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Draft Cumbria (Electoral Changes) Order 2012

Volume 741: debated on Monday 3 December 2012

Motion of Regret

Moved By

That this House regrets that the draft Cumbria (Electoral Changes) Order 2012 has been produced with inadequate consultation with the County Council and other interested parties; without a simultaneous review of the district council ward boundaries with the consequence that the electorate will be confused as to their local representation; and with serious flaws in the process conducted by the Local Government Boundary Commission for England (LGBCE) that specifically contravene the requirements of the Local Democracy, Economic Development and Construction Act 2009 that the LGBCE base their recommendations on population forecasts for five years after the Order comes into force, given that the LGBCE admit they do not have the legally required information for 2017.

My Lords, I beg to move the Motion of Regret in my name on the Order Paper. I apologise to the House for having to raise this matter on the Floor, but it is an important one because the Local Government Boundary Commission for England has behaved, I am afraid, in what I consider to be a bureaucratic and insensitive way and has not obeyed its own rules. On all sides of the House, there is support for the principle that boundaries of constituencies, county divisions and borough wards should be set by a process that is independent of party politics and that those boundaries should be reviewed periodically to ensure broad equality of representation. However, the contention of this Motion of Regret, and my reason for moving it, is that there were very serious flaws in the way that the Local Government Boundary Commission for England acted in relation to the boundaries of Cumbria County Council.

There are two points about Cumbria that need to be stressed. First, you are dealing with a very sparsely populated county, with very stable communities with very strong local identities which need to be respected in any review of local boundaries. In my own home town, Carlisle, which particular part of it you were from—such as Denton Holme, where I was from, or Stanwix—defined what kind of person you were. These local identities are very important.

Secondly, and this is a more important point about the process, it is a part of the country where there is two-tier local government. Personally, I regret that and am in favour of a single-tier authority, but I know there is debate about that. If you have two tiers of local government, it is important that they marry together. The problem that we have with two-tier local government is that for most of the public, the districts are the focus of local representation and democratic voice, but it is the county council that has the money and the powers and provides most of the services. There is already confusion about who is responsible for what in this two-tier system and it greatly adds to the confusion if, in revising boundaries for the county council without at the same time revising boundaries for the district, you end up with different bases of representation.

This could have been done differently. The order we have before us also considers town council boundaries, and there is absolutely no reason why the district and the county could not have been considered together. Instead, what appears to have happened was a mechanical, computer-driven process of equalising the wards by drawing lines on maps—which, incidentally, no local people can actually read when they try to print off those maps—but also a process that was without regard for local community ties.

Again, I cite an example from the city that I know best. Ever since my childhood there has been a ward on the west side of Carlisle round the area of the Brunton Park football ground, called St Aidans, and this has completely disappeared. The area where my parents lived for most of their lives, which is called Currock, is being split in two and half of it is being amalgamated with another part of town that is quite distinct from this area. These are bureaucrats who have applied computer principles; they are not people who have looked at local communities.

It also seems strange to introduce a wholly new set of boundaries within four or five months of the elections for the county council next May. People will discover that councillors who have represented them for decades no longer represent them. This simply adds confusion for confusion’s sake. This was a rushed job, in my view, and also did not comply with the legal requirements that the Boundary Commission is supposed to take into account when it revises boundaries.

There is a requirement to take into account population forecasts for five years for each of the wards. The Local Government Boundary Commission for England did not have that information available. It had information for the population forecasts for the districts only up to 2016, when the law requires it to have forecasts up to 2017. It used those population forecasts pro rata to each ward rather than looking at the circumstances on the ground in each ward. Of course, that information would have been available to the Boundary Commission if it had done the district boundaries at the same time because the district councils, as the planning authorities, hold the detailed information about what developments are likely in the coming period.

