The Work of the Boundary Committee for England and the Electoral Commission
ODPM Housing, Planning, Local Government and the Regions Committee 14 Jul 2003
Q32 Mr. David Clelland (Tyne Bridge): Can I ask about the Periodic Electoral Reviews. There is a review going on at the moment into the 36 metropolitan authorities in England. I understand, certainly as far as Tyne and Wear is concerned, that the Boundary Committee's final recommendation has been put back to November 2003 and the Order bringing them into effect will not be signed until 11 March 2004. Yet the proposal at the moment is that these new wards should come into effect at the combined local and European elections in June 2004. Do you think the three months between the Order being placed with Parliament and these wards coming into effect is a sufficient amount of time for political parties and local government to organise for these elections?
Ms Gordon: Sam may want to say something, as ultimately this is a Commission decision. We are due to publish our final recommendations from the Boundary Committee on 21 October this year for the Tyne and Wear authorities and then they will go to the Commission. I have to say that we have met that sort of timescale with regard to some authorities which were implementing for the elections this year, so it is not impossible, although I accept it is difficult.
Q33 Mr. David Clelland (Tyne Bridge): Yes, but may I just amplify the point. I know it might have been met before, but, next year, peculiarly, we have the combined elections of the European, which is two different electoral systems, one based on proportional representation and one first past the post, then, on top of that, the electors are going to have to contend with new wards, with which many of them will be unfamiliar, with ballot papers which are going to be like kitchen rolls, some of them, because so many candidates are going to be on them, all at one time. Do you think that is reasonable, in terms of your responsibilities in trying to make elections more simple and understandable?
Mr Younger: The way you put it, I think, we would have to look at it very carefully. What we are looking to do is make sure that we complete these reviews, both the Boundary Committee and get to the point of the Electoral Commission being in a position to make an Order as early as we possibly can. If there is a significant case for deferment then that is one which undoubtedly we will consider. I would not seek to give an answer right now, but there is a high priority for us in saying, if we are making recommendations for changes following a Periodic Electoral Review, it is right in terms of the democratic process that those are implemented as soon as it is practicable to do so. But practicable is a word clearly we will take into consideration.
Mr. David Clelland (Tyne Bridge): If you are trying to make elections easier and more understandable, encouraging people to vote, having all this conglomeration of things going on at the same time does not seem to me to be a very sensible way to organise things. It may be more sensible to have the big change in the boundaries take place on your alternative date, which I think was 2006, rather than have them all next year, when we have got the European elections at the same time. I just make that point.
Q34 Mr O'Brien: Would it be fair to say you have a view on that? While you are saying you are not prepared to give an answer now, do you have a view on it, as the Chairman of the Electoral Commission?
Mr Younger: I cannot say I have a view beyond the fact that, in this case, from what you are describing, there are two things potentially pulling in different directions. One is a priority which says, when you have done a review of electoral boundaries and you have got an arrangement which is going better to reflect the realities in terms of electoral equality and the way an authority is, and is developing, once you have got that, it is right that it should be put in place as fast as possible. At the same time, I recognise that doing something which is too helter-skelter, for one thing, and playing into a situation which is already complex, produces another issue. I could not go beyond that, because I think you can go beyond that only in making a decision on a particular case, and I have not got the knowledge to make a judgement on that particular case. I would say it is something, if that were looking as though it was going to create a significant problem, we would have to take very seriously.
Q35 Mr. David Clelland (Tyne Bridge): It is not a particular case, of course, because the whole country will be involved in the European elections, and all 36 metropolitan areas will be involved in the boundary changes, so it is not a particular case, it affects all parts of the country?
Mr Younger: It may affect a number, but I think you would have to look at what is the date when an Order is going to be there, what are the practical difficulties it will create really and then make a judgement. I do think it is a detailed judgement which needs to be made on a case-by-case basis.
Q36 Mr. David Clelland (Tyne Bridge): Can I ask about where proposals are put forward for ward boundary change it will have an impact on communities, how are the communities consulted?
Ms Gordon: The reviews are advertised widely and we try to get coverage in local papers. We are then in the hands of local interest groups. We do get a number of representations from private individuals, very often, of course, they are supporting a particular political group or a community group. We get individual representations, we get petitions, we do get a response. We are always concerned that our proposals really are being made public, and to a considerable extent we do have to rely on the local councils to do that. Certainly, where there are parishes and town councils we tend to get quite a lot of response from members of the local communities there, and sometimes we get representations from various community groups, from residents associations, in one case, proposals from a local newspaper on which actually we built a scheme. But we are never satisfied we get through to ordinary members of the public as far as we would wish.
