Cllr Teresa O’Neill is the Leader of Bexley Council.
Harry Phibbs makes some important points about local councillors needing to review their own numbers and whether they could work more efficiently.
In fact, Bexley’s Conservative Councillors have been leading the way on this – as we cut the number of our councillors by 30 per cent at the 2018 local elections, from 63 to 45. We also reduced the number of wards from 21 to 17, and now we have a mix of two member and three member wards. This, incidentally, followed a nine year freeze of Councillors allowances.
We made this reduction voluntarily – and explicitly asked the Boundary Commission to undertake the review with the aim to reduce the number of councillors. The main reason for doing so was because we believed it was wrong to exempt ourselves from the overall impact of spending reductions on local government. It would be impossible to look our own staff in the eye and ask them to change how they work while not being prepared to do the same ourselves. We also saw we could achieve substantial savings for Bexley taxpayers rather than finding the same amounts of money from frontline services. It’s staggering to read in Harry’s article that some councils in London are seeking to increase the number of councillors.
We also wanted to address some long-standing anomalies. For example, we had town centres where several wards met in the middle for no logical reason, so we wanted to make sure the new wards reflected the identities of their local communities. We made the commitment in our 2014 manifesto, and, as we have always delivered every manifesto commitment in full, immediately after being re-elected, we set up a cross-party committee to get the work moving. While Labour councillors had made a similar pledge in their 2014 manifesto, it was clear it was a pledge they never expected to be in a position to deliver, but equally, it was clear they never thought we were serious about doing this – they were a bit shocked when the first meeting took place and we set out what needed to be done.
We had productive meetings with the Boundary Commission, the review got underway in 2015, and the final proposals were published in November 2016. We worked hard at developing and modelling our own proposals and submitted them to the review, as did other political parties, but we were pleased that the final proposals were only slightly different to our original plans. The review also made changes to the number of councillors per ward. The wards that retained three members are now broadly a third larger, and the new smaller wards have two members.
Once the new arrangements were approved by Parliament our three associations and their respective wards could begin selecting their candidates for 2018. The three associations agreed that they would effectively start from scratch and any one on the approved Borough candidates list could apply for any of the new 45 seats. Considering the scope for problems, or upset, in choosing far fewer candidates, the process went very smoothly and we quickly had all our candidates in place more than a year before the elections were due. This gave everyone time to learn the new wards and different polling districts and in reality we effectively began campaigning then.
Of course, while the extensive modelling we did on the proposals suggested the new arrangements would in theory give us a substantial victory when the elections came, the only test of new structures like this is when the votes are actually cast. Having been elected with three landslide victories in 2006, 2010, and 2014, we were all nervous about what could happen under this new system. But the number-crunching which had been done over the previous months was almost spot on. We were elected with our largest vote share ever – 55 per cent – and we secured a 12 per cent increase in the number of votes cast and overall ended up with seven per cent more seats – winning 35 seats compared to Labour’s ten.
What has been the impact?
First of all, we, as councillors, have contributed towards the budget savings by reducing our numbers voluntarily, saving hundreds of thousands of pounds as a result, exactly as we pledged. Meetings seem to work much more effectively now. Instead of large numbers of councillors sitting around a huge table, smaller committees gives the Members more opportunity to get involved in the issues and properly scrutinise service delivery. We also deleted some committees altogether, and merged others, but, just as importantly, we increased the number of Overview and Scrutiny Committees, so we could all focus on service delivery and outcomes.
The key lesson from all this is that rather than waiting for the Boundary Commission to start your Council’s review, it is better to be pro-active, initiate the review yourself, and be clear about what you want to achieve from it. An opportunity to review the numbers of councillors or the locations of wards does not come along very often so make the most it.
Have clear objectives, set them out as clearly as possible to the Boundary Commission, and then see them through. Model the impact properly, not just about what it means for your Party, but what it means for other parties as well.
But it is astonishing that there are Labour councils wanting to use the reviews to increase the number of councillors.
How can they call for more councillors and then look their own council staff in the eye and tell them they have to do more with less?
More importantly, how can they look their own residents in the eye?