Our Councillors are being disappeared – by stealth

Chris Game

If, as I did, you worked in the pre-internet age for something called the Institute of Local Government Studies, writing occasionally on matters electoral, these April weeks preceding annual local elections could be trying.  Even in the Citizenship Test era, it’s hardly a deportable sin for an English elector to be uncertain if their council is elected in entirety every four years, by thirds in three years out of four, or even in alternate years by halves (I’m thinking of you, Nuneaton & Bedworth) – and, in the latter cases, whether this year’s elections involve their particular ward councillor(s).  Nor is it certifiable to suppose that surely someone in that INLOGOV place would know – so they’d telephone to check.

Even if I weren’t already, it would have inclined me strongly to some countries’ practice, long backed by the Electoral Commission, the 2007 Councillors Commission and others, of a single four-yearly national or at least regional Local Elections Day for all councils. That’s not, however, either of the points of this blog, the lesser of which is a tabular demonstration that old habits die hard, and that I still rather like knowing who should and shouldn’t be voting on Thursday and where.

2018 Local elections table 2

The table is intended to be accurate, comprehensive in its way, and illustrative of the heffalump traps awaiting reporters and broadcasters on Thursday night. But nowadays much fuller lists are easily available, from, inter alia, Wiki and Open Council Data UK.

The latter is particularly detailed, and any minor errors usually inconsequential – though not entirely in this exceptional instance.  For – when I checked, anyway – it omits Blackburn with Darwen as one of the two unitary councils, with Hull, holding all-out elections this year to implement the proposals of a comprehensive boundary review, a process that constitutes the principal justification for my own modest table.

By my reckoning, of the 4,262 Councillors elected at this round of local elections four years ago, the seats won by 99 or well over 2% of them have already been lost before a single vote is cast – lost not just to them, but to their councils, and almost certainly permanently.

The 99 are the net sum of the rulings of the Local Government Boundary Commission for England (LGBCE) following its reviews of the 17 councils that are implementing those rulings in all-out elections this Thursday – although ‘net’ is somewhat misleading, as it represents eight proposals of Councillor reductions, counterbalanced by no proposals for increases.

Next year, a further net 51 council seats are already set to go, and last year it was 34. So, in three years that’s the abolition of about five councils-worth of democratic representation, without a ministerial whisper of the R-for-reorganisation word – and that’s from a start in England of a 2,250:1 citizens-to-councillor ratio already far higher than almost any other EU country.

At which point, I should declare a personal citizen interest. As previously anticipated in these columns, my own council of Birmingham contributes 19 of this year’s lost 99, despite the other three significantly smaller big cities also reviewed in this cycle – Leeds (99), Manchester (96) and Newcastle (78) – being allowed to retain all 273 of theirs.

It’s tempting, certainly in lectures, to misquote here the Lutheran hymn about God moving in mysterious ways, his wonders to perform. The LGBCE obviously isn’t that mysterious, for it publishes all its proposals and reports and a certain amount of its reasoning.

The Commission’s aims too are distinctly more modest than God’s, being limited to achieving its singular interpretation of electoral equality: namely, equalising the number of electors represented by each Councillor in any particular local authority. About that intra-council form of electoral equality it is passionate, and it’s what prompts most – though importantly not all – of its reviews.

However, about inter-council electoral equality, and also about other measures of intra-council equality, it is passionately indifferent. As described in that previous blog, Birmingham’s case was exceptional in its being referred to the LGBCE following the now Lord Kerslake’s highly critical review of the council’s governance and organisation – but not really in the Commission’s processing.  Kerslake identified the number of councillors as one of the council’s weaknesses and recommended cutting them to a round 100, and presumably increasing their workloads, as part of the solution – a recommendation that the LGBCE endorsed and implemented almost precisely, though far from unproblematically.

Its draft ward proposals generated an emotional spasm that canvassers in these local elections would almost pay for, and produced “over 2,000 submissions”, aka protests, possibly some kind of record, and to which, as is their wont, the Commissioners sought to respond.

Council size, however, was non-negotiable. In Commission arithmetic, the former 120 councillors represented an average of just over 6,000 electors, although, since all were elected to three-member wards and had to canvass, deal with and represent all ward residents, the more meaningful figures would have been 18,000 electors and 30,000 persons, considerably higher than any other single-tier authority.

In future, 37 of the 101 councillors will represent single-member wards, with 64 in two-member wards.  Currently, therefore, candidates in the former group will presumably be almost relishing campaigning for the first time for the votes of ‘only’ an average of 7,000 or so electors – the more so as they see their colleagues canvassing similarly new electorates, but twice the size. For, in our system, electoral equality is not for the likes of footsore aspiring councillors, but for generally unaware electors.

Part of this blog’s purpose was to highlight how this most under-appreciated tier of our political class is being gradually but steadily whittled away in a kind of policy vacuum. For there is nothing in the LGBCE’s terms of reference requiring it, rather than equalising upwards in response to generally growing populations, almost always to equalise downwards.

There are, certainly, several instances – including Bexley LBC, as listed in the table – where reviews were initiated not by the Commission, but by the council itself wishing to reduce its own elected membership, whether for financial or other reasons usually not being stated.  In both types, though, the Commissioners’ phraseology, though varying slightly, is that they are satisfied that “decreasing the number of members by XX will make sure the council can carry out its roles and responsibilities effectively”.

Most council officers will have had the occasional thought that “if it weren’t for those pesky members … ”, but it’s a bit concerning, especially at election time, to realise that there’s an unelected body already doing something about it.

chris gameChris Game is a Visiting Lecturer at INLOGOV interested in the politics of local government; local elections, electoral reform and other electoral behaviour; party politics; political leadership and management; member-officer relations; central-local relations; use of consumer and opinion research in local government; the modernisation agenda and the implementation of executive local government.


The views in this blog are those of its author and do not represent the views of INLOGOV or the University of Birmingham.

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