Notwestminster: Writing the future of local democracy

Dave McKenna

Next month, Notwestminster takes place again after a year off.  

It’s an event that we love here at INLOGOV and have been delighted to support
previous events as well as go along and share some of our work such as the 21st
Century Councillor research

If you haven’t heard of it before, it’s perhaps best described as a mini
festival of all things local democracy – an informal mix of workshops and
speakers that takes place in Huddersfield. This year it’s taking place in
the hallowed halls of Huddersfield University on Saturday 26th February.

What makes it really rock is the mix of people – volunteers, citizens, council
officers, councillors and yes, even academics, all mix together to discuss a
shared (and sometimes nerdy) appreciation of all things local democracy.

Here’s a section of the workshops to give a flavour:

• Pirates, Citizens and the future of local government

• Zines for democracy

• Creating 100 ideas for the North

• Dramatic Communication Strategies

• How can measuring political literacy help to improve local democracy?

• Fair and equal voting rights for young people across the UK

So, if you’re up for the challenge of renewing our democracy, please join in
for a day of workshops, quick-fire talks, conversations and inspiration in
Huddersfield. Notwestminster is a free event and everyone is welcome to
take part.

You can find out more and sign up here:

https://notinwestminster.wordpress.com/notwestminster-2022/

Hope to see you there.

 

Dave McKenna is a Research Fellow in INLOGOV.

How can we nurture urban transformation?

Dr. Catherine Durose

The complex, rapidly changing, increasingly precarious nature of cities has highlighted the limits of a traditional ‘top down’ master governance plan. How then can we shape and transform cities in order to address the challenges we face as a society, from sustainability to social cohesion?

Rather than attempting to discipline the urban governance environment, academics are increasingly trying to use different ways of thinking about the urban environment in order to work with its messiness, focusing on contingency, emergence and interaction. In our recent research, we have embraced this approach, but sought to develop it by also acknowledging the role of human agency in shaping and nurturing urban transformation.  Our work has given a sustained focus on how different people – those working on the front-line of public services, or in voluntary, community or social enterprise organisations, activists, and residents – can create change in urban neighbourhoods. Our new research places those working for change at the centre of debates on how cities transform.

We conducted a 30 month study in neighbourhoods in Amsterdam, Birmingham, Copenhagen and Glasgow. With local partners, we identified individuals who had a reputation for making a difference. We interviewed and observed them, and created spaces for them to come together to reflect on what they do, how they do it and why it matters. Our research discovered examples of how people made use of and nurtured four common resources:

  • Vision: a set of ideas to bring people together and offers a collective narrative for the future.
  • Relationships: ongoing engagement with a range of different people, often across cultural, economic or organisational boundaries.
  • Different ways of knowing: from professional knowledge to local.
  • Materials: from buildings to human bodies.

Living Lab in Birmingham

Examples included: how a mobile bakery in Amsterdam brought people together to take action, how historic buildings were re-purposed in Glasgow to offer a different future for the neighbourhood, how healthy lifestyle opportunities in Birmingham helped women from under-served communities realise their potential, and how resources were re-used and shared in Copenhagen to build a sustainable neighbourhood food economy. 

Seen together these examples begin to demonstrate a different way of thinking and showing how cities may be transformed:

First, how transformation may come from giving meaning to action and a pathway to a more liveable neighbourhood. 

Second, nurturing rather than extracting resources.

Third, engaging with people as community members to foster a sense of belonging and solidarity.

Finally, recognising and valuing different kinds of knowledge and harnessing them to respond creatively to social problems.

These practices did not begin with, focus upon, or end with those formal institutions that govern a city. Indeed, they often reflected institutional limits. Instead, they were guided by a belief in fostering power in communities towards a shared vision of a different future. 

The understanding of change expressed here, brings together a recognition of the role of people in catalysing urban transformation by bringing together different resources in a way that is purposeful, but also allows for a process of becoming that emerges over time. The work and resources we draw attention to here were often precarious, hidden, unvalued and yet hard to replace. Opportunities to experiment, to nurture, to fail, to reflect were all crucial, but we should acknowledge are also under severe pressure.

