Are London boroughs too small?

Does London have too many local councils? That was the question floated by Labour’s candidate for mayor, Ken Livingstone, at a business forum in February.

Livingstone said the 33 authorities should be merged into five super-councils giving them “real powers”.

With the race for mayor hotting up, Conservative minister for local government Bob Neill resurrected Livingstone’s remarks, no doubt in the hope this would raise the hackles of activists and councillors who fear such a change will remove power from a borough level and erase local identities. Yet few citizens identify along borough boundaries.

There is a case that bigger, more powerful, authorities can actually empower communities at the grassroots with more decision-making at neighbourhood level.

Birmingham is home to a million people and Leeds 800,000, a huge contrast to little Kingston-upon-Thames and Kensington & Chelsea with a mere 170,000 each. Such disparities in population are reflected in the status of the council and their councillors. Smaller councils lack the ability of their bigger cousins to strategically plan in the same way.

I haven’t heard anyone campaigning to break up Birmingham, Leeds or any of our other big cities into smaller chunks. As long as there are local council buildings within easy reach of communities, and local officers for services that require street-by-street knowledge like housing, then the size of the main authority is irrelevant to many people.

Travel just 15 miles – as the crow flies – and you can get from Hounslow to Hackney via no less than five other boroughs, each with a bureaucracy that manages services in a limited geographical area.

A climate of austerity has already led many councils to merge services across boundaries using economies of scale. Hammersmith & Fulham, Kensington & Chelsea and Westminster plan to achieve savings by managing education, libraries and social care across the three boroughs. Sutton and Merton share a human resources department.

The West London tri-borough arrangement caused controversy but, aside from job losses, the main objection has been loss of local accountability in a traditional sense. The reality is that preserving in formaldehyde town hall service fiefdoms, run by remote departmental directors, does not improve accountability.

Some might argue London already has one big authority, and the mayor and assembly do play a strategic role in the capital, but their spending power is limited and part of the mayors’ role is to beg for investment cash from central government.

As a Liberal Democrat with ‘localism’ sown on my sleeve I should be instinctively against big domineering monoliths of the state. But Livingstone has a point when he talks about super-councils. Borough-based identities are for bureaucrats and local politicians. Most people identify with a far smaller local area.

My local ward of Sutton North contains the plush Sutton Garden Suburb conservation area and the Chaucer housing estate. Geographically close but in terms of local identities the two areas might as well be in different parts of the country.

Like the carving of Africa, London’s borough boundaries bear little relation to communities. Sutton and Merton share a cottage estate spread across two wards, both called St Helier. A similar situation exists in Ealing where the East Acton neighbourhood extends across the border with Hammersmith & Fulham to the Old Oak estate, which is often referred to as East Acton and is home to an underground station by the same name.

In Sutton there are Cheam, Wallington, Hackbridge, Carshalton, Worcester Park, Belmont and Sutton identities. The only uniting factors are the local MPs and satisfaction with borough services. In other suburban councils, deprived estates in one area often have nothing in common with wealthier areas of the borough. The council’s name is more a symbol of frustration than something they can relate to.

I see no reason why locally-recognised neighbourhood identities cannot go hand-in-hand with strengthened and empowered councils, especially when proportional representation is used to reflect local political choices.

Labour have failed to elect a councillor in Sutton since 2006, yet proportionally they should have at least six. Conservatives polled 16 percent in the Hornsey and Wood Green parliamentary vote but are absent from Haringey’s town hall, and there are 12 authorities – over a third of the capital – where thousands of Lib Dem voters are disenfranchised because the party do not have a single councillor in these boroughs. This is neither right nor fair.

Taking a leaf out of City Hall’s book – where the London assembly are elected with an AV+ system of directly elected constituencies and top-up ‘list’ members – we could elect one councillor per ward with the remainder made up from a top-up list with special responsibilities to look after particular neighbourhoods.

If we give local committees real powers, and they are represented by councillors that accurately reflect the area’s political choices, then the size or name of the council matters little.

If we want to devolve power downwards we need more localism and more power to the local people, and this can fit well with larger councils that can raise extra taxes from specific areas for things that local residents vote for in mini-referendums or consultations and professional, properly remunerated, councillors who can get things done.

So Ken is half-right. Yes to super-councils with real powers, but also yes to more local decision-making.

Follow me @suttongoingon

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