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Having misjudged the Boundary Commission, is the Council doing the same with the Chancellor?

Having misjudged the Boundary Commission, is the Council doing the same with the Chancellor?

🕔03.Aug 2015

Chris Game from the University of Birmingham asks whether Birmingham city council is about to misjudge its handling of the Chancellor over devolution and metro mayors in the same way it has done with the Boundary Commission over its review of size. 

I was thinking of writing a belated blogpost on the Local Government Boundary Commission for England (LGBCE) deciding to – sorry, being “minded to” – cut Birmingham’s city council down to size by reducing its number after 2018 from 120 to 100.

I was critical of both the decision and, as I’d indicated in an earlier post, the Commission’s modus operandi. But the story has moved on to the re-drawing of ward boundaries. The Commission’s decision was made easier by the council’s initially defiant and subsequently inept response.

And now, seeing ‘Dale’s Devo Diary’ item about West Midlands council leaders planning to play games with Chancellor George Osborne over devolution and metro mayors, I can’t help wondering if they’re not inviting another chastening lesson on something far more significant to us all than councillor numbers.

I decided to combine these two topics – in a kind of BOGOF blog.

Boundary Commission chairman Max Caller says that “there is much more to it than simply numbers”. Chamberlain Files has published an open letter from him today, responding to my original blog.

But electoral democracy is fundamentally about numbers and equality – one person, one vote – and for the LGBCE chairman apparently to argue that some people’s votes should be EVEN MORE UNEQUAL than others than they are already sounded like the Stalinist Napoleon in Orwell’s Animal Farm.

After all, the Commission’s primary objective is “to provide electoral arrangements that are fair and deliver electoral equality for voters”.

There’s no Birmingham exception clause, saying it’s perfectly fair and equal for 100 Birmingham councillors to attempt to represent twice as many residents (11,000) as those in Manchester (5,400), Liverpool (5,250), or the average metropolitan borough (4,500).

In truth, though, our literary model here is less Orwell than Lewis Carroll’s Humpty Dumpty in Alice Through the Looking Glass: “When I use a word, it means just what I choose it to mean”. And, however irrationally, the LGBCE chooses that ‘electoral equality’ applies only WITHIN a council, not ACROSS councils, even of the same type.

My Edgbaston ward had, last December, a registered electorate of 13,564 – down from 17,417 in March, due mainly to students in halls of residence not having yet grasped the subtleties of individual voter registration.

This 13,564 was 26 per cent below the city’s 18,218 ward average. Had the drop been a further 812, to 30 per cent below the city average, that variance alone – in one ward out of 40 – could have triggered a Commission ‘intervention’ and whole-council electoral review.

My point is that the LGBCE does worry about numbers, equality and fairness, but only in one part of its work. In determining council sizes it disregards pretty well all numbers – cross-council comparisons, population- or electorate-based formulae, population projections, deprivation measures – as irrelevant.

This isn’t how the Scottish and many other local boundary authorities work – nor our own Parliamentary Commissions, whose periodic reviews set every English constituency’s electorate within 5 per cent of a national quota.

My earlier post was written when the Commission’s ‘mindedness’ was still a rumour. Nor was it public knowledge that the Council, in its supplementary submission to the Commission, had already effectively conceded a 100-member council – presumably, as Paul Dale suggested, so that Council leader Sir Albert Bore could take credit for the decision, despite having previously fought to have the council size increased to 150-plus.

My post expressed concern at the rumoured decision, because, though questioning the Commission’s high-handed disregard of numbers and cross-council comparisons, I did respect its protestations of independence and impartiality, of starting reviews “with no pre-determined views”, and of basing decisions on “evidence and reason”.

I consequently found it hard to believe that councillors, already representing by far England’s largest and some of its most economically deprived electorates, hadn’t been able to show convincingly how arbitrarily slashing their numbers by a sixth would have serious detrimental impacts on some of our city’s most vulnerable and hard-to-reach residents.

That they couldn’t suggests two possible explanations, both of which I now personally believe to be true.

First, I no longer accept the Commission’s “no pre-determined views” malarkey. I think, as I’d feared, it followed and swallowed whole the Kerslake report’s round-numbered illustration – not even recommendation – of creating 100 mainly single-member wards.

I doubt the suggestion that it took account of a possible post-Sutton mushrooming of town and community councils – welcome and exciting as that would be. If so, why not take account of the city’s far more predictable population growth?

But I also believe the Commission was assisted by the Council playing its albeit difficult hand really poorly. The Commission published the Council’s main submission, and, having read it, I’m not surprised the Council chose not to release it itself.

The whole context of the Commission’s involvement should have made it blindingly obvious that councillors’ only conceivable survival strategy lay in demonstrating, with compelling evidence, how our future effective representation would suffer without all 120 of them.

Yet the council’s submission devoted a detailed 18-page appendix to justifying an INCREASE to variously 149, 182 and 188 councillors – to which I can only assume the Commissioners’ response was a John McEnroe-style ‘You CANNOT be serious!!’

Much of the submission itself is assertion and/or speculation, but the killer must surely have been the ‘evidence’ from the very members whose future was under scrutiny.

All 120 had almost a month to complete a short survey, describing “their role, responsibilities and current pressures.” A third cared so little they couldn’t be bothered.

Barely half the actual respondents reckoned they’d received any formal training as councillors, compared with 85 per cent in the latest Local Government Association councillor census. And – in an exercise, remember, to justify their existence – the average reported total workload was 22 hours per week, which is undeniably demanding, but three hours FEWER than the national figure for all councillors in all types of council.

There were no detailed, quantitative or qualitative, accounts of casework, and, I confess, little that would have greatly impressed me, were I a Commissioner. In short, collectively it was less the future ex-councillors I was left feeling sympathy for than our ever-growing numbers of under-represented electors and residents.

Now, we gather from Paul’s report, the leaders of the prospective/shadow West Midlands Combined Authority (WMCA) propose haggling with the Chancellor of the Exchequer over a devolution package for their still indeterminate assemblage of councils as if he were a Bullring market trader – the difference being that, while they’re desperate to buy something, George Osborne and his Treasury civil servants could hardly care less if they sell nothing.

The council leaders are in a state of unified paralysis over whether their eventual Combined Authority should have an elected metro mayor – the condition in the Cities & Devolution Bill for a Combined Authority aspiring to Osborne’s “full suite of devolved powers”.

So they’re going to London, caps in hand, and then deciding whether any mayor-less offer amounts to an acceptable partial suite or a few Treasury charity throwaways.

This whole approach seems wrong in so many ways – but above all in its sheer spinelessness, which must have Greater Manchester leaders almost sniggering.

Here’s what one of them – Sean Anstee, Conservative leader of Trafford – warned at this year’s LGA Annual Conference:

Governance is not a primary issue and it shouldn’t be the starting point. Too many areas are starting with the politics and debating whether to have a mayor or not without knowing what it is that a mayor, or not, would actually govern. That’s the wrong way round of doing it. Too many areas are jumping to ‘how’ to do it without even thinking about why they are doing it in the first place. [my emphasis].

The Boundary Commission was not just unimpressed, but irritated, by Birmingham’s ill-judged bid to increase, then defend, its council size, and I fear Osborne could well take a similar view of this ‘You decide for us, sir, what’s best for the West Midlands’ gambit.

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