Our research brings together the history of different urban neighbourhoods, and their potential, and recognised the actual whilst considering the possible. We hope these insights contribute to ongoing learning and critical imagination in how we can approach the future of cities differently. Our article, ‘Working the urban assemblage: a transnational study of transforming practices’ by Catherine Durose, Mark van Ostaijen, Merlijn van Hulst, Oliver Escobar and Annika Agger has now been published in Urban Studies, and is available open access.

Catherine is Reader in Policy Sciences at INLOGOV, with a specific interest in urban governance and public policy.

What? You want to be a senior councillor AND a mother?

Chris Game

Brigid Jones, currently to be seen on YouTube promoting Birmingham City Council’s customer access strategy, and incidentally the city’s bus lanes, is a UoB alumna – though sadly having preferred to study Physics, rather than gain an invaluable early insight into the workings of local government through INLOGOV’s undergrad Public Policy degree.

Happily, she somehow overcame this early career hiccup, was elected as a Labour councillor to Birmingham City Council in 2011, impressively quickly became the Cabinet Member for children, families and schools, and since 2017 has been the Council’s Deputy Leader.

B Jones

It was in that Cabinet role, though – five years ago almost exactly – that Cllr Jones first attracted significant national as well as local attention, by noting that, despite being the “very proud corporate parent” of the nearly 2,000 children then in the Council’s care, accountable for a £1.2 million budget and thousands of staff, if she herself wished to start a family, she – as a councillor with a taxed £25,000 cabinet allowance – had been told she would “most likely have to step down from my council position”.

Because, although the Council’s (male) Chief Executive was reportedly “working on a policy”, it was yet to be considered by the Cabinet, or probably anyone else. The apparent rationalisation – “we haven’t had a pregnant Cabinet member in Birmingham for a very long time” – revealed as much about the recruitment and societal representativeness of councillors as about their financial remuneration.

The CE sounded suitably embarrassed, for, however few UK councils would have been in significantly more considered and supportive positions, for the biggest of them all, that was surely no refuge.  Still, barely 20 months later, the Council produced a policy – not merely, to coin a phrase, ‘oven-ready’, but fully baked.

The Birmingham Post/Mail could report that Birmingham councillors – all councillors, note, not just Cabinet members – “will for the first time be entitled to maternity and paternity pay”. Councillors would continue to receive their basic allowance for at least six months of maternity leave, and senior councillors with additional responsibilities would get 90% of their Special Responsibility Allowance for the first six months and at least a basic allowance up to week 39. Better terms, apparently, than for staff – prompting, understandably, calls for council workers’ maternity terms to be improved too.

Thanks substantially no doubt to Cllr Jones’ work ‘behind the scenes’, Birmingham’s present Members’ Allowances Scheme and particular the Maternity, Paternity and Adoption Pay sections, could, in my albeit limited experience, serve as at least a baseline model for UK councils generally.

A few examples: Members on maternity leave continue to receive full allowances for six months, possibly extendable; adoptive parents ‘newly matched’ with a child by an adoption agency ditto; shared parental leave negotiable for one or two parents, including same sex.

There’s nothing in the Scheme that’s obviously either exceptional or exceptionable – just reasonable modern-day practice for a public organisation conscious of the difficulty it demonstrably has attracting a representative quota of younger and particularly female members.

On the other hand, you may recall the row back in February when the Government rushed through Parliament a law-change allowing Cabinet ministers – specifically the then eight-months pregnant Attorney General, Suella Braverman – to have six months’ maternity leave on full pay plus salary costs for a temporary replacement.

Back at work recently, Braverman was understandably grateful for the uniquely tailored special treatment – unavailable to ‘ordinary’ backbenchers such as Labour MP Stella Creasy, who four months later, like others before her, had had her request for full locum cover for her second child rejected, on the almost too-good-to-be-true grounds that it was “misconceived” – the request, apparently, not the actual child. Either way, she was, as they say, contemplating legal action.

If our national Parliament acts in this rushed, last-minute, blatantly discriminatory fashion, it would perhaps be surprising if local government’s record were strikingly better – and the evidence shows it isn’t.

The good news: statistically overall there appears little explicit Parliament-style discrimination between senior cabinet-level councillors and ‘ordinary’ councillors. Bad news: three-quarters of councils seem to have no councillor maternity/paternity policies at all.  Broadly encouraging news: just two years ago, that three-quarters was 93%.

