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Tory MP’s rescue plan for Birmingham: ‘We need 10 councils and 140 councillors’

Tory MP’s rescue plan for Birmingham: ‘We need 10 councils and 140 councillors’

🕔12.Nov 2015

A plan to replace “dysfunctional” Birmingham city council with 10 district councils is being promoted by former Government chief whip Andrew Mitchell, the Conservative MP for Sutton Coldfield.

News of Mr Mitchell’s revolutionary proposal was broken by the Birmingham Post.

The MP is quoted as saying there is now a widespread view that the city council “cannot improve as it currently exists” despite efforts by the Birmingham Independent Improvement Panel and the Government to deliver culture change and reform set out in the Kerslake Review.

Under Mr Mitchell’s proposal the city council would be broken up to form 10 district councils based on the parliamentary constituencies. Each would have 12 councillors taking control of planning, environmental services, other basic council services and setting the council tax.

A much smaller city council would still exist, but it would have no more than 40 councillors – compared to 120 today – and its role would be limited to strategic city-wide services such as waste collection.

The idea is hardly a new one. Plans to transform Birmingham city council into three, four and even 10 separate district councils have been debated many times in the past, but always rejected either locally or by the Government.

One of the criticisms levelled against the idea promoted by Mr Mitchell has always been concern that dividing Birmingham into 10 district councils would deliver a devastating divide between wealthier areas, like Tory-controlled Sutton and Edgbaston, and poorer areas like Labour-controlled Hodge Hill, Eddington and Hall Green.

In fact, a variation of Mr Mitchell’s idea is expressly ruled out in the Kerslake Review, which states:

We do not think the theory of devolution, in effect creating 10 mini councils within Birmingham, is working in practice or will work.

Lord Kerslake said:

Some have suggested that Birmingham City Council is simply too big and should be completely broken up. On balance, we are not convinced that would currently be the best option.

It is not clear that splitting the council alone would address the major challenges the city and council face. Our view is the council’s problems are not just due to its size; many are the result of a series of poor decisions over a number of years but they must be addressed.

However, our view is that the council’s problems are not intrinsic to its size. Large organisations can be successful but only if the problems that can come with scale are acknowledged and addressed. Other large authorities, such as Leeds City Council, are actively seeking to do this.

A year ago, Labour city council leader Sir Albert Bore attempted to convince Lord Kerslake to adopt a French local government system as a solution to Birmingham’s problems.

Sir Albert favoured a model of ‘municipal arrondissements’ like those operating in Paris, Lyon and Marseille where people are elected to a local council and some are nominated to sit on a separate city wide authority.

Lord Kerslake said the idea was “interesting” but would not provide the solution the council needs because it would require primary legislation and lead to higher administration costs.

Kerslake said there were strong counter-arguments to proposals to split Birmingham into three smaller councils. These were:

  • Smaller authorities also struggle: changing the size does not, of itself, guarantee improvement;
  • Reorganisation is costly and new authorities would need to take on the existing council’s assets and liabilities, including a proportion of BCC’s large debt;
  • There is a strong risk of distracting from getting right the basics of serving the people of Birmingham well;
  • There does not appear to be a natural split that would give three authorities of around 400,000 each that does not at the same time create at least one council serving a uniformly very deprived population without further reorganisation of neighbouring local authorities,
  • We found almost no support for this option within the city among residents, partners, council officers or politically.

Mr Mitchell, who is said to be close to Local Government Secretary Greg Clark, told the Post that Birmingham’s failure was holding back the entire West Midlands, with both government and the private sector preferring to invest in the “Northern Powerhouse” instead.

Mr Mitchell said:

We’ve done our best. Under Conservative leadership, Labour leadership and Coalition leadership, it’s now clear that it just doesn’t work.

It’s not fair to the people of Birmingham, because there’s real concern about whether Birmingham can fully discharge its statutory duties to vulnerable people, be they the elderly or children.

And it’s also costing us dear now in competition with other parts of the country, like the Northern Powerhouse.

The dysfunction of governance in Birmingham is something for which the whole region is paying a high price.

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