Birmingham mayor: …And Further Down the Slippery Slope?

Birmingham currently has 120 directly elected councillors. But for how long, asks Steve Beauchampé.

City of BirminghamBirmingham is Europe’s largest local authority, it’s 40 wards served by 120 directly elected (to use contemporary parlance) councillors. But how long would this remain the case if the city’s electorate vote Yes in May’s mayoral referendum? Liberal Democrat Councillor Michael Wilkes, writing on his online blog last month, stated: “The City Council itself would undoubtedly be scaled down in the not too distant future to no more than 80, or possibly to as few as 40, seats. An electoral review is needed but this is under active consideration in other councils. For example Rochdale plans to reduce councillors from 60 to 40 and in Doncaster the executive mayor wants to reduce the number of councillors from 63 to 21.”

Birmingham’s council wards are the largest in England, serving an average population of more than 18,000 people per ward. While a two-thirds cut in their numbers seems very unlikely, several councillors we have spoken with share Michael Wilkes’ assertion that there will probably be a smaller, but still significant, reduction in the reasonably near future.

Of course, Rochdale Metropolitan Borough Council does not have a mayor. Neither does East Dorset District Council, where plans to reduce councillor numbers from 36 to 29 were recently approved. However, these examples show the general direction of travel as local authorities seek ways of cutting costs. As Michael Wilkes indicated, councils wishing to reduce the number of councillors must first make a submission to the Local Government Boundary Commission and also undertake public consultation.

In East Dorset, part of the local authority’s case for reducing councillor numbers is that: ‘Since the last review eleven years ago a number of council sub-committees and working groups have disappeared with work being delegated to offices or going direct to committee. The result of this is that a number of councillors have said that they are not involved as fully as they might be. Recently a number of committee meetings have been cancelled due to lack of business.’

If such things are happening in local authorities without elected mayors, then those with them may well also attempt to scale back on democratic representation. The arguments would be two-fold: firstly on cost grounds – an easy, populist call at a time of severe service cutbacks. Secondly, it will be claimed that as the mayor has a mandate from the whole city and enjoys unprecedented levels of power and control over the council, then fewer councillors are needed. Providing that the mayor continues needing the support of at least one-third of councillors for his annual budget and Council Plan, the number of councillors, the argument will go, is largely irrelevant.

Of course, none of those who have already pre-empted the forthcoming mayoral referendum and announced their intention to run for a job that does not even exist, have suggested reducing the number of councillors. To an electorate already concerned at the extensive powers mayors to be granted to mayors, that would be verging on political suicide.

But in establishing the ‘democratic’ framework in which mayors will operate, central government has deliberately made their local power base as unassailable as possible. Ward councillors have been largely sidelined from major policy making decisions (a process that started with the abolition of the Committee system in 2000) and have precious little input into the council’s broad policy framework. Reducing their influence inevitably lessens their ability to challenge the mayor’s authority. Reducing their numbers means less voices to question, to scrutinise and to hold to account the incumbent of what would be Birmingham’s most powerful political post in over a century.

In such a climate it would be naïve not to think that further emasculating and neutering the one group democratically mandated to provide awkward and intrusive opposition to mayoral policy might be on the agenda sooner rather than later.