The great city of New York has a population of 8 million people.The city is divided into five boroughs – Manhattan, Queens, Staten Island, Brooklyn, and the Bronx. It has one mayor, and 51 councillors. By a vote of the city’s citizens, these councillors are restricted to two terms of office, after which they are compelled to stand down. Currently, the city is dominated by Democrats, with a Democrat mayor, and 48 Democrat councillors, leaving a rump opposition of three Republican councillors.
We, on the other hand, live in the Liverpool City Region, a conurbation of approximately 1.5 million people. We have six individual boroughs – Liverpool, Halton, Knowsley, Sefton, St Helens, and Wirral. We have one metromayor (roughly equivalent to New York’s mayor), a Liverpool city mayor, and six ceremonial mayors (who, in a self-deprecating way, refer to themselves as “the chain gang” as they congregate at each other’s events). There is a grand total of 364 councillors in our patch, without including parish and town councillors! That total currently consists of 295 Labour councillors, and 69 representing other parties. There is no restriction on how many terms an individual councillor may serve.
Let me put it in a simpler way. New York has one mayor for 8 million people; we have a mayor for every 187,000 people. Even more spectacular are the councillor-to-citizen ratios. In New York, there is one councillor on average, for every 157,000 constituents; here the ratio is one councillor to around every 4100 constituents. These disparities beg some questions: do we have too many elected representatives across the city-region? Are they cost-effective? Are we getting value for money? (I have not even looked yet at the cost – allowances, expenses and servicing costs).
I can live with ceremonial mayors, although to me, they are a leftover from bygone times. However, I would gladly see the back of an entirely superfluous city mayor. We were denied a choice on its imposition, and it has been a democratic disaster. However, it is when we look at the broader local representation that there is obvious scope for improvement.
There are 124 separate wards across the city-region, varying in size and population. Even if there was only to be one councillor per ward, we would still have two and a half times the numbers current in New York. In recent times, there have been some reductions in councillor numbers by reductions in the number of wards; but each ward still carries three councillors. We ought now to ask: do we need three councillors in each ward? Perhaps there is room for a radical reduction in the number of wards, together with a drastic curb on the number of councillors per ward.
There is a further complication: the question of representation at a borough AND at a city-region level. Currently, the role of metromayor suffers from a democratic deficit. He is accountable – up to a point – to just six local authority leaders and no-one else. I believe that there ought to be an arrangement akin to that in New York and in London.
In London, the metromayor is accountable to an elected assembly consisting of 25 members. In a city of 8.5 million people, it is certainly streamlined – about one assembly member to about 340,000 people. In the Liverpool City Region, I would opt for one assembly member per parliamentary constituency. This would leave lots of latitude for a massive reduction in the top-heavy numbers of borough councillors. They are simply surplus to requirements.
Naturally, these kinds of proposals will provoke fierce resistance and resentment. Just as every attempt to reduce the sizes of the Commons and the Lords at Westminster meets huge opposition from vested interests, so there would be every effort to maintain the political sinecures in which local government too often suffocates. Yet any objective analysis reveals that over-representation can be as anti-democratic as under-representation.