Andrew Mitchell is MP for Sutton Coldfield and a former International Development Secretary.
The welcome news that the Government has concluded an agreement with the West Midlands, following months of negotiation between seven local authorities, now gives us the opportunity to develop the West Midlands engine as a great centre of economic investment and activity, with a powerful elected Mayor representing our area.
Ministers have shown considerable faith in local government throughout the West Midlands in committing these funds – nearly £1 billion. We must make sure that it is used well and not wasted. Throughout the West Midlands, business, communities, local authorities and academic institutions – to name but a few – must now all deliver.
But this change at the top also brings into sharp relief the way local government in Birmingham is performing. The current Birmingham model has been tested to destruction and has palpably failed. The Kerslake Report and the excellent work of the Birmingham Improvement Panel have underlined this stark fact. It isn’t the fault of the Labour or the Conservative Party, but the current structure does not deliver and it isn’t fair on the staff, councillors and the people they represent.
Indeed, at a time when there is serious concern about whether Birmingham can be relied upon to deliver on its statutory duties – particularly for vulnerable people, be they children or the elderly – we are busily involved in an intense debate about re-warding, caused by a desire to lower the number of councillors from 120 to 100. This bears all the characteristics of the captain of the Titanic busily re-ordering the placement of the deckchairs while his ship is nervously heading towards a large iceberg. Whoever thought that plunging Birmingham City Council into a massive re-warding exercise, all for the sake of removing 20 councillors, needs to find something else to do. It is clear that the number should have been left as it is at 120 or reduced more meaningfully – perhaps down to 80.
We now have an opportunity to consider how to match the devolution from Whitehall and Westminster to the West Midlands, with devolution of service delivery from a broken Birmingham model down to local level. We should now be debating how best to deliver the local services upon which many of our constituents rely to match the devolution by Central Government to the West Midlands with the devolution of real local power.
My suggestion, which at least will kick off a useful debate, is that Birmingham City Council should be a smaller strategic authority composed of 30 or 40 councillors and that there should be, throughout Birmingham, up to ten local authorities based on constituency boundaries to deliver as many services as possible. This would decentralise service delivery without prejudicing strategic coherence. The ten or fewer local authorities throughout Birmingham would have the same number of wards and councillors as presently constituted, and if there were a genuine local willingness at ground level some could amalgamate with others. In Royal Sutton Coldfield, we would have no wish to do so. In addition, the 30 or 40 Birmingham councillors could either be directly elected or elected by the 12 local councillors from amongst their own number. So, for example, if Erdington wished to be a standalone authority, its 12 Councillors might elect from amongst their own number three or four councillors to serve on the new Birmingham Strategic Authority.
Thus planning would go to these mew local authorities while, for example, waste collection because of the economies of scale, would remain with Birmingham. In a number of areas, Birmingham’s strategic direction would be matched by local authority service delivery. This model would not involve grandiose offices and salaries to match but, rather, the re-allocation of services and staff, rather than wholesale geographical change. Modern technology allows us to focus on delivery and not on geography.
There will be similarities between this model and the local government administration of London – which, let’s face, it has developed well under the mayoralty of both the major political parties, while providing a governance system which does deliver more reliably and at a much more local level.