Campaigners battling for greater independence for Sutton Coldfield claim they are closing in on the petition target needed to trigger a referendum on setting up a town council.
Activists bidding for the Royal Town to gain greater autonomy from Birmingham have collected more than 5,000 signatures, with 7,600, or ten per cent of the electorate, needed to trigger a vote.
They claim that Birmingham, as Europe’s largest local authority, is over centralised, remote from the communities its serves and like Greater Manchester and Greater London, should be broken up into smaller boroughs.
They believe that a constitutionally established town council, with responsibility for key local services, would be a staging post on the way to Sutton Coldfield returning to its status as a borough, which it last enjoyed 40 years ago.
But there are those in the town, including the Conservative councillors, who argue that another tier of local government would be costly and is unwanted – as would a referendum to test local opinion on the issue.
Chairman of the Sutton Coldfield Town Council referendum campaign Ken Rushton said: “Birmingham is by far the largest, most centralised, local authority in Europe.
“I attended The Cadbury Commission sittings, way back, and they discussed breaking Birmingham into two or three large Unitary Authorities, something like London, or Greater Manchester.
“However it went no further than discussion, the politics of the day killed any real change, and we finished up with a much watered down, fairly useless level of devolution, which subsequent councils have dismantled.
“There is now a different more positive approach by our parties on this subject, and we would like to see Sir Albert go beyond a Town Council for Sutton, and look at reorganising Birmingham to match the democratic levels in the rest of the UK.
“Our petitioning has revealed that Sutton residents are seeking change, far beyond what we were aiming for. We shall not get it, they are looking to be ‘out’ completely, but they will accept a move in that direction, for starters.”
Sutton Coldfield has a history as a town in its own right and it is thought there is considerable support for keeping Birmingham at arm’s length. But Mr Rushton argues that residents in other parts of Birmingham should also be challenging the council to break up the city.
In a measured response to the issue the council’s Labour leader Sir Albert Bore said that his administration has shown a commitment to ‘devolution’ in the last year by handing more power and more responsibility to the ten council districts – including responsibility for housing and refuse collection.
But in reality this has proved hard to implement – a key example being the strategic decision to introduce wheelie bins overriding local decision making because such a city-wide service delivers economies of scale. Sir Albert said that if a valid petition was submitted then a review would consider a town council structure which would lead to “improved local democracy, greater community engagement and improved public services”.
“I recognise the unique situation of Sutton Coldfield as a former separate authority with a strong sense of its own identity,” he said, but added that the issue was hypothetical until the petition was submitted.
Sutton Coldfield district chairman Anne Underwood (Cons, Sutton Four Oaks) said that just 600 people signed up to back an online version of the petition from a population of 76,000 voters.
She said: “Listening to Mr Rushton you might have the impression that the residents of Sutton Coldfield are champing at the bit for the establishment of a town council. As yet this desire has not been proved.”
She has asked Sir Albert and his staff to provide the estimated cost of carrying out a governance review and state clearly whether the residents would have to pay a precept on their council tax to fund the town council and how much that might be per household – suggesting that £40 to £50 a year has been estimated.
Sutton Coldfield was previously a Royal Borough with its own Mayor and town council and part of the County of Warwickshire. Under the 1974 local government reorganisation it was absorbed into Birmingham and the West Midlands.