Q37 Mr. David Clelland (Tyne Bridge): I appreciate hearing you say that, because I think if I went out in my constituency tomorrow and asked 100 people if they knew about the boundary changes, 99 out of the 100, if not 100, would not have heard anything about it, so there is something wrong with the consultation process somewhere. Can I ask what weight is given to representations from members of the public, from local authorities, MPs and community organisations when you are conducting your reviews?
Ms Gordon: We treat all the representations we receive seriously, and in each case we look for strength of argumentation in the case. If we get a strongly argued case, built on evidence, from a member of the public, from an MP or from a local council, we will give that more weight than a petition of several hundred signatures, which simply is an assertion that they would like to be in this grouping rather than that grouping. We look for the argumentation. However, if that petition has the argumentation then we give that a considerable weight as well. So we do not differentiate, it is the argument for which we are looking.
Q38 Mr. David Clelland (Tyne Bridge): Certainly, in my experience, it appears - in fact, I have letters from your office saying this - that more weight will be given to detailed submissions accompanied by maps and accurate statistics. That gives all of the advantage to a local authority, does it not? Even a Member of Parliament does not have, most Members of Parliament anyway, the resources to be able to comply with the kind of detailed maps, statistics, historical and forecast statistics, for which you ask. A local authority is always going to be in the driving seat on these things, is it not?
Ms Gordon: To some extent. We do not always expect to get what we ask for, and, if we get the argument but not necessarily the details, sometimes we can work with that. The problem, of course, is that some of those representations will be very specific to a particular area and may not address how that would fit in then with the wider part of the district. So you may get a very detailed submission about one small ward, or group of wards, which does not really work through, and we will have to do that working through, and that will depend on what the knock-on arrangements are.
Q39 Mr. David Clelland (Tyne Bridge): Again, to come back to the role of the general public in this, who are, after all, at the end of the day, the people who are going to have to live with the changes and any consequences of them, and there have been some quite bad consequences, in some instances, which I could relate to you. The local authority has all the advantages, has all the planning officers, the draughtsmen who can draw up all the proposals and send them off. They do have their own consultation processes and they go around the areas and have these boards up. In my experience, very, very few people actually attend from the community. The other thing, of course, is that even those members of the public who do attend these exhibitions which councils put on see only the council's proposals. What duty is there on the council to show the proposals which have been put in by other people, or is there none?
Ms Gordon: Certainly, we make all representations public, they can be inspected in our office, and we make that known.
Q40 Mr. David Clelland (Tyne Bridge): It would be difficult to get to your office from Gateshead?
Ms Gordon: This is true, but also they are available at the local council. We do ask councils to make them public. We do not always take the council's proposals, in fact, very often we moderate proposals from the council, to a greater or lesser extent, sometimes taking on proposals from political parties or any other groups. We do realise, obviously, that the local authorities are in an advantageous position there, but if they do not meet the criteria, if they do not balance the things which we are looking for then actually we will be looking to alternative proposals.
Q41 Mr. David Clelland (Tyne Bridge): Do you think that when it comes to community interests enough weight is given to that, or is most of the weight given to the equality of numbers?
Ms Gordon: Our prime purpose is the equality, that is what the exercises are about. We cannot go too far, as I say, we have this 10 per cent as a rough guideline, and it is slightly different in urban and rural areas. Sometimes one can see that there is a justification for a higher imbalance in a large rural area, as compared with a more compact, urban area, where possibly there is not so much difficulty about redrawing a boundary. There are those different considerations. One other thing which is a very major, complicating factor, so far as the metropolitan authorities are concerned, is that in the metropolitan authorities the law compels us to have a number divisible by three of councillors in each ward, and in practice that means three. This is a considerable inhibition, particularly in the outskirts of metropolitan areas, where there are large rural hinterlands, and sometimes we are compelled to put together less than adequate, less than ideal wards to meet that requirement. I would contrast that with the London boroughs, where there is no such requirement, where the great majority of London boroughs' wards do have three members, but round the outskirts, where some of those London boroughs go out into the countryside, we were able to agree a few two-member and, in one case, one-member wards to meet the special requirements of our communities, which really are rural communities.
