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Re-drawing Birmingham ward boundaries will be a ‘highly charged political affair’

Re-drawing Birmingham ward boundaries will be a ‘highly charged political affair’

🕔21.Jul 2015

A month ago Birmingham city council was adamant it could not provide effective governance with fewer than 120 elected members, and even attempted to argue that 150 would be better.

Today, the Local Government Boundary Commission for England has recommended the size of the council should be 100, down from 120, in line with proposals set out in the Kerslake Review.

This has triggered an interesting response by Labour council leader Sir Albert Bore, who appears to be taking credit for the 100 decision because the figure was contained in the city’s formal submission to the Boundary Commission.

But it was Sir Albert who fought to have the council size increased to 150 on the grounds that, adjusted pro rata for population, the figure more accurately reflected the sizes of other major English city councils.

The figure of 150 was mentioned in the council’s first submission, which was swiftly rejected by the commission who told Sir Albert and the leaders of the other political parties to think again.

It was clear from the start that any proposal to increase the size would run contrary to recommendations by Kerslake, who noted that the council comfortably has more members than the American Senate and that 15 of the 20 most populated council wards in the country are in Birmingham.

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.

Taking predicted population growth into account, four wards would have more than 40,000 people living in them by 2031 if changes are not implemented.

The next phase of the Boundary Commission’s review of Birmingham will be highly politically charged. Having recommended 100 councillors, the body must now re-draw ward boundaries “to deliver electoral equality for voters in council elections so that each councillor represents roughly the same number of voters”.

Boundary reviews are always highly controversial because changing the size and shape of a ward can also change the political makeup, effectively gifting the ward from one political party to another.

This review will be fascinating because, for the first time, there is a real possibility that Birmingham will end up with a mixture of one member, two member and even some three member wards.

Given that the 2018 council elections will be all-out, with 100 councillors to be re-elected for four years, it would take a brave person to predict just how the new boundaries will play out.

The first unknown is how many wards there will be? There are 40 three member wards at the moment. There could be anything from 100 one member wards (highly unlikely) to a mixture of about 50 three, two and one member wards by 2018.

It seems likely that three member wards will appear in the most heavily populated parts of the city and in areas where significant population growth is forecast. A map published in the Kerslake Review suggests growth will be chiefly in the inner city areas, which could benefit Labour.

Splitting existing large wards up into two or even three smaller wards could solidify political support for the two main parties – Labour and Conservative. An existing ‘marginal’ large ward might divide easily enough into two parts, one better off area and one poorer area, producing two safe seats – one Labour and one Conservative.

The Liberal Democrat heartlands in the south-east of Birmingham and the north-west are not areas where significant population growth is expected over the next 20 years – about three per cent against between 18 and 38 per cent in places like Nechells, Ladywood, Soho, Hodge Hill and Tyburn.

The Boundary Commission has launched a comprehensive consultation exercise, asking the public to get involved so that the new council wards “reflect, as far as possible, the interests and identities of communities across Birmingham”.

Setting out what it wants to achieve, the commission said:

In drawing up new boundaries, the Commission aims to deliver electoral equality for voters in council elections so that each councillor represents roughly the same number of voters.

We are now asking local people and organisations to help us draw up new wards for Birmingham. As we develop the recommendations, we will take into account local community identities as well as ensuring electoral equality for voters.

If you have a view about which communities or neighbourhoods should be part of the same council ward, then we want to hear from you. And if you think a road, canal or railway makes for a strong boundary between communities in your part of Birmingham, then this consultation is for you.

This approach has been echoed by Sir Albert Bore:

Moving to all out elections and smaller wards with one or two councillors will be a big change from the system of local democracy we have become used to. It is important that the new boundaries reflect the local areas that people know.

All the political groups on the council will be making their proposals but I want to see local people and communities have their say – it is your local democracy and your neighbourhood boundaries that are being reviewed.

Reaching agreement on new boundaries that “reflect the local areas that people know” will be difficult, and the Commission has plenty of experience of attempted manoeuvring to get favourable results for political parties.

This being Birmingham, the second largest city in the country and the largest council, there will be plenty of people keen to discover what the Boundary Commission eventually comes up with. One thing is certain: the new wards and boundaries won’t please everyone.

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