The Conservative Manifesto for this month’s General Election stated:
“We will ensure we have updated and equal Parliamentary boundaries, making sure that every vote counts the same – a cornerstone of democracy.”
It is long overdue. Over a decade ago, a speech was given by David Cameron, the Leader of the Opposition, concerned with “fixing our broken politics.” He said:
“Today, we’ve got far too many MPs in Westminster. More people sit in the House of Commons than in any other comparable elected chamber in the world. This is neither cost-effective nor politically effective: just more people finding more interfering ways to spend more of your money. I think we can do a better job with fewer MPs: we can, to coin a phrase, deliver more for less. So at the election we will include proposals in our manifesto to ask the Boundary Commission to reduce the House of Commons, initially by 10 per cent. And while they’re at it, to get rid of the unfair distortions in the system today, so that every constituency is the same size in each of the nations of the UK.”
The Boundary Commission has “oven ready” proposals to reduce the number of MPs from 650 to 600. Now that the Conservatives have a clear majority in the House of Commons, they can finally become reality in time for the next General Election.
But what about “fixing” our local politics? I have previously argued that multi-member Wards should be abolished. Accountability is also improved if there are unitary arrangements for local authorities. That has been a significant trend for several years. This year it is happening in Buckinghamshire and Northamptonshire. Last year it took place in Dorset. Earlier it was undertaken in Cornwall, Wiltshire, and Bedfordshire. In the future, Cumbria, Hampshire, Suffolk, Oxfordshire, and Lincolnshire may well follow.
When there ceases to be a district and a county layer, the total number of councillors is reduced. But even when it is not prompted by such reorganisation it can still be achieved. This is because every couple of decades the Local Government Boundary Commission pitches up to review ward boundaries.
Sometimes the Commission might be called in after a deliberate decision to reduce the number of councillors. In Birmingham, it decided to reduce the number of councillors from 120 to 101. But the number of wards increased. Previously the 120 councillors were spread with three each across 40 wards. Now there are 37 single-member wards and 32 two-member wards. This is a change in the right direction.
Rotherham has “all-out” elections this year. The number of councillors goes down from 63 to 59, while the number of wards goes up from 21 to 25.
Both Birmingham and Rotherham had particular problems with dysfunctional local governance. The changes proposed are more modest than I would like. But even if the cut in councillor numbers was sharper and each ward had a single representative, this would not be a “magic bullet” – it’s simply that it would help residents to “take back control” of how their money is spent and what is done in their name.
Cornwall is an example of where a significant reduction in the number of councillors has been agreed. At present, there are 123. It is to fall to 87. Each ward (or “division” as they are called in Cornwall) will have one councillor.
What about London? Ward boundaries are changing in time for the next borough council elections in 2022.
Brent will have 57 councillors, six fewer than there are now. The number of wards goes up by one to 22.
Bromley will have 58 councillors, down two, but still have 22 wards (though with different boundaries).
Barnet is due to still have 63 councillors but have four more wards.
Enfield will see the number of councillors stay level at 63 but the number of wards increase by five to 26.
Haringey’s tally of councillors will still be 57 but the number of wards increase by two to 21.
Harrow’s total number of councillors goes down by eight to 55. The number of Wards goes up one to 22.
So far, for Havering, it has been agreed to keep the total number of councillors at 54, but it has not yet been decided how many wards they will be spread across. Similarly in Kingston, where so far it has been agreed to keep the number of councillors at 48. Also in Sutton, due to hold steady with 54 councillors.
Hillingdon sees the biggest fall. It is due to go down to 53 councillors, 12 fewer than at present. It will go down to 21 wards, one less than currently.
Lewisham will still have 54 councillors. They will cover 19 wards, one more than at present.
Merton will have 57 councillors, down three. It will still have 20 wards.
Richmond will still have 54 councillors in 18 wards.
Waltham Forest will continue to have 60 councillors. But they will cover 22 wards, two more than currently.
Wandsworth will have 58 councillors, down two. It will have 22 wards, up two.
Westminster will have 54 councillors, down six. The number of wards will go down by two to 18.
But some places are going in the opposite direction. Camden will have an extra councillor. Ealing is also up one. Hounslow is up by two. Hammersmith and Fulham goes up by four. Islington goes up by three. Newham’s tally will rise by six.
All those councils where the number has gone up are Labour councils. They have asked for more councillors and the Commission has complied. Do the Council Taxpayers of Camden, Ealing, Hounslow, Hammersmith and Fulham, Islington and Newham really feel that they need more councillors? Do they feel that the inevitable extra spending on councillor allowances is a priority?
My own Council of Hammersmith and Fulham justified its plea by claiming “a desktop work study exercise to quantify the average weekly time and activity of councillors” had been undertaken which “clearly demonstrates that a minimum of 20 hours per week is the current average workload of our backbench councillors.” That claim is fantasy. The casework undertaken by them averages below one item a week. Most casework comes in by email and involves forwarding it the relevant official for a response. Sometimes a meeting or a phone call will also be involved but mostly not.
Wandsworth Council makes this realistic comment in their submission:
“When the last boundary review was undertaken, the system for casework predominately consisted of receiving post, sending letters and conducting paperbased research. That pattern is now almost non-existent. Email is not only more efficient, but allows residents’ issues to be forwarded with a couple of clarifying lines, and responses to be forwarded or copied back. This is far quicker and simpler, while the volume of unprompted casework has not increased. When undertaking research, information that was previously difficult to obtain can be found online in seconds. Councillors’ access to email and systems has also improved significantly in the last year, with iPads provided to each member and online portals accessible from any computer. The iPads have simplified surgeries, allowing emails to be written and sent on the spot. Council and committee 5 documents are provided via a dedicated iPad app, helping to reduce paper at committees and removing postage issues.”
It’s true that there are also lots of meetings to attend. The Commission’s general guidance is that it would fret if the total number of councillors fell below 30 lest it was “too small to discharge its statutory functions.” It is a fair point. But are all those committees really necessary? Should the “statutory functions” be curtailed. For example, the adoption and fostering panels fail to provide any practical value. All they do is add cost and delay to the process. Then we have the “scrutiny” committees. The reality is that the system relies on patronage to avert scrutiny. This is due to a council leader handing over “special responsibility” allowances to chair the committees. It involves thousands of pounds a time for a committee that only gathers a few times a year. To suggest that these arrangements are such a treasured prize that councillor numbers must be kept up is absurd.
The overall trend towards a reduction in numbers is welcome. But there is a lack of coherence. There can be politically motivated special pleading by individual local authorities – which the Commission then finds it convenient to give in to.
I propose that for future reviews, Parliament should require the Local Government Boundary Commission to ensure that no councillor represents fewer than 5,000 electors. That would imply a cut in total councillor numbers of about half. It should also ensure that each ward (or “division”) should have just one councillor to represent it. That would save money (although councillor allowances should be abolished which would make that concern otiose). But more important is that it would invigorate our local democracy. It would be more intelligible. We would know who to blame. Who to throw out. It would give greater meaning to council elections – which most people usually don’t bother to vote in. Let us resolve that, in 2020, our democratic renewal will extend beyond Brexit.