I am moving this Motion because I believe that the Boundary Commission has behaved with a lack of common sense. It has exceeded its authority and refused to admit its error. While it is right that the Boundary Commission should be independent in its judgments of boundaries, it cannot be independent of the statutes that govern its operation, nor can it be independent of scrutiny if it behaves in an arbitrary and bureaucratic way. I hope that this Motion will give the Boundary Commission an opportunity to think again. I beg to move.

My Lords, I only wish that the Government could have rejected the product of this review before bringing this before Parliament. The truth is that no one anywhere in the county of Cumbria asked for this review at district, town or county level. Indeed, I quote the Conservative leader of Cumbria County Council in his letter to the Commission on the 8 September 2010:

“I am concerned that the review of Cumbria County Council’s divisional boundaries is to take place in the next few weeks. That there is a need for such a review … I do not contest”.

He goes on to express his “considerable reservations” as to the limited nature of the review, the lack of a full consultation with the county council about the nature of any meaningful review that should take place.

There was one small problem in the county, one ward—Dalston and Cummersdale, near Carlisle—which has led to all this public money being spent, and it could have been resolved by some minor decisions being taken in the structure of county council wards. The county has provoked an anomalous position with overlapping district boundaries, which will probably provoke an equally unnecessary district boundary review, which no one wants and on which no one wants to spend public money, leading to the further use of district and county authority resources.

If the review were to take place—in my view, and that of most people in the county, it should never have taken place—it should have been done in conjunction with the districts, following consultation. If that had been the case, it would probably have been many years before any review had been undertaken and a lot of public money would have been saved. As Mr Eddie Martin, the Conservative leader of the council, put it in the same letter to the Local Government Boundary Commission for England, this review

“is an unnecessary distraction which we could do well without”.

My contribution today is to ask a series of questions to which, if they cannot be answered at the Dispatch Box now, I would like answers in writing so that they can be circulated within the county. First, what has been the cost to the Local Government Boundary Commission for England of this review, which everyone believes was totally and utterly unnecessary? What would have been the cost if, at some later stage, when it was finally necessary, the review had encompassed both district and county authorities? What would have been the saving to the Cumbria council tax payer?

My noble friend Lord Liddle raised the question of Schedule 2 and the projections for 2017, which were not taken into account because the data for 2017 were not available to the Local Government Boundary Commission for England. It simply guessed. In an e-mail to the Labour leader of Cumbria County Council, Mr Stuart Young, on 31 July 2012, the commission stated:

“As explained previously, the Commission has had to make a number of assumptions to make good the lack of detailed forecasts at polling district level from your Council. Nevertheless, the Commission judged that the forecasts, such as they were, gave sufficient basis to proceed with the review and settled its final recommendations in May. The final audit we chose to undertake since has not given any cause to alter the view that the figures are fit for purpose, within an acceptable range of inherent future uncertainties”.

That is not what the law requires. The law requires something far more accurate: a description of what the statistics would be in 2017, but with that reference to,

“an acceptable range of inherent future uncertainties”,

the Local Government Boundary Commission for England somehow believes that it is meeting the requirements of the law.

My next question is: is it actually meeting the requirements of the law? Does not its decision to proceed in that way in the county of Cumbria have implications for all future Local Government Boundary Commission for England reviews in all other counties nationally? I am sure that all county authorities will be interested in the Minister’s response. Furthermore, I would like to know what constitutes an acceptable range. That should be qualified for the benefit of others in future.

I turn to the local responses to the review. Again, they turn on the issue of public money. I have here an e-mail from Egremont Town Council. Yes, these are very parochial issues to be raising in the House of Lords, but the point about this debate is that what we are doing in this order has implications for other counties throughout the country. The concerns being expressed by the two local councils to which I intend to refer may well be mirrored in other authorities in the event that their reviews are carried out on a similar basis.

“Egremont Town Council object to the proposed change in that it will result in the parish of Egremont being divided into 4 divisions, this, we feel will add an additional financial burden on the Parish as more polling stations will be needed at an average cost of £1,000 per station”.