The statistics come from an admirably comprehensive study based on responses from over 90% of English councils to Freedom of Information requests from the Fawcett Society, the campaigning charity for gender equality and women’s rights.

There seemed no obvious reason why West Midlands councils should be statistically exceptional, and they aren’t. Just two – Birmingham and Wolverhampton – have formal policies in place for maternity, paternity, adoption and kinship care for all councillors. Coventry claimed ‘informal’ policies, Walsall didn’t respond, leaving Dudley, Sandwell and Solihull with apparently no policy at all.

Nationally, roughly a quarter of English councils reported having maternity or paternity policies in place for their ‘ordinary’ and/or senior councillors, perhaps the most positive feature of which figures being that just two years ago they were 7% and 8% respectively.

Some way to go, evidently. And the same – relatedly, the Fawcett Society would suggest – goes for women’s representation on councils generally. Across England as a whole, it found just 35% of all councillors are women – less than a 1% increase since the 2019 elections.

Which means, “at that rate of change, we won’t see gender parity in local councils until 2077 – over 50 years away”.  Hence, it would argue, the importance of maternity and paternity policies, in addition obviously to their intrinsic merits.

However, such projections depend on your baseline.  And, as a seriously boring, nerdy person, I happen to know that exactly 50 years ago, in 1971, the proportion of English women councillors was just 12% [J.Z. Giele & A.C. Smock (eds.), Women: Roles and Status in Eight Countries (1977), p.17].  From which starting point today’s 35% reaches 50% by – wow! – 2055.

Either way, it’s effectively a working lifetime’s wait – and more possibly for some, like the North Yorkshire district with just 3 women councillors out of 30 and an Anglo-Saxon name whose modern-day meaning is ‘lack of courage’: Craven.  The Fawcett study found 10 councils in all with under 20% of women members, the others in ascending order being West Berkshire, Swale, Ashfield, Hambleton, Cherwell, Castle Point, Huntingdonshire, Essex County, and Wycombe.

To finish, though, on at least a relatively high note, these 10 are outnumbered by the 14 councils with over 50% women members, a selection striking too for its obvious diversity. This time in descending order: Brighton & Hove (56%), Cambridge, Islington, Nottingham, East Cambridgeshire, Havant, Manchester, Norwich, South Oxfordshire, Gateshead, Kingston upon Thames, South Kesteven, South Tyneside, and Liverpool.

Which, returning home as it were, begs the question: if councils as diverse as these can achieve 50%+, why is it Birmingham can manage barely one in three? Cllr Jones, your work is far from done!

An earlier version of this blog was published in the Birmingham Post on 23rd September

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Chris Game is an INLOGOV Associate, and Visiting Professor at Kwansei Gakuin University, Osaka, Japan.  He is joint-author (with Professor David Wilson) of the successive editions of Local Government in the United Kingdom, and a regular columnist for The Birmingham Post.

Inter-municipal Cooperation is the key to better environments in our cities.

Victor Osei Kwadwo

The 2021 United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP26) aims at “Uniting the World to Tackle Climate Change”. While the technical aspects to addressing climate change is more evident in the goals of COP 26, it is time attention is equally paid to the governance of climate change at the metropolitan scale made up of our major cities.

Due to rapid urbanization, the world is increasingly becoming metropolitan. Cities have expanded outwards and have become more interdependent with their immediate peripheries. Cities occupy only approximately 2% of the world’s total land yet host 54.5% of the world’s population. Cities are responsible for 70% of the world’s GDP, over 60% of global energy consumption, 70% of global greenhouse gas emissions, and 70% of global waste.

As cities agglomerate, the footprint and interdependence within and between cities blur existing administrative boundaries to the extent that development issues in one local government jurisdiction have spillover effects on neighbouring jurisdictions. These spillover effects have led to a call for cooperation on functional grounds, making metropolitan areas a salient scale for public policy interventions. Metropolitan areas such as Cape Town, London, Mexico City, São Paulo and Tokyo are mainly characterised by densely inhabited functional urban areas and their surrounding interconnected lower-density areas.

In the management of metropolitan areas, for instance, many cities in the USA, Greater London, Brussels, Dar es Salaam and Greater Accra, the joint provision of metropolitan-wide services or jointly addressing a cross-boundary problem is an explicit choice of local governments that make up the metropolitan area. This voluntary nature of cooperation poses a collective action dilemma when local governments have to address problems jointly.

