Birmingham’s 120 councillors are unsurprisingly getting nervous – not only are a third of them up for election in a few weeks, but they have now been asked to work out how many of them there should be.
The first piece of evidence handed to the Commission is Kerslake’s report in which the former civil servant was incredibly prescriptive about the future shape of the city council: 100 members and 100 wards of approximately 11,000 voters each, elected every four years – simple.
So the first job of councillors is to work out just how many politicians Europe’s largest local authority needs to run effectively and they have until June to make their views known to the Boundary Commission.
I am told Labour council leader Sir Albert Bore may suggest there should be just one councillor... him. Although there is no official confirmation and this may or may not be the view of an embittered rival.
Certainly the view from those who met the Boundary Commission officials is that a cull is likely – rarely do they recommend increasing or maintaining numbers of councillors. In fact, this week it has confirmed there will be five fewer members for neighbouring Warwickshire County Council.
Politicians are not popular and suggesting we have more of them rarely goes down well with the masses.
And given that Kerslake has also talked about cutting the numbers of committees – particularly the city-wide scrutiny committees which should be cut from nine to three, and the HR committee which has now been summarily axed – the writing is indeed on the wall for a number of our elected members.
The key to the argument against a cull is that Kerslake also talked of councillors having a direct community leadership role and that the fewer of them the less likely they are to be close to their community.
A second factor is that Birmingham’s population is projected to increase significantly over the next 20 years and the Commission will take account of this.
The 6,000 homes planned for the east of Sutton Coldfield would on their own equate to one of Kerslake’s single member wards. Perhaps the Commission should create a Sutton Green Belt ward in readiness for the expansion.
The haste of all this post-Kerslake stuff means that the council, along with the Boundary Commission and the Kerslake Improvement Panel, are simultaneously working on a new constitution and the election arrangements – until the former is finalised how can they know what size the council should be?
Meanwhile, there has been little complaint over the plan to elect the entire council in one go every four years starting in 2017 – few gain anything from the almost annual elections we have now.
But there is a side effect, the Commission has told senior councillors that an all-out election would automatically rule out keeping the three member wards we have now.
Quite why one must automatically rule out the other I am not sure. Although the last time there were all-out elections for three member wards, in 2004, was a total disaster. Although most recall the postal vote fraud and fallout, few remember that with everyone having three votes each, officials struggled to keep tally and it took days to conclude the count.
Instead the council is likely to be offered either the single member wards proposed by Kerslake or a mix of single and double as happens in many shire districts.
Councillors have told me this could be confusing, but I disagree. Voters generally only care about their own ward so whether other areas have different arrangements would not concern most people.
It also allows ward boundaries to be predominantly drawn around community lines rather than trying to crowbar areas into equal sized borders. That way leads to the creation of wards for places which don’t exist like Oscott, Brandwood or Tyburn, where distinctive places like Castle Vale, Witton or Druids Heath are patched up with other areas into artificial wards. Seems entirely sensible to me.
Anyone thinking of urging a Birmingham councillor to ‘break a leg’ in his up-and-coming election campaign would be advised to find a more suitable phrase.
Poor Sutton Four Oaks councillor Meirion Jenkins is hobbling about on crutches having snapped his leg playing football. It was a during a kick-about with friends that a painful tackle did for him. “I went down like I’d been shot,” he said.
This is pretty poor timing as Coun Jenkins is also the Conservative candidate for Bridgend, the town where he was born and bred, in the general election and long days on the campaign trail beckon.