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Buckinghamshire Council has 147 seats. This is a huge number, which is more than the Scottish Parliament (129), the Israeli Knesset (120), and the Parliament of New Zealand (also 120), or the entire state of California (80 in Assembly, 40 in Senate).

Even just in local government, London, with enormously more people, has a London Assembly of just 25 seats. New York City council has just 51.

So, why on earth would a county council have 147 seats, and how does it function at such a large size for a relatively small population (~500k)?

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  • Good question. For comparison, Birmingham City Council has 101 councillors representing 1.1 million people, compared to 540,000 people in Bucks. Durham County Council has 126 councillors for 530,000 people (source for population figures). Dec 23 '21 at 16:13
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    Interestingly, according to Hansard, 147 councillors is actually a significant reduction - before the unitary authority was created, the area could have been governed by 236 individual councillors. However, due to ‘double-hatting’ in practice this was just over 200.
    – CDJB
    Dec 23 '21 at 17:48
  • @CDJB in case it isn't clear to the OP, the 236 was across the old 2 tier system of a county council and 4 district councils, with "double-hatting" being people serving on both levels at once.
    – origimbo
    Dec 23 '21 at 18:15
  • You seem to be comparing different levels of Government which perform different functions. Buckinghamshire Council is, for the most part, the lowest level of government for the area and dealing with local waste collection, local tax, primary school education, and local services. The other examples you provided are not the lowest level of Government and handle national policy or oversee, but not enforce, state / city services. You'd be better off comparing to London Boroughs, Californian Counties, or other rural English Borough Councils.
    – BeaglesEnd
    Jan 5 at 13:06
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Buckinghamshire is now governed as a unitary authority rather than a county council, with a single council controlling all local government functions. This is contrast to (e.g.) London, which consists of 32 boroughs and the City of London, each of which has their own councils dealing with many functions (e.g. rubbish collection, registry offices, setting council tax rates, etc.) as well as the Greater London Authority (which is primarily an executive run by the London Mayor, with the assembly a check on his or her powers and doesn't really "do" much). As such, the "standard" English local government system of 2 to 3 councillors per ward (an electoral unit of about 5,500 people) creates a large body when aggregated across the council. For comparison 1,833 councillors were elected to the 32 London boroughs in the 2018 London local elections.

As to how it functions, the area is a relatively homogenous area in which the population is either rural or commutes to London for work. Except for a few bastions of Liberal Democrat support there wouldn't be expected to be a great divergence of opinion, except at a very local level.

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  • A lack a diversity in opinion is surely an argument for lower numbers of elected officials not more. Why have 130 vs 17 instead of 13 vs 2?
    – Jontia
    Dec 23 '21 at 18:41
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    @Jontia because people tend to get annoyed at giving up representation they already have. As CDJB's link points out above, and alternative division could feasibly have run with 98 councillors across the 49 wards, but this would have reduced the total number of votes some areas would have had. In general, local govenment in England is a result of accidents of history rather than policy or strategy.
    – origimbo
    Dec 23 '21 at 18:48
  • Buckingham has a pop of less than 1 million, London over 14 million, so per capita doesn't Buckingham still have more seats than London ?
    – StephenG
    Dec 24 '21 at 3:40
  • @StephenG the population of London is 9million, not 14.
    – Jontia
    Dec 24 '21 at 7:23
  • @StephenG I suspect you've found a figure for the "London metropolitan areas" or similar, which includes people living in other local authorities, including Buckinghamshire. You should probably also note that Bucks council doesn't cover Milton Keynes, which is a separate unitary authority, hence the 500,000 in the question. Overall, that does mean an average Bucks councillor has fewer constituents than an average London councillor, but not on the scale of (say) Rutland, another non-metropolitan unitary authority with 27 councillors for less than 40,000 people.
    – origimbo
    Dec 24 '21 at 15:16
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I don't know what arguments were actually made in Buckinghamshire, but if I were charged with making the case against reducing councillor numbers, I'd make the following three points:

  • Buckinghamshire Council has ten executive jobs for councillors. The councillors holding those executive jobs are bound by collective cabinet responsibility, meaning that they're not at all free to vote with their consciences (or their perception of the interests of their constituents), they always have to vote with the leadership (or resign from their executive jobs). As things stand, this "payroll vote" makes up only 7% of the Council, and is therefore relatively harmless. If the total number of councillors were reduced to, say, 40, the number of executive jobs would still be 10, and the payroll vote would be 25% of the entire Council, seriously skewing Council democracy. This issue doesn't arise in the London Assembly, because the executive there is separate from the Assembly.
  • Councillors (at least the more conscientious and better-informed ones), given that their allowances are not covered by minimum wage legislation, can be a very cheap [*] and effective way of fielding incoming enquiries from the public. If the number of councillors were reduced, the Council may find itself having to pay more for extra first- and second-line helpline workers than it saved by removing the councillors.
  • Councils in England are elected by a first past the post system. Having fewer, larger wards accentuates the "winner takes all" nature of the first past the post system. In Buckinghamshire in particular, there's a risk that even a slight reduction in the number of councillors and wards might result in one party winning all the seats, leading to a lack of effective accountability and challenge to the leadership.

[*] Some are cheaper than others. The councillors with the executive jobs are generally paid bigger allowances than non-executive councillors; and Buckinghamshire in particular appears to have a rather unusual setup whereby Conservative non-executive councillors are paid bigger allowances than non-Conservative non-executive councillors. But even a Conservative non-executive councillor in Buckinghamshire is paid less than 20% of the salary of a non-executive London Assembly member.

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