Tuesday, 13 September 2016

The Boundary Commission's initial proposals-and what is wrong with them

Readers, the Boundary Commissions for England and for Wales have just released their initial proposals for the 600 new constituencies they need to create under the Parliamentary Constituencies and Voting Reforms Act 2011, which also mandates that these constituencies' electorates must be within 5% of the electoral quota, based on the December 2015 electoral register.

Their initial proposals can be found here: www.bce2018.org.uk and www.bcw2018.org.uk

In their quest for minimum change, they have come up with many incongruous, unstable, and generally terrible new proposals. In my home county of Hertfordshire, they are proposing to link villages like Bassingbourn (which are in Cambridgeshire!) to North East Hertfordshire, and to connect Welwyn Hatfield with Hertford villages even though those have far better connections to Hertford. They are also trying to continue with the Basildon (North) & Billericay constituency (which in my opinion deserves to be abolished) to the detriment of other Essex constituencies, create two cross-county constituencies in the East Midlands when only one is really necessary (not to mention the mess this will cause in Northamptonshire and Leicestershire), and causing a mess in Sheffield because of their refusal to split wards when in many urban scenarios it is desirable to do so (especially in the urban West Midlands). Their proposal to reunite the old Harwich constituency and recreate North Essex, to make Staffordshire Moorlands coterminous with the district, and the way they have handled the inevitable cross-Tamar constituency and two cross-county constituencies in Herefordshire do impress me nonetheless. It is coincidentally convenient that constituencies of prominent Conservative MPs, namely Prime Minister Theresa May's constituency of Maidenhead, Witney (until yesterday represented by David Cameron), and Weston-Super-Mare, represented by John Penrose who pushed for December 2015 registers instead of December 2016 registers to be used despite serious concerns about councils not being entirely ready for such an individual registration exercise (particularly with their own concerns about cuts to statutory services), remain completely intact.

In the seven months in the run-up to the release of these initial proposals, I have been steadily working on my own counter-proposals to many of the more offending constituencies the Boundary Commissions have managed to create.

For now, here are in my opinion the 10 worst 2018 proposals across England and Wales, which have come courtesy of Sir Gerry Mandering and which are avoidable in some way.

10. Splitting Hazel Grove. Marple has no real connections to Hyde at all, and 'Marple & Hyde' disconnects Hyde from Stalybridge with which it has been in parliamentary and local government terms for decades, and rightly so. I do appreciate that Hazel Grove is more than 10,000 voters under quota, but Marple and the other constituent parts of Hazel Grove need to be kept together. In my honest opinion this is an example of gerrymandering for no good reason and of the hint that the Boundary Commissioners are not as impartial as they claim to be. Adding the Cheshire village of Disley and the Stockport ward of Stepping Hill instead helps avoid this problem.

9. Adding Littleport to minimise change in South West Norfolk: The small town of Littleport is obviously part of Cambridgeshire and connected only to Cambridgeshire towns and villages, particularly the city of Cambridge. Downham Market and Thetford, the two largest towns of South West Norfolk, are poorly connected anyway and therefore there is no reason to keep pairing them together. This proposal would cut off vital connections between the city of Ely and surrounding villages and the market towns of March and Wisbech. Recreating the old Isle of Ely seat, albeit without Wisbech, and instead making the unfortunately inevitable cross-county constituency 'Wisbech & Downham Market', makes for more accessible constituencies in Cambridgeshire; Thetford should instead be paired with Wymondham with which it has a railway link to. Public transport connections are very important to consider when drawing new constituencies!

8. Bodmin & St Austell/Truro & Newquay: The key links run along the coasts in Cornwall, not from north coast to south coast except in the furthest reaches of St Ives Bay. Truro and St Austell are almost next to each other and that is why they should form a pair, as they did from 1950 to 2010. Bodmin has better community links with the south east of Cornwall than it ever will with St Austell or any Cornish town or villages that are westwards of Bodmin. The Boundary Commission were clearly being economical with the truth when they said they were starting afresh with the 2018 review of parliamentary constituencies (if you do not remember, both of these proposals appeared for the abandoned 2013 review).

7. Splitting towns like Penistone and Grimsby simply to avoid splitting rural or compact wards. If a ward has a name like 'Penistone West' that clearly indicates it is part of an actual town, especially a large one. These wards should be kept together to preserve community integrity, which people in Britain value particularly. Rural wards are easier to split due to them containing more than one parish (e.g. Otley & Yeadon), as are compact and densely populated wards like 'Central' (several British cities have a ward named Central). It might not be neat, but I believe keeping towns and cities intact wherever allowable is paramount.

