The public consultation, to be delivered between August 1 and September 16, was approved at Sandwell council’s full meeting this week.
The consultation seeks to move elections from thirds to all out elections. If approved and ratified by Sandwell council in November this year, councillors across every ward in Sandwell will be up for election in May 2023.
It comes after the government appointed a team of commissioners in March this year to oversee key departments at the council for the next two years – after a series of shocking governance and financial failures were highlighted in a Value for Money review by auditors Grant Thornton.
Despite “green shoots” of recovery, there were multiple failures over contract management and “deteriorating” relationships with councillors and officers. The report noted the amount of time spent investigating internal allegations had “negatively impacted” the council’s ability to improve its public services.
As as part of its improvement plan, whereby Sandwell council updates the commissioners every six months, the council will also move forward with sweeping election changes.
Under the current system, a third of the council’s 72 seats are up for election in three of every four years. In the fourth year there are no elections – known as a fallow year.
But if election rules are changed all 72 councillors – three seats in each ward – will be elected at once. The last all-out council elections in Sandwell took place in May 2004.
Sandwell council has been a Labour-led local authority for 48 years. During last year’s local election,
According to a report delivered at the council, an all out election would cost the taxpayer £420,000, as opposed to the current third election cycles at £380,000. Whole council elections “cost less to run in the long term than electing by thirds”, the report adds, and claims savings may vary if other elections, such as the general election or the police and crime commissioner election, take place.
Five local authorities – Rotherham, Doncaster, Birmingham, Slough, and most recently Liverpool, have moved to all out council elections following government intervention.
Criticisms about all out elections by the council included “political complacency”; increase in by-elections; and loss of experienced elected
members. The council also pointed out that all out elections would reduce “voter apathy” and significantly, a “clearer opportunity for the electorate to change the political composition of the council.”
If Sandwell council chose not to adopt all out council elections, the Secretary of State for levelling up, housing and communities, Greg Clark, may force a government order under Section 86 (A10) of the Local Government Act 2000. This power has been exercised on three councils in recent years – Stoke, Birmingham, and Doncaster.
Councillors were reluctant to speak at the meeting, with only Kerrie Carmichael, the leader of Sandwell council, proposing the report for the Labour side.
Speaking in the meeting, councillor Yvonne Davis raised concerns about the measures.
She said: “I appreciate this is going out to consultation but I would want to put on record my concern of an all out council election and the impact that will have on the stability of the council.
“One of the things of the third’s gives the council is continuity of a portion of its members going forward. And as ever with all councils, there’s great difficulty when new members come in about understanding how the council works and how they can contribute.”
“Having a third of members who are existing members, I believe is really important. So I would just ask that the consultation brings all parts rather than concentrate on all out.”