Q68 Mr. David Clelland (Tyne Bridge): I am just wondering what other criteria you take into account, in terms of where the numbers might work out, what is good in terms of the representation of the local community and their access to local democratic institutions. For instance, I am going to give you a specific example, but I would not expect you to comment on it because this is just out of the air, it would not be fair to you, but the sort of thing that can happen. It is all very well looking at a map, you see, and drawing the lines around what looks like a conurbation, but quite often that does not tell the whole story. I have had a representation from a councillor in the City of Durham, who was telling me about the recent review there which came into effect on 1 May this year. The local authority and the local Member of Parliament both made representations to the Boundary Committee about the villages of Croxdale, Hett and Brancepeth, which had only 1,000 electors between them and they had one councillor, but that had to be changed and they had to go in with another part of the area to create a new ward. The councillor and the MP both were arguing with the Committee that they ought to be moved into the Meadowfield area, which was the area most closely identified with them, but, for some reason, which they never got to the bottom of, the Committee decided that while Brancepeth would move to Meadowfield, Croxdale and Hett would go to Bowburn. Although these arguments were put to the Committee, no notice was taken of the difficulties of transport links between these two small villages and the bigger area they were going into, let alone the fact that probably they would lose their representation. That is exactly what happened. The three councillors who were elected are all from the Bowburn area, so Croxdale no longer has a representative. You might think that does not matter particularly in the scheme of things, but I asked this councillor what the effect of this was and he said that, in order for Croxdale and Hett members of the public now to visit their councillor, and people do like to go to see their councillor, telephones are all very well but actually they like to go to their surgeries and that sort of thing, they have to make a two-bus journey via Durham, which costs them £5.60, or £4.80, to get a return ticket. The bus runs hourly but there is only a five-minute gap between the first bus arriving in Durham and the next one setting off, so any delay means they could face a journey of an hour and a half just in one direction to see their councillor. Now that is only one aspect of it. The other aspect, of course, is that, as this councillor says, even if they do not want to call at the councillor's home or go to the surgery, many people do contrive to bump into him, or her, in the local shop, church or pub. This is no longer possible for the people of Croxdale and Hett. So why was no notice taken of the representations which were being made in the case, and are there any other examples of that? Are public transport considerations taken into account?
Ms Gordon: Yes, indeed, and often we are advised of problems about linkages and that it would not be suitable to link particular areas because of transport difficulties. I cannot comment on the specific problem, but I am surprised because usually we are very careful, and our staff visit areas and they advise us where there are particular difficulties. Albeit, to make a generalisation, because of balancing the different requirements, it does happen that we cannot produce a perfect solution for all areas of all districts, but that is a concerning example.
Mr. David Clelland (Tyne Bridge): It seems to me to be an example where the numbers were more important than any other considerations, and a lot of people find themselves, they argue, they say to me, now disenfranchised as a result. I know they are not disenfranchised in the full sense of the word, but you know what I mean, they do not have the same contact with their local representative which they had before.
Q80 Mr. David Clelland (Tyne Bridge): Just on the question of boundaries. I see, and I heard you say before, that you would like to achieve, where possible, easily identifiable electoral boundaries. Would you regard the green belt as being an identifiable boundary if it divided two areas?
Ms Gordon: Very often it would be, but it would not be always. Particularly, as I was saying about the metropolitan areas, with their three councillors, you cannot always draw the boundaries exactly, and, of course, the green belt would be a substantial area.
Mr Gall: In terms of identifiable boundaries, it is identifiable boundaries on the ground. The green belt may constitute a divide between two communities, or it may constitute a link between two communities, depending on one's perspective.
Q81 Mr. David Clelland (Tyne Bridge): Where the communities agreed to divide it would be a boundary?
Mr Gall: Yes.
Q82 Mr. David Clelland (Tyne Bridge): The Boundary Commission might regard it as linking the communities, but the community might have some other thoughts?
Mr Gall: That is the sort of question you would be asking them.
Ms Gordon: I remember a case where there was a lake, and, looking at the map, one might have supposed that communities on each side, it was quite considerable water, would have seen themselves as separate, but the representations which came to us from those local communities said that they wished to be joined, they saw the water as joining them, and we had regard to that.
Q83 Mr. David Clelland (Tyne Bridge): Certainly, in the case which I had in mind, one village is separated from another, completely different areas have different councils at the moment, they have their own sets of councillors, one village has been split in half and joined with a little part of the other village, and they are separated by the green belt. That does not sound to me to be either a recognised and identifiable boundary or a community interest, and certainly it is not well accepted in the area. Again, it has been done because of the wider numbers gained, which, in my view, could be satisfied in another way, but that is an ongoing process. Another question on identifiable boundaries, and again it is a local question. In my constituency, I have an area called the Team Valley Trading Estate. The Team Valley Trading Estate was created in 1936, it is a large, thriving trading estate and there are lots of factories on it. There is a boundary which runs across the Team Valley Trading Estate, there are no electors involved here, no-one lives there, but there is a boundary which crosses the estate which separates one ward from another ward, and actually it runs through the middle of factories. I have had the occasion where I have been able to go to look at a factory but not walk inside because I was walking into the constituency of my Honourable Friend the Member for Blaydon. So that sort of ridiculous thing, and people do not know who their Member of Parliament is without consulting the local authority actually to look at the detail of the map, to see on which side of the boundary their factory lies in a particular area. I have suggested that could be tidied up. The Boundary Commission have decided it cannot be tidied up, for the reason that one side is a parish ward. I have noticed, in some examples which you were giving in the material you put out, that it is quite possible for part of a parish ward to form part of a borough ward, so why cannot the anomaly where no-one can identify this boundary at all, except for planners in the civic centre, be tidied up?
