Peter Smallbone is a Conservative activist in Birmingham and a former councillor for the City.
The recent redrawing of Birmingham’s ward boundaries is a microcosm of what might be about to happen nationally. Birmingham City Council likes to describe itself as ‘Europe’s largest local authority’. The assertion is not entirely without substance: for example, it has a budget of over £3 billion. In comparison, the Greater London Authority can only muster a paltry £1.4 billion. The latter’s budget, however, does not include Transport for London, which easily dwarfs both at nearly £11 billion. Still, Birmingham City Council is responsible for a city of around one million people, so by anyone’s measure, it’s jolly big.
There was a recent power struggle of sorts within this giant authority: not the usual electoral fight over the ten or so marginal wards that determine political control, but one about maps. Maps mattered. Maps were on the lips of every local hack and political geek – from Selly Oak to Sutton Coldfield, from Longbridge to Ladywood. Why? Well, it all started with Operation Trojan Horse: an apparent attempt to introduce a hard line Islamic agenda into some local schools. Via a chain of events that is probably best forgotten, this led to a whole-scale redrawing of the city’s ward boundaries.
You might be forgiven for thinking that this would have been a job for the Boundary Commission for England, but oh no – they are only bothered with Parliamentary constituencies. This particular honour fell to the even less snappily named and entirely separate Local Government Boundary Commission for England. Mickey-taking aside, it should be an entirely good thing that we have a nonpartisan, arms-length body doing this massively tedious yet highly politically charged task. One only has to look at, say, the crazy shape of North Carolina’s 12th congressional district to see what happens when narrow political interests take hold.
In fact, narrow political interests are exactly what took hold. Labour did especially well out of the draft proposals: originally, the commission swallowed about 75 per cent of the party’s suggestions, including many of the more bizarre constructs such as Jewellery Quarter and Winson Green (the former jewellery shops and young professionals; the latter containing the road that was the subject of Channel 4’s Benefits Street). Separate wards with a dedicated councillor for each neighbourhood would have been a far better option for all concerned, but a single two-councillor ward made it a much safer Labour prospect.
Some of my Tory colleagues cried foul. Certainly, if I were to guess the political leanings of the commissioners, I would not be inclined to believe that there would be many Tory sympathisers among them, consisting as they do largely of career academics and ex-local government bureaucrats.
Fortunately, the slew of negative press coverage and sheaves of complaints from political parties and community organisations (some created entirely for the purpose of opposing the proposals) resulted in some significant and very welcome changes. As it happens, Jewellery Quarter and Winson Green went through more or less unscathed, although it did have its name changed.
In fact, ordinary Brummies turned out to be far more concerned about names than boundaries, especially if you found yourself with a tag you thought you had avoided. Several hundred residents of famously boho Moseley turned up to a public meeting after they learnt they were about to be moved into Balsall Heath, which is generally labelled ‘inner city’. Whether individual attendance was motivated by genuine community spirit or more material concerns, they got their way and the plans were radically altered. They never had any real need to worry in any event: Birmingham’s ward map will never feature on a real map, the journey to the local Farmers’ Market would have been entirely unaffected, and so would, by the way, house prices.
Let’s not dismiss the Moseleyite concerns entirely out of hand though. Ward names rarely please everyone, and all too often, they end up pleasing no-one. They are rarely used even by their elected representatives, councillors generally preferring to list the ward’s neighbourhoods on their literature.
Perhaps this is one area in which our friends in North Carolina have the advantage. In common with the rest of the United States, most of their geopolitical units are numbered rather than named. No need to worry about whether world-famous Edgbaston Cricket Ground would still reside in the ward that bears its name. No sense of loss if there were no longer any ward named after Birmingham’s historic car manufacturing area (Longbridge – eventually reinstated). No requirement to name Brandwood Ward after the only landmark therein (Brandwood is a cemetery).
How liberating that would have been.