The dilemma arises from the externalities of environmental outcomes that drive low incentives for cooperation and a high risk of free-riding. To find joint solutions to cross-boundary problems in metropolitan areas, inter-municipal cooperation (IMC) is identified as critical for better economic and environmental outcomes in service delivery. There is empirical evidence that inter-municipal cooperation saves costs but does it also improve environmental outcomes?

Governments tend to be reluctant to cooperate when environmental outcomes are at stake, and this is partly due to the limited evidence on the impact of cooperation on environmental outcomes. It is therefore important to provide an evidential basis on which local governments can justify and initiate cooperation arrangements to address environmental concerns jointly.

In a study I co-authored with Tatiana Skripka, we provide this evidence using data covering 229 metropolitan areas in 16 OECD countries. The study tests the impact of cooperation in transportation on CO2 transport emissions. We did this by estimating a three-level mixed-effects model that takes into account both national and metropolitan-specific characteristics.

The results demonstrate that if local governments cooperate, better environmental outcomes can be achieved. Metropolitan areas that worked together on transportation issues were able to reduce CO2 transport emissions.

The findings give an indication of what needs to be done to effectively fight the environmental challenge. More significantly, beyond normative predictions, the findings provide a basis for local governments to justify and pursue local to local partnerships to address environmental issues.

What we measured

We used “working together on transportation” as a measure of cooperation and “CO2 transport emissions” for environmental outcomes to estimate the impact of cooperation on CO2 transport emissions reported in 2000, 2005 and 2008 for 229 metropolitan areas in 16 OECD countries.

We accounted for factors such as the year of observation, economic status, socio-cultural, geographical, technological and governance measures such as mitigation policies, enforcement, and metropolitan structure. The factors covered both the national and metropolitan area-specific characteristics: socio-cultural conditions, level of technology, geography, and metropolitan governance structure. We used data from the OECD metropolitan governance database, the OECD Metropolitan Governance Survey, the World Bank, among others.

Key findings

We found that metropolitan governance structures, whether fragmented or consolidated, are equally inefficient in delivering reduction in CO2 transport emissions. The finding contrasts with an increasing trend of scholars advocating for fragmented metropolitan structures that favour voluntary cooperation, compared to consolidated structures that address collective action problem through coercion.

We also found that countries with a higher GDP were more efficient in reducing CO2 transport emissions. In contrast, metropolitan areas with higher GDP recorded increases in CO2 transport emissions. While national funding can dictate climate-related interventions and standards, metropolitan wealth is more flexible in taking on such obligations. As metropolitan areas are mainly production centres, investments in environmentally-friendly interventions may be more easily sacrificed at the metropolitan level for economic gains.

We further found that CO2 transport emissions increase despite the mere presence of environmental mitigation policies. This is consistent with empirical observations. For example, while the Paris Agreement has 196 Parties adopting to limit global warming to less than 2 degrees Celsius, emissions have continued to rise globally by 1.4 per cent per year on average since 2010. Environmental policy effectiveness lies in the ability of the cooperating parties to ensure widespread policy implementation and enforcement.

The crucial factor explaining the reduction of CO2 transport emissions in metropolitan areas is inter-municipal cooperation that facilitates coherence and widespread enforcement of mitigation policies. The impact of cooperation on CO2 transport emissions is magnified in metropolitan areas within countries that have stringent environmental mitigation policies.

Next steps

Inter-municipal cooperation (IMC) is critical in the governance of metropolitan areas if better environmental outcomes are to be achieved in our cities. Cooperation ensure policy uniformity, facilitates the possibility of widespread enforcement and reduces incentives for free-riding irrespective of governance structure. It is recommended that scholars and policymakers emphasise how to incentivise effective cooperation regardless of the metropolitan governance structure. Also, efforts must be geared toward uniform mitigation policies and their subsequent enforcement across local jurisdictions in metropolitan areas.

Read the full paper here

https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/03003930.2021.1958785

Victor Osei Kwadwo is a PhD fellow in Economics and Governance at UNU-MERIT and Maastricht University. He has broad expertise in political science, economics, and public policy with a special emphasis on urban governance and development. For his PhD, he explores how and why independent local governments cooperation arrangements emerge to address transboundary issues in metropolitan areas.

