Coalition rebels halt plan to scrap Birmingham's constituency committees
Plans to abolish Birmingham City Council’s 10 constituency committees have been abandoned following public anger and a back bench rebellion.
The local authority’s ruling Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition has been forced to withdraw a £1.5 million cost-cutting proposal after councillors from all political parties dug their heels in and demanded a re-think.
Under the now shelved scheme, the constituency committees responsible since 2004 for running local services would have disappeared in their present form to be replaced by four much larger area committees covering the whole of Birmingham.
But the powers of the constituency committees to spend a £100 million budget on running refuse collection, street cleaning, parks and allotments, sports centres and neighbourhood offices would have reverted back to cabinet members in the Council House – leaving the new committees little more than a scrutiny role.
The plan was hatched after strategic director of housing and constituencies Elaine Elkington described the cost of devolution as unsustainable given the financial pressures facing the council.
She called for centralisation with a new focus on “city-wide co-ordination and control of budgets and service delivery”.
The 10 constituency committees and 40 smaller ward committees hold up to 1,000 meetings a year, and the cost to the council in the time of officials and councillors attending, room hire and refreshments is estimated at £1,000 a session.
But the cost-cutting plan would have deprived some of the most experienced and influential back bench councillors of constituency chairmanships, for which they receive a special responsibility allowance of just over £4,000 a year.
It was also seen as being out of step with the Government’s Big Society vision, which envisages devolving more powers to neighbourhood level.
Some of the fiercest resistance came from Tory-controlled Sutton Coldfield and Labour-controlled Erdington, where the two constituency committees were earmarked to merge into one super-committee covering the north of the city.
Alan Rudge, the cabinet member for equalities and human resources and a Tory councillor for Sutton Vesey, said it was clear from consultation that there was very little public support for the merger and that the scheme would not go ahead.
He added: “There will be no merger at all, it has been extremely unpopular with everyone. We weren’t trying to damage local influence, we just put forward a proposal to cut costs and the answer we had was loud and clear.”
Labour activist Dr Rob Pocock, who ran the Sutton Says No campaign, collected almost 1,000 signatures on a petition opposing the move.
Dr Pocock said: “We are all delighted. It is a real testament to people power in Sutton.”
Nigel Dawkins, who chairs Selly Oak Constituency Committee and heads the joint committee of constituency chairmen, said he was pleased that common sense had prevailed.
Coun Dawkins (Con Bournville) added: “There was never ever a sound economic argument for the dismantling of constituencies. The facts point to a picture of constituencies in general being well run.
"The widely prevailing political mood in the country is that more and more power should be devolved downwards. It would have been truly bizarre if in Birmingham we found ourselves travelling in the opposite direction.”
A spokesman for Birmingham City Council said: “There are no plans to merge our constituency committees.
“A range of options were consulted on and this was just one of several put forward. Constituency committees will continue to play a key role in the council’s governance arrangements.”