We are talking here about a parish council with almost no money available to it having this additional expenditure imposed upon it. The e-mail continues:

“The proposals create an Egremont East Ward that has approximately 5 houses which seems ludicrous. It is disjointed what we have and will create a polling day nightmare that will prove very confusing for many when on one sheet they will be voting for a Parish Councillor for Egremont East”,

and then it refers to overlap with other wards in the same area.

I have another letter here from Maryport Town Council, where it equally expresses its concerns. It is a letter to Sir Tony Cunningham, the MP for Workington, expressing its concern to him:

“The Council asked that I write to you expressing its dissatisfaction with the proposals for a north/south split of the Maryport area wards rather than the current east/west split arrangements. The Council considers that the current arrangements are perfectly adequate and that the arguments for the proposed arrangement are not strong enough to merit a change from a division that is working perfectly well”.

There is no politics in this; there is no gain to any political party. It is all being done neutrally, but what is happening is that relationships built up between constituents and their council representatives, sometimes over decades, are being smashed to bits, ruined and destroyed because of the turn of a pen of a bureaucrat, probably sitting in an office in London, who has no immediate knowledge of what is going on within particular wards in the county of Cumbria.

I only wish that it had been possible to stop this process proceeding. I do not know what the legal position is. I presume that now that this order is going through it will all be implemented. However, the Local Government Boundary Commission for England should realise that sometimes it should simply stop what it is doing, because no one wants what it is doing. It is forcing local authorities to incur public expenditure which they can ill afford at this time. The reality is that the Local Government Boundary Commission for England seems unstoppable; it seems just to keep on going irrespective of pressures at a local level. I can only put it this way: if Carlisle were burning, the Local Government Boundary Commission for England would still be drawing up wards for that town. That shows the nature of the problem.

I am glad to support my noble friend Lord Liddle in bringing this Motion before the House. It is difficult to think of a county in which there is a stronger sense of tradition and community than Cumbria. It is very deep indeed—partly, of course, because it is right out there to the west of the country and not part, perhaps, of the mainstream of the United Kingdom, but very much a county with its own sense of identity. That sense of community in the county is built on a strong sense of community in the local communities of which the general community of Cumbria is comprised.

When I look at what has happened and listen to my noble friends, with all their experience—much longer than mine—of the county of Cumbria, it is clear that, if one had set out to try to disrupt something which is good, healthy and robust in the life of Cumbria, one could not have done much better than to introduce the ill considered and insensitive proposal before us.

It is impossible to speak to this subject without making reference to what has been going on with respect to constituency boundaries as well. People are in a real state of muddle about where they belong, where their loyalty is, who is representing them and for what. For democracy to succeed, it is essential that people are absolutely clear about who they are holding to account and who is representing them in the local authority, the county and nationally.

I believe that the Motion and the passion with which it has been introduced are related to the heart of democracy. It is an illusion to think that one can have a healthy democracy made up simply of individuals going to the polling station and voting. A healthy democracy is made up of individuals finding their place in the community, discussing with fellow members of that community what the issues are, making relationships and making strong representations together. The heart of democracy lies in that community life and, on the basis of that life, on then being able to hold people meaningfully to account, not just on election day but throughout the periods between elections.

I am certain that we need to think very carefully about what is being done on boundaries in so many different contexts; the measures are destroying the sense of community that is an essential element in a healthy, thriving democracy. These proposals certainly do not put that right.

I am glad to see that a Liberal Member of the coalition is going to reply to this debate. If the Liberal Democrat party prides itself on anything, it is its history of involvement in the community and its activity in community politics and the rest. I am sure that the noble Baroness will have listened to every word that has been said and will cheerfully and willingly undertake to ensure that this entire serious matter is reconsidered.

My Lords, I shall not detain the House for more than a couple of minutes; I just want to participate in this debate that my noble friend has initiated. I agree very much with him about the strength of community in the county—not only in Cumbria, though, but in other countries as well— while starting from the opposite end: I am not in favour of a unitary authority covering such a vast area as Cumbria. However, I am in favour of a two-tier system of local government. Because of that, I am concerned about this recommendation from the Local Government Boundary Commission for England, which seeks to address only the issue of the county electoral boundaries, not the local ones. We all know that one of the problems of democracy at the moment is the identification of individuals with their council. This just adds another area of confusion where there are different boundaries for the two-tier system of government.