6. High Weald. Connections between Kent and Sussex are poor and there appear to be no shared interests between Tonbridge, Tunbridge Wells, and any of the easternmost East Sussex villages which are in the Weald forest (hence the Wealden name of their district council). It is instead possible to avoid crossing this county boundary and create sensible constituencies for Kent and the two parts of Sussex whilst still leaving several Sussex and two Kent constituencies completely intact; recreating East Grinstead is the key to achieving this.

5. Their proposals for three Middlesbrough constituencies. Such a constituency as 'Middlesbrough North East & Redcar' has no good reason to exist, particularly when Redcar would rather be with nearby towns than with Middlesbrough, which only needs two constituencies. 'Middlesbrough West & Stockton East' is unnecessary and is more trouble to create than it is worth. Milder adjustments are needed here, and ones which do not cause too much alterations to Stockton North or Stockton South, both of which are generally representative of proper communities.

4. North Clwyd & Gwynedd. Merionethshire should generally be paired with Caernarfonshire as much as possible (since Gwynedd encompasses both of these counties), and it can be drawn as such without having to intrude too much into Denbighshire with which it has little to no real connection. Also, the 'North Clwyd' part is very poorly linked with Gwynedd; this is a clear example of why it is much easier and fairer to redraw urban constituencies than rural constituencies, especially in Wales which is not only facing the largest reduction in seat numbers (from 40 to 29) but which also has particularly poor transport infrastructure in Clwyd a Gwynedd (North Wales).

3. Bromsgrove & Droitwich. Bromsgrove is in quota and should therefore be unchanged, and Droitwich looks south not north in Worcestershire terms. Although this makes changes in Redditch fairer, Droitwich is better linked with Evesham. The mess this proposed constituency will make of the rest of Worcestershire (their version of Evesham even includes Warwickshire villages; no need for this at all!) is the worst aspect.

2. Finsbury Park & Stoke Newington. Already infamous due to the coverage it was given by the Evening Standard and the Metro and because it carves up Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn's seat of Islington North. Islington has never been paired with Hackney for the simple reason that they are separate parts of London with no shared interests. The major disruptions it causes to other parliamentary constituencies in east London are unjustified when they should be kept intact or subject only to minimal change.

1. Brighton Central & Hove/Brighton North: This does not even constitute minimum change, breaks important transport links, and was clearly devised by a commissioner with a personal dislike of Green MP Caroline Lucas. I have therefore rated this as my number 1 worst initial proposal. Hove Park is an integral part of Hove and should stay with Hove. There are no good transport links at all linking the west and east parts of the proposed Brighton North constituency either; the rail links emanate from the centre of Brighton (covered by St Peters & North Laine). The addition of Moulsecoomb & Bevendean instead of Queen's Park is clearly an attempt to weaken the Green vote in Brighton Pavilion without good cause. Hove only needs to add Regency ward, and Brighton Pavilion only needs Queen's Park ward next door. This preserves community links and is far less open to accusations of gerrymandering, which these two proposals very much are.

Further boundary analyses with alternative proposals coming soon.


  1. Thanks for this Alan. I think with the surge we've seen in Green Party electoral activity in the last year or 2, a second Brighton seat is winnable. We could have a group of 2 MPs in Parliament allowing Caroline to work with a team of paid policy advisors do develop ideas such as railways, the NHS, decent housing, online and human rights, and a safe climate below 1.5*C.

  2. Morning Alan, thanks for this. A few points:

    1) The Tories aim isn't really minimum change, but maximum damage to Labour (and the smaller parties)

    2) Droitwich (near me) looks North to Bromsgrove and beyond as well as South to the Cotswolds. It's increasingly a commuter town to Birmingham via the M5 and two rail lines

    3) I was in Islington North recently. Met some friends for a drink, two of them walked over from Finsbury Park. N4 and N19 are side by side, not unconnected as you suggest

    4) (most importantly) surely we should use the consultation as a change to talk up real electoral reform (ie PR), while on the nitty gritty challenge the fiddled registers rather than where arbitrary lines are drawn?

    5) I think the biggest row up here will be people in some Black Country towns moaning at being tacked onto Birmingham

    Cheers, Bill Mc