Commission’s February News Release, the consultation references kept referring to seeking our “views on a new pattern of council wards … once the Commission has taken a view on council size”, which, to say the least, is ambiguous.

Question 5: If Birmingham is deemed not to merit a council of more than 100 members, what are the evidence-based reasons for its being driven even further out of line with other major metropolitan councils?
We know the Commission, unlike most such bodies, regards “mathematical formulae”, comparisons with similar authorities, future population projections, and suchlike as irrelevancies and inferior to their ‘council in isolation’ approach.

Still, that’s no reason for us to ignore them, if only to give us something against which to compare their superior criteria and judgements.

Most democratic countries pay at least lip service to every vote being of equal weight. They’ll therefore start off with a table listing numbers of either registered electors or all residents in each municipality, precisely so that comparisons CAN be made across councils of the same type.

Game_Boundary Commission

Sweden is, well, Swedish, and details the whole council size procedure in its Local Government Act. For a start – and a very good one, for any voting assembly – all total councillor numbers must be odd.

Second, an electorate-based formula sets MINIMUM numbers, which municipalities themselves may, and regularly do, increase: up to 12,000 electors – 31 councillors; 12,001 to 24,000 – 41; 24,001 to 36,000 – 51, and so on. Stockholm’s 660,000 electors, should any mathematicians be wondering, get just the 101 councillors, not 561.

Of course, not all countries are as Scandinavian in their determination of council sizes. But few, unaware of our now constitutional requirement that Manchester be advantageously treated in all things, would see the disparity between that city’s 96 councillors representing an average of 3,868 electors, Leeds’ 99 representing 5,426, and Birmingham’s current 120 representing 6,131 as some bizarre kind of democratic virtue.

As for Kerslake’s suggested 10,730, they’d surely dismiss it as some sub-category of ‘ze Ingleesh sense of humeur’. And then there’s Coventry. What on earth did they do to upset the Commission?

The table’s final column shows potential council sizes under a rough-and-ready Swedish-type formula, adjusted for the greater size of our metropolitan authorities: up to 200,000 electors – 60 councillors; 200,001 to 300,000 – 70; 300,001 to 400,000 – 80, and so on.

Solihull would gain 9 councillors, Coventry 16, Manchester would lose 16, and Birmingham at present would stay the same.

In principle, one possible partial explanation of Manchester’s more generous councillor allocation could be that on current figures it’s the 4th most multiply deprived of England’s 326 district authorities – were it not that, as the Kerslake Supporting Analysis noted (p.13), Birmingham is only just behind it at 9th.

Kerslake didn’t link deprivation to any consideration of council size, but the Scottish Boundary Commission does. In fact, it uses BOTH population size and level of deprivation as two of its three principal criteria for determining council numbers.

North of the border, therefore, Birmingham’s current population size, its dramatic projected growth – an additional 150,000 by 2031 – and its multiple deprivation would all militate against any cut in its councillor numbers. If the English Commission sees things markedly differently, it will be interesting to hear why.

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