NOC NOC! Is anybody there – or are you all botching each other?

Chris Game

NOC – that’s what this blog’s about.  It’s prompted, like many I assume, by the topic being one the author has a ‘thing’ about – only here it’s two things. There, authorial duty done: you’ve now been warned.

The first ‘thing’, I’m guessing, originated with an enthusiastic primary school English teacher, keen for as many of us as possible to pass the 11+ or ‘grading test’ that would get us into grammar school. Anyway, it was when I probably learnt the crucial distinction between common abbreviations and what most of us interpreted even then as posher/middle class acronyms and initialisms.

Abbreviations – for the benefit, obviously, of non-native English speakers/readers – are simply shortened forms of words: approx, dept, tbs (tablespoon), etc.  Acronyms are the posh, clever ones – comprising the first letters of several words but pronounced as if they are words themselves.

Most famous in these parts is obviously INLOGOV – but not, sadly, the most structurally perfect, which must be CREES.  Outside academia my favourite, because I’d bet even some police users don’t know it, is TASER – Thomas A. Swift’s Electric Rifle.

So, to initialisms, which comprise the first letters of several words, but can’t be (or are bewildering if) pronounced as words themselves – and which are regularly and incorrectly called acronyms.

Like NOC, which – whether referring to a National Olympics Committee, a prescription treatment for scurvy, or, as here, an elected body under ‘No Overall Control’ – is always pronounced, and in the case of the scurvy tablets spelt, ENOCEE.   

The elected bodies are usually councils, but strictly speaking Scotland was under NOC until recently, when the Scottish Greens’ co-leaders became ministers in the Holyrood Government, creating a power-sharing SNP-Green coalition.

It’s true that NOC sounds less alarming than OOC (Out Of Control) would be, but it’s entirely unclear what it does signify.  It’s certainly unhelpful – but worse, I’d suggest, in being a positive deterrent to trying to learn more – in metamorphosing indeed into No One Cares.

As a recent description of Kabul, as Taliban militants seized rapid control from Afghanistan’s civilian government, NOC would for maybe two days max have been fair and accurate. But not thereafter.

Nor when used for months on end apparently to describe the political management and day-to-day running of constitutionally elected UK local government councils. That, I suggest, is both disappointingly unhelpful and misleading.

Immediately following an inconclusive local election, with no single party securing an overall majority of councillors, some uncertainty – even within the council – may be unavoidable. There may well follow perhaps a fortnight’s discussions within and between the various party groups and maybe Independents before the Annual Meeting, at which ‘Who Runs the Council?’ has to be officially determined.

Whereupon there should be public clarity. If previously there hadn’t been, through no single party having an overall majority of councillors, the Council should, surely, officially announce and publicly explain the new situation – the leadership, any agreement/working arrangement between parties, Cabinet composition, and so on – ideally in the local media and certainly prominently (within a couple of clicks) on its own website.

That way it would matter less that the BBC, for instance, can’t be troubled to update its ‘Elections 2021’ statistics or even to footnote news of the actual resolutions of the 29 blackish ‘No Overall Control’ splotches and dots on its English councils map

NOC map

Still, however – and despite my having mentioned it on numerous occasions, not least in these columns – some councils don’t.  And what really p****s – sorry, incenses me is that the process and outcome of these post-NOC negotiations are not just factually informative, but frequently rather more fascinating than the elections that brought them about.

Bear with me, please, while I try to illustrate with the ‘aid’ of said map – or at least reference to it. You will observe three large blackish splotches, which you might imagine would be the three – all geographically large – county councils that have been NOC since at least the May elections: Cambridgeshire, Oxfordshire and Cumbria.

Until you note that the top splotch is on the wrong side: not Cumbria, but Durham, which you may also know ceased being a county when in 2009 it became a unitary.  It did, however, produce surely the most historic result of this year’s ‘large’ authority elections, with Labour losing overall control of the council for the first time in over a century, and being replaced by a barely hyperbolic ‘rainbow’ coalition of the Lib Dems, Conservatives, Independents, and the North East Party – led moreover by the Council’s first-ever female leader, Lib Dem Amanda Hopgood.