Ms Gordon: I cannot answer on behalf of the Parliamentary Boundary Commission.
Q84 Mr. David Clelland (Tyne Bridge): This is a ward boundary?
Ms Gordon: We do a good deal of tidying up of that sort. I cannot answer on the specifics.
Mr Gall: There are particular problems.
Q85 Mr. David Clelland (Tyne Bridge): Can I quote what you said, just so I do not catch you off guard. You said: "We are looking to propose such an amendment as we judge that the effective and convenient local government might be better achieved by ensuring that parish and borough ward boundaries remain co-terminus." Why? That does not happen in every case, does it?
Mr Gall: In fact, basically, the legislation sounds to us that, where possible, we should not divide parishes between district wards.
Q86 Mr. David Clelland (Tyne Bridge): No, it would not be divided between district wards, a parish ward still would have just a part of the ward, where there are no electors anyway, which would not be part of the parish. You give an example here, in South Buckinghamshire, where you said, in terms of a ward there, "We recommended warding Farnham Royal Parish so that part of the Parish would form part of the one borough ward and the rest of the Parish would form part of a second borough ward"?
Mr Gall: If I can just mention, we cannot transfer any part of a parish ward which has not got any electors in it, because you have to have a councillor for that part of the parish ward, and it makes no sense legally.
Mr. David Clelland (Tyne Bridge): I am not making myself clear, so I blame myself for this. They are not transferring any part of the parish ward. All they are doing is enlarging the borough ward in which the Parish is contained, the Parish would still be the same, the Parish boundary would not change, but the district ward boundary would change slightly, that is all?
Q87 Chairman: It does raise this question about how far boundaries are just to get the right number of people and how far, in practice, wards are used for all sorts of other purposes. Are you happy with the present state of the law, or can you see that really there needs to be a whole series of tidying up of this, and perhaps not to use wards for the building-blocks for parliamentary constituencies and also for allocating funds for deprivation?
Mr Gall: I think it depends what one intends to use wards for in the first place. Clearly, when first created, they were intended to be the building-blocks for elections. Other agencies have used them as the building-blocks for other purposes. So far as the legislation is concerned, the legislation we work to basically is that set out in the Local Government Act 1972 and updated by the 1992 Local Government Act. If Parliament's intention is to use wards as the unit for elections, basically to provide electoral equality, to provide for, effectively, one vote of equal weight across a local authority area, then the legislation is fine, I think. If Parliament decides that more weight should be given to community identity, above electoral equality, equality of representation, then I think there would have to be changes.
Q88 Chairman: As far as I am concerned, I have got a ward which is of high-level deprivation, but if you are going to solve the problems of that ward money has to be spent just across the boundaries. The logic would be to redraw the boundaries so that some of the open space onto which industrial building could go is included in that ward. Now is not that something which you ought to be able to look at?
Mr Gall: As I say, it goes back to the purpose of wards, why do we have them. There is a move away from simply looking at wards in terms of indices of social deprivation, and suchlike, regeneration funds, and looking at project-driven regeneration. Really, it is down to Parliament to decide for what purpose it wants to use wards. They can be a useful measure, yes, of various statistics, but, so far as we the Boundary Committee are concerned, we must regard them purely as a unit for the election of councillors to local authorities, that is the purpose of this Electoral Review.
Q89 Mr. David Clelland (Tyne Bridge): To come back to my point, where you can make changes, I am not talking about what you can or cannot do, I am talking about what you can do, and you have a boundary which actually dissects buildings, surely it has got to make sense to put that right? You have not said you cannot do it, you have said you are reluctant to propose such an amendment?
Mr Gall: I do not know the situation. What I will say is, certainly, wherever possible, we try to avoid the situation of having ward boundaries cutting through property, unless there are extenuating circumstances, and some do develop in relation to parishes. I will not go into detail here, but they can develop.
Q90 Chairman: I think, as far as the Team Valley case is concerned, it would help the Committee if you could give us a note explaining why you are unable to do anything now and what would need to be changed, as far as legislation is concerned, to sort out a boundary like that?
Mr Gall: In relation to this one, which review is it?
Mr. David Clelland (Tyne Bridge): I will let you have that later.
Chairman: On that note, can I thank you very much indeed for coming to give us evidence. Thank you.
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