There’s something very significant going on in London at the moment that most people have never even heard of. During 2019/20, sixteen of London’s boroughs are set to go through a review of their councillor ward boundaries. Since July last year nine others have undergone reviews, the remaining seven have had reviews in the last five years. When looked at in totality, the reviews last year, this year and in 2020 will have an impact on four million London voters.
With wards forming the building blocks of local government in the capital, the representations consulted parties make and the determinations of the Local Government Boundary Commission for England on them, could be far reaching. They could also be a confirmation of the status quo, or something in the middle. That’s the world of boundary reviews.
Because reviews shape the landscape of local government political parties compete to convince the Boundary Commission to favour their interests, ie, they want to retain their councillors’ seats/political control or look to gain more councillors. Politics is a numbers game, after all. Reviews can completely change wards by redrawing boundaries; they can reduce or increase the number of councillors as whole, therefore having a massive political impact. The majority of London wards have three councillors but there’s nothing to stop them being reconfigured to have one or two.
Public cynicism of any form of government consultation – be it local, regional, or national – remains strong. However, boundary review changes really are shaped by the strength of the cases made. The point is, they do make a difference because the commission does listen.
So why is London facing a new round of reviews in half of its councils?
The reasons are as follows. A boundary review of wards is triggered if the local authority in question requests it, or if the populations of its wards do not match averages, being either too big or too small. If 30% of wards in a local authority area have electorates either 10% above or below the determined average a review is triggered. Likewise, a review happens if one ward in a local authority area has an electorate 30% out of kilter. With London’s population set to continue on its upward trajectory (predicted to reach 9.8 million by 2025) it is easy to see how ward electorates can change significantly in population, even over a short-term.
The review will initially engage with local authorities on the total number of councillors they have. With some areas having not had a review in twenty years, the role of a councillor has evolved during that time. For example, some local authorities still operate a committee system for decision-making, some opt for the ‘leader and cabinet’ model, and others even have directly-elected mayors. Factors such as these will naturally have an impact on the number of meetings councillors will have to attend, prompting the question: Do they have too many councillors, or too few? Similarly, do councillors have as many face-to-face surgeries with their residents as they used to? Have IT systems made the workload of a councillor more streamlined, and does this have implications on demand in terms of headcount? These questions are just a snapshot, but they play a critical role in the consultation process.
Factors such as community identity are also taken into consideration. Some council wards have close connections with their localities, others seem somewhat artificial by arbitrarily bringing together areas which would not ordinarily associate with one another. Public transport links, parliamentary constituencies, and the strength of community groups such as residents’ associations or religious groupings can give a sense of identity to be taken into account, especially given the increasing diversity of London as a whole. Facilities in local areas can provide a sense of belonging, for example shopping centres, medical services and school catchment areas. Parks, woodland, major roads and railway lines similarly have a role to play in ‘place-shaping’.
After political stakeholders have their say, the Commission will come back with draft recommendations. They’ll have to decide whether they agree with them or not, and political parties can be very competitive in protecting their interests. Final recommendations after this stage are sent up to Parliament for scrutiny and approval.
There will be councillors and political activists poring over maps, the considerable gnashing of teeth and a show of determined self-interest. After all, if you’re going into battle in local politics, you want the most convenient battlefield. Ultimately, it’s down to the strength of responses from consultees how much London’s ward boundaries will change.
The boroughs up for review in 2019/20 are: –
- Waltham Forest
- Barking and Dagenham
- Hammersmith and Fulham
Local Government Boundary Commission for England