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Nick Clegg issues formal complaint over Birmingham city council shake-up plan

Nick Clegg issues formal complaint over Birmingham city council shake-up plan

🕔09.Feb 2015

The Deputy Prime Minister has issued a formal objection to plans to reduce the number of Birmingham city councillors and move the authority to all-out elections once every four years, reports Paul Dale.

Nick Clegg complained that he had not been consulted over the matter even though he chairs the Home Affairs Cabinet Committee which would normally approve such a radical change.

Cutting the number of councillors from 120 to 100, or even fewer, is a key recommendation in the Kerlslake Review into Birmingham city council’s governance capabilities.

Kerslake also proposed scrapping the current system of re-electing one third of councillors every year, a recommendation that has already been accepted by the Government.

Communities Secretary Eric Pickles confirmed last month that Birmingham would move to all-out elections in 2017 after a Boundary Commission review which is expected to re-draw the city’s wards and reduce the number of councillors.

The Spectator reports that Mr Clegg took up the matter with Sir Jeremy Heywood, the Cabinet Secretary, complaining that he had been ignored before government policy was announced and had not been allowed to sign off the new arrangements.

A spokesman for Mr Clegg said: “The Deputy Prime Minister has written to the Communities Secretary to seek an explanation from him as to why he did not seek collective agreement, as he was required to do. He has made the Cabinet Secretary aware of this issue and of his letter to the Communities Secretary.”

Mr Clegg raised the issue with Sir Jeremey after being contacted by Birmingham Liberal Democrats who raised “grave concerns” about reducing the number of city councillors and increasing the number of wards.

Speaking to the Chamberlain Files Paul Tilsley, leader of the Birmingham Liberal Democrat councillors, said he was concerned a system of councillors and elections that had served Birmingham for 100 years was to be abolished without consultation.

Cllr Tilsley, who was deputy council leader from 2004 to 2012 in a Tory-Lib Dem coalition, said he was “very disturbed” by the critical tone of the Kerslake Review.

One of the major criticisms is about a lack of accountability in the system. When we were in power we had an improvement board, which Labour scrapped, and we also had the Birmingham Strategic Partnership. Three years after we lost control the situation is desperate. It is very sad.

The Kerslake Review concluded that most of Birmingham’s 40 wards are far too large for effective governance, with three councillors per ward on average representing 14,000 people. It proposes increasing the number of wards, possibly from 40 to 100, but with each new ward to be represented by single councillor.

Sir Bob argues that moving to all-out elections every four years would provide the council with stability, aid strategic thinking, and guarantee a political administration a longer fixed term in power.

However, the move combined with reducing the number of councillors could prove highly problematical for the Liberal Democrats. At the moment only 12 of Birmingham’s 120 councillors are Lib Dems and the number would probably be cut even further if the size of the council was to be reduced.

The Kerslake Review comments:

Fifteen of the 20 wards with the largest population in England are in Birmingham. In total 73 per cent of the largest wards in the country are in the city. The result is councillors have a heavy workload and can find it challenging to represent all their residents.

The population of Birmingham is growing quickly and is expected to increase by a further 150,000 by 2031. This is the equivalent to Birmingham absorbing a town around the size of Reading.

The council projects that four wards will have more than 40,000 people in them by 2031. As the population of individual wards grows larger, fulfilling councillors’ role will become even more challenging.

The council is already the third largest in the country, larger than the United States Senate, so simply adding more three member wards and/or increasing the number of councillors is unlikely to be a sustainable solution.

By moving to predominantly single member wards, reducing the number of councillors and at the same time increasing the number of wards it is possible to alleviate the pressure of population growth while increasing accountability and saving money.

For example, by creating 100 mainly single member wards the average population of a ward in the city could be reduced to just 10,730 from 13,413. This would result in a direct saving of around £1.6 million over 5 years.

We are not making a recommendation on the number of wards in the city as that is for others to determine but our view is there needs to be a significant reduction on the current number of councillors.

On the topic of all-out elections, Kerslake says:

Part of the problem in Birmingham is the culture of short-termism. There is an inability to focus on longer term problems including transforming services that is holding the council back. It also encourages members to become too involved in operational issues.

We believe that, especially in conjunction with an electoral review, changing the electoral cycle to all out elections can have a significant impact on a council’s ability to change and adapt, provide stability in decision making and aid long term planning and vision.

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