So, to the two central England splotches – Cambridgeshire and Oxfordshire County Councils – plus what would have been a third, had Cumbria’s election, like those of Somerset and North Yorkshire CCs not been postponed pending the outcome of already submitted unitary proposals.

In both cases the Conservatives had most councillors following the May elections, but no overall council majority. And in both cases the outcome of post-election negotiations was that the other party leaders and groups felt they had more in common with, or simply preferred working with, each other than with the historically dominant Conservatives.

And something essentially similar would doubtless have happened in Cumbria too, with the council having had a single party in majority control for just four of the past 36 years. So, when someone comes NOC NOCing on the Cumbria House door in Carlisle’s delightfully named Botchergate, they will be met not by rioting, out-of-control councillors, botching each other, but a seemly Labour/Liberal Democrat coalition. 

Likewise in Oxbridge, where they will encounter what tend to qualify nowadays as ‘rainbow coalitions’: comprising in Oxfordshire the Lib Dems (yellow), Labour (red) and Greens, and in Cambridgeshire Lib Dems, Labour and Independents. Doing indeed what voters reportedly tell pollsters they want party politicians to do: work together rather than just shout across the council chamber at one another.

Personally, in case you were wondering, I have ambivalent views about ‘rainbow coalitions’ – the terminology, I should stress, not their existence, which is almost invariably fascinating to observe. I used to reckon that, with rainbows having seven colours, a ‘rainbow coalition’ ought to comprise at least a majority – i.e. four parties or political groups.

The obvious problem, though, is that it restricts the field and would deprive many local newspaper editors of potentially appealing headlines.  By my reckoning – and with possibly excessive reliance on Open Council Data UK – England currently has just seven of these ‘proper’ rainbow coalitions: Durham, Folkestone & Hythe, Lewes, North Somerset, Swale, Waverley, and our own local Wyre Forest. 

Add in three-group coalitions, though, and you almost triple the number, while still lagging well behind the 32 single-party minority administrations and the 28 two-party arrangements. 

It also enables me to fulfil a tiny part of a kind of promise to INLOGOV Head of Department and blog editor, Jason Lowther – to whom I mentioned a round-up of May’s local election results, in the tabulated form I’ve sometimes managed previously, including my patented symbols for ‘rainbow coalitions’. 

For several reasons, including the sheer number of NOCs nowadays, I stalled after the ‘biggies’, but, thanks to the previously described Oxbridge tendency, there are at least a couple of rainbows.

NOC table

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A more West Midlands-focussed version of this blog was published in the Birmingham Post on 9th September.

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Chris Game is an INLOGOV Associate, and Visiting Professor at Kwansei Gakuin University, Osaka, Japan.  He is joint-author (with Professor David Wilson) of the successive editions of Local Government in the United Kingdom, and author of the Local Government chapter in the just published 10th edition of Politics UK (Routledge), about the only surviving sizeable (just the 780pp.) textbook of its kind.

Petticoat Council – cheesy name, historic achievement

Chris Game

Nottingham Castle reopened to visitors recently, after a Covid-protracted three-year closure for what was anyway going to be a pretty extensive renovation. Even unrenovated, the castle has always been a good visit, not least for its exhibitions, which now include an enticingly named Rebellion Gallery, whose current Nottingham-focused displays, curated by University of Nottingham historian Dr Richard Gaunt, comprise the Civil War, the Luddite movement, and parliamentary reform with particular emphasis on women’s suffrage.

For reasons that will become clear, it was the last of these that particularly resonated with me – and one (poorly phone-photographed) bar chart in particular.

While its primary aim is presumably to emphasise the length of the continually frustrated campaign for women’s suffrage, it also showed how, near the start of that campaign, some women – those that “met the property ownership requirements” – actually lost their right to vote during the 1830s.

The otherwise franchise-extending 1832 Reform Act specified ‘male persons’ only, depriving at least small numbers of property-owning women of their parliamentary vote until 1918. And the 1835 Municipal Corporations Act excluded them from local elections – until 1869/70, when unmarried women ratepayers were granted the right to vote in first municipal council and then the new school board elections.

Between those dates, though, and with no confounding documentary evidence, it was widely believed, and taught, even in Patricia Hollis’ ‘bible’ – Ladies Elect: Women in English Local Government, 1865-1914 (Appendix B) – that women lost their voting rights completely, just like the 0%, 0%, 0% on the Nottingham bar chart.

