I recently dashed off a very quick set of thoughts for ConHome concerning Lewis Baston’s ideas about the likely results of the current boundary review, as I understood them.
Despite my criticisms of the Democratic Audit (DA) plans (as reported in The Guardian), let no-one under-estimate the difficulties involved. Not only should the Democratic Audit proposals be read in this context, but the skill of the Boundary Commissions in dealing with what is both a very difficult and politically emotive subject should also be recognised.
Putting to one side the complaint that the DA ideas are party political, which I still believe (see Luton and North London for examples) there are three broad problems arising from the plans now published on their website.
The Boundary Commission for England (BCE) has clearly stated (it is on their website if you are so inclined to look) that "in the absence of exceptional and compelling circumstances it would not be proportionate and appropriate to divide wards". These are very firm words from the Commission. I have been in the world of redistributions too long to believe that people will not see ‘their case’ as unique or compelling. It is however often too depressingly easy to identify other more meritorious ‘unique cases’. In recent discussions I have been given compelling reasons for crossing regional boundaries in Humberside, Teesside, Gloucestershire, Lancashire, the West Midlands and London - in several directions. Hardly unique nor exceptional.
No-one should under-estimate the likelihood of there being some odd looking and disruptive constituencies under the new proposals, but there are a number of seats put forward by Democratic Audit which are very odd geographically. Examples include North Lancashire, which has no centre of population, and a North Wales seat that crosses virtually every hill from Snowdonia to the Welsh/English border when the lines of communication follow the rivers northwards not east-west. Central Wales poses a real challenge, but I have yet to be convinced that a seat should stretch like an elongated finger almost from Wrexham to the South Wales valleys.
While the Welsh Commission, because of the scale of change involved, has indicated that it will not necessarily have regard for existing ties, the BCE has made clear they do not start with a ‘blank sheet of paper’ (where have I heard that phrase before?). I do not therefore understand why Suffolk is wrought asunder when it seems to require very limited change.
When I was involved in drafting the legislation and considering the implications of the changes, I always expected a number of county boundaries to be crossed and some ties to be broken - but is it really necessary to link Lancashire and Cheshire with four different Greater Manchester seats and should any Gloucester seat not include the city centre and cathedral?
What is possibly most striking in the DA model is the number of occasions where seats cross county boundaries and include wards from several district councils. Currently there are only two seats in all England with voters from four district councils (award yourself a gold star if you can identify the two concerned). All of course within one county. The DA proposals have some two county/four district authority seats including Stortford and Stansted which would require an MP to deal with six local authorities (a record I believe) but currently a seat goes one better. The proposed Bolsover and Ollerton constituency links five district councils and two counties!! Good luck to the MP concerned. As an aside it is also worth noting that this part of Derbyshire is linked with Nottinghamshire while another part is twinned with Leicestershire. Surely not having regard for local ties, as the legislation requires.
The comments above are my less speedy reactions to an earlier set of options it's only 10-11 weeks until we know the Welsh and English provisional recommendations (Scotland will not publish until mid October) and it is then that the party battle really will begin.