As printed in the Wetherby News on Thursday 8th September 2016.
The independent Local Government Boundary Commission for England is undertaking a review of council ward boundaries in Leeds. But like the overfed Turkey’s reluctance to vote for Christmas, the Commission – supported by Leeds City Council – says it is ‘minded’ to retain 99 Councillors.
At a time when every other local authority in England is looking to reduce its number of elected representatives this is a missed opportunity to increase democratic accountability, cut the cost of politics and provide a more equal electoral playing field.
At present Leeds City Council is made up of 33 electoral wards, each represented by three Councillors elected for a four year term of office. This means elections across the local authority area are held three years out of four and at considerable cost to the public purse. It’s also a cycle that means the ruling administration spends more time on an election footing and less time delivering its manifesto for local services.
Those of us elected to serve the interests of our voters must ask ourselves a difficult question: are we prepared to carry out what we’ve been elected to do, to put the interests of our electors before our own political aspirations? If we are to acknowledge at all that there exists a growing deficit of trust between voters and their politicians then elected representatives must earn respect by showing a willingness to leave the comfort of our coops.
It’s time to reduce the size of the Council.
To put the disparity of size into context, the Scottish Parliament – with a geographical authority covering 30,000 square miles and a population of 5.3 million – has only 30 more elected members in its democratic chamber than Leeds with its population of 750,000 and a geographical area 1/100th the size.
This isn’t to downplay the key position of Leeds within the UK, the city has the fastest growing economy and the largest financial sector outside London. The point is, Leeds didn’t reach pole position because it has 99 elected members, it has forged itself as the engine for growth in the North because businesses have remained agile, riding out the global financial crisis by streamlining their operations and adjusting to the new economic climate.
Likewise, the UK Parliament, despite its usually archaic character, has responded to the need for change by embarking on its own boundary review. Legislation to reduce the number of MPs from 650 to 600 passed through Parliament in 2011 with a first draft of new parliamentary constituency boundaries expected this autumn.
Despite this mounting pressure it remains the position of most Councillors in Leeds to resist such reform, to hold back the tide with as much effort as possible whilst turning their heads to the fact there’s a tsunami just around the corner.
On 6th September – the day after the close of the local government boundary review consultation – Leeds MP Alec Shelbrooke secured a Westminster Hall debate on the future of local government in England. With devolution changing the landscape of local government on an unprecedented scale, the debate to coincided with the publication of his report calling for radical reform of councils with the creation of single tier county-wide authorities represented by a reduced number of Councillors.
Devolution will not reduce the role of locally elected representatives in expressing the concerns of voters on policies relating to public services, but it will mean that the delivery of those services will extend across local authority boundaries under a new regional model. With greater power handed down from Whitehall will come greater responsibility and a reformed body of representatives will be required to hold those in power to account. This simply cannot take place under a disparate model of separate Councils attempting to hold one overarching elected mayor to account. The devolution revolution must bring with it the demise of smaller local authorities and the establishment of a new political model that spans the regional area.
If Councillors are to remain relevant we must modernise our democratic organisations, listen to the wishes of those we serve and make local authorities less bureaucratic, less costly and more representative.
Now is the time to grasp the nettles and reshape local government; Councillors won’t be forgiven for kicking this into the long grass.
Follow Cllr Stephenson on Twitter: @Stephenson_Ryan