Taught by me too, until a few years ago when I caught by chance a BBC Sounds broadcast describing the discovery of documentary evidence of at least some West Midlands women casting votes in local elections decades before those history books told us the 1869 Municipal Franchise Act legalised it.

The BBC programme described the recent discovery in Lichfield Record Office of an 1843 Poll Book. Compiled apparently for local Conservative Party campaigning purposes, it detailed all voters in that year’s St Chad’s Parish election of an Assistant Overseer of the Poor – the bloke (naturally) with responsibility for outdoor (cash) or indoor (workhouse) poor relief.

And of the 371 voters in that 1843 election …. 30 were women, including one, an evidently very well-heeled Grace Brown, with no fewer than four votes. It was a genuine, history-rewriting discovery – though not in fact the main point of this blog.

For that we must turn to the programme’s presenter: Sarah Richardson, nowadays Professor of History at Warwick University, and author of the then recently published The Political Worlds of Women: Gender and Politics in Nineteenth Century Britain.

Totally relevant, obviously, but Richardson’s even more pertinent role here must surely be one unmentioned in her University profile: longstanding Governor and currently Chair of Governors at Bishop’s Itchington Primary School.

Bishop’s Itchington is a South Warwickshire village/parish south-east of Royal Leamington Spa and about 18 miles from Coventry, which, as we’ll see, is more immediately relevant. It has a lengthy history too, its name combining references to the passing River Itchen and the Bishop of the afore-mentioned Lichfield Cathedral.

In many European countries, and unquestionably in France with its 35,000 communes, even its reduced present-day population of around 2,000 would make Bishop’s Itchington what we would call a principal local authority in its own right, with an elected mayor, a full range of local powers and responsibilities, and significant control of its own funding.

But in a middle England parish council, without even these basics, where, you might reasonably ask, is there the potential even for much passing interest, never mind drama?  To which the answer is: in its elected councillors, and, more precisely, those elected in 1949 to form what became the first female majority council in the UK.

It’s a hefty claim, but, in respect of a village/parish whose primary school Chair of Governors just happens to be a national authority on such matters, pretty authoritative.

Profesor Richardson herself summarises – this time on YouTube.  Edith Chapple-Hyam, Chair of the village Women’s Institute, was fed up with the all-male parish council’s lack of action on issues such as accessible electricity and running water, social housing, policing and speed restrictions, the sewage works, and public spaces, particularly for children.

In short, she and her WI members saw areas like Coventry being built up after the War and wanted a piece of the action.  So, when an election was announced, she and five WI committee members submitted their nominations.

Most of the sitting councillors assumed that, as no doubt regularly happened, the election would go uncontested and they would be re-elected by default.  Only one, therefore, bothered to submit his papers before nominations closed.

He was duly elected, but alongside all six women, who effectively – in both senses – took over.  And now, just the 72 years on, the Bishop’s Itchington story has been both informatively and highly entertainingly dramatised as a ‘folk musical’ and one of Coventry’s UK City of Culture 2021 events.

Entitled ‘Petticoat Council’, I saw it myself recently, and the mix of storytelling, song, dance and puppetry melded together by playwright Frankie Meredith – herself the great-niece of Ivy Payne, one of the six victorious councillors – is a delight, unquestionably worth catching if you ever get the chance.

My sole initial reservation had been the slightly cheesy title, for which I was prepared to blame the Americans, who had instantly labelled a very similar women’s power grab in Umatilla, Oregon back in 1916 a ‘Petticoat Revolution’.

But I was wrong. It apparently came from a local newspaper, reporting in 1952 how the men on the council were plotting to “overthrow petticoat rule”, as “the women have been getting too bossy”. Material for a sequel perhaps?

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A version of this blog, with an accompanying photograph – of the councillors, not me – was published in the Birmingham Post on 15th July under the title The ‘Petticoat Council’ and a slice of Midland History

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Chris Game is an INLOGOV Associate, and Visiting Professor at Kwansei Gakuin University, Osaka, Japan.  He is joint-author (with Professor David Wilson) of the successive editions of Local Government in the United Kingdom, and a regular columnist for The Birmingham Post.