Before next week’s round local elections, let’s take a moment to note an aspect that is often lightly glossed over. Nearly a quarter of all councils having elections on 2 May (five new merged councils, nine unitaries and 42 districts) will be using a new set of ward boundaries.
Boundary changes actually have a lot to do with development issues. The main reason boundaries have to be reviewed is because some wards have grown, and that’s largely down to development: in 1998, Millwall ward in Tower Hamlets, drawn up in the 1970s before Docklands redevelopment began, had grown to have twice as many voters than almost all other wards – and more was on the way.
Ward boundaries have an importance wider than simply electoral. They are often the base for council sevices and others including policing teams, and are used for collection of local statistics and deprivation levels. That can affect planning considerations: anything which involves an assessment of the ‘local area’ could legitimately use the ward of a development site as a proxy for the locality. Electoral issues also come into play: if planning committee members think their decision will affect opinion and electoral balance in a marginal ward, they will pay far more attention than if it is a safe ward (especially one safe for the opposition).
Boundary reviews can have striking electoral effects, sometimes bringing sudden changes in party control. When South Cambridgeshire went from a safe Conservative council to having a large Liberal Democrat majority in 2018, it was partly down to boundary changes. There are also instances where a full review results in very minor changes that do not change the electoral pattern (as was the case in Cambridge and Watford in 2018).
A temporarily favourable arrangement of boundaries can backfire in the long run. Brent’s current wards were based on Conservative proposals which spread their strength and maximised their chances; things were difficult for Labour but its vote has increased so much since 2010 that it won all but one ward last year. In Bexley, wards used between 2002 and 2014 were based on Labour proposals which helped it win an unexpected majority in 2002 but left it with only two truly safe wards to rely on.
Unlike most states in the US, boundaries in Britain are drawn up by supposedly impartial bodies – in this case the Local Government Boundary Commission for England (LGBCE). But the local political parties do all they can to get favourable arrangements, including trying to get community groups to back their submissions. The LGBCE has tended to prize proposals that produce electoral equality over unequal schemes that preserve community ties.
A complicating factor is that the boundaries have to be drawn up based on the forecast electorate in five years’ time, forecasts which are based on the council’s expectation of development. There is a lot of scope for dispute over the forecasts. Councils also usually draw up their proposals for boundary changes; with the benefit of professional officers, the LGBCE usually uses them as the basis for its draft recommendations. Of course, it is just a coincidence that the electoral impact of the council’s proposals is almost always in favour of the party with a majority on the council.
Bound up with ward boundary reviews are considerations of the total council size. Although the UK has one of the smallest ratio of elected officials to population, the long-term trend is to cut councillor numbers still further. Some councils have gone on a drastic slimming drive: Bexley went from 63 to 45 last year, and the new Richmondshire district will from next week have only 24 councillors, the smallest in England.
Which councils have electorally significant ward boundary changes this time? There are several historic Liberal Democrat/Conservative grudge matches in the South West worth looking at, including Bath and North East Somerset, South Gloucestershire and Torbay. Knife-edge Labour marginal councils with new wards include Cheshire West and Chester, Redcar and Cleveland, Carlisle and Crawley.