Unsuspecting readers may raise an eyebrow at Birmingham’s first-ever Labour Councillor in Sutton Coldfield campaigning for the historic Royal Borough to re-establish its own town council.
After all, the Conservatives led the city council for the past eight years, and until this May they held every single Sutton Coldfield seat since the merger with Birmingham in 1974.
Yet never have they pressed for the reinstatement of a Sutton Town Council. So why is this now being raised from the Labour benches?
First, let’s take a look at the history of the Metropolitan Borough of Birmingham. Created in 1974 through a merger with Sutton Coldfield and other localities, the gargantuan metropolitan borough council is a single local authority presiding over more than one million people.
Birmingham City Council is twice as large as any other single local authority in Britain. There is no other single local authority this size anywhere in Europe. There’s a good reason for that.
After the West Midlands County Council was abolished in 1986 and Margaret Thatcher created the single unitary authority, Birmingham has simply been too big. It is unmanageably big. It is too big to be efficiently run from a single city centre bureaucracy.
The chains of management command are too long, with too many layers, too much duplication, too unresponsive to local people.
In 1983 Jeff Rooker MP proposed breaking Birmingham into three separate councils of a more manageable size, for example, slicing off Sutton, Great Barr and Erdington as a separate Borough along the boundary of the M6; in 1999 the Cadbury Commission on Devolution suggested dividing it into five separate city boroughs.
None of these changes were taken forward. Ultimately the glittering political prize of winning the UK’s biggest single authority has dazzled the eyes of both major parties. Both have shied away from resolving the fundamental problem.
In the long run, Birmingham would be better replaced by smaller, independent city boroughs (unitary local authorities), working through a wider economic sub-region of greater Birmingham. This would match what already exists for greater Manchester, which is fast becoming a combined economic sub-region made up of independent councils such as Salford, City of Manchester, Stockport, Rochdale, Oldham, and Bolton.
Realistically however, the final dismantling of the monolithic Birmingham City Council will not happen until a future national local government review. This is maybe 20 years away.
So what can be done in the more immediate future? And how can Sutton Coldfield be the pioneer of a better way?
There is a fresh civic energy, in part reawakened by a sense of anger and betrayal. Many Conservatives still feel betrayed by Edward Heath’s decision to merge the independent historic Sutton Town Council into Birmingham. Now they see our historic Parliamentary Boundaries are threatened, our town centre is stagnating, our heritage slowly seeping away. Local communities, like many across the outer suburbs that lie many miles distant from Birmingham city centre, feel neglected, marginalised and treated second-best.
But this reawakened anger is only part of the story. There is also at last an air of hope, a belief in a new tide of change. For once it seems, a new opportunity is close to hand, a radical and progressive opportunity that will transfer power and responsibility to local people.
Anyone wishing to understand the unifying force that is driving the campaign for a reinstated Sutton Town Council need look no further than these shared interests that have brought together traditional conservatives and radical progressives in a powerful alliance.