I submit that these proposals were made too late for the election beginning next May; they were laid on 31 July this year. There has been practically no publicity whatever in the county of Cumbria. I doubt whether 1% of the electorate know anything about them, and they are going to get quite a shock when the election comes next May.

My Lords, this is a living Chamber and I believe that procedure evolves all the time among your Lordships. I therefore find myself in a rather strange position—because the Local Government Boundary Commission for England, set up under the 2009 Act, is independent of the Government—of having drawn the short straw in responding both to my noble friend’s Motion of Regret and to the comments made by my noble friends Lord Campbell-Savours, Lord Judd and Lord Clark. A quadrumvirate of people I respected more would be extremely difficult to find, but it is important for your Lordships to understand the context in which these changes have been put forward by the Local Government Boundary Commission for England.

The commission was set up with the specific and sole remit to review electoral arrangements of councils against statutory criteria of electoral equality, giving fair weight to the votes of all electors in a council area; community identity and interests; and effective and convenient local government. It carries out its functions by relying on a mixture of analysis and judgment.

What we have here, as has been outlined, is a circumstance in which there has been considerable conflict during the course of this review between Cumbria County Council and the commission. I find myself in the position I have often watched with amusement, when people at the government Dispatch Box defend material over which they have had no influence whatever.

However, that does not necessarily mean, as my noble friend Lord Campbell-Savours is inclined to suggest from a sedentary position behind me, that the position is indefensible. My noble friend Lord Campbell-Savours and others have said that the county council has never wished for this review. The advice I have received is that it is the council’s present leadership that has never wished for this review. At every stage the county council has challenged these boundary changes and sought to block their implementation. However, the commission has a statutory responsibility. The Act gives the commission power to conduct a review where it judges it desirable, whether a council wishes it or not. The commission has intervened in Cumbria because its well established criteria of electoral fairness indicate that it should.

The reason is that there is a significant level of electoral inequality for local voters. My noble friend Lord Campbell-Savours has specifically referred to the ward of Dalston and Cummersdale, which includes 33% more electors than the average for the county—not the lowest, but the average. That is a degree of electoral variance which, against the criteria applied universally by the commission, is unacceptable. It means that the value of the vote in that area varies very considerably depending on whether you live in that division or one of the neighbouring divisions. As the commission has a duty to ensure fair votes at local elections, it needed to carry out this review.

Did it have an obligation to carry out a review of the whole county on the basis of a single complaint about Dalston and Cummersdale?

My understanding is that you cannot make a small change without there being repercussions elsewhere, but in any event the difficulty arises because of the nature of the dialogue between the council and the commission.

As I said, the Act gives the commission the power to conduct the review whether or not the council concerned wishes it to happen. One can understand the reasons behind that. Clearly, a council might want to maintain the status quo because it suited the members of that council so to do. I accept the comments that have been made that this is not the circumstance in these areas. The Act lays down that the council “must” assist the commission by supplying necessary information.

However, I am informed that in resisting the review, the council has in practice failed to comply with its duty to supply information. Clearly, one way in which the council could have moved forward is what happens very frequently with reviews of local government divisions: the county council or the council concerned puts forward its own set of proposals, which the boundary commission then measures against those criteria to see whether or not it applies.

I am sorry to correct my noble friend, but I understand that the county council was more than helpful. The problem was at district level, so I think that he has been badly briefed by his commission.

As I have said, I am in the position of so many Ministers before the Dispatch Box in that I have not got access to the primary material. However, I am told that, universally in these circumstances, the county council provides the information on population projections because it has the material across the county area. When the districts were asked whether they had comments, they were not able to comment on this because, they said, all the information on the projections was held by the county council. So we have this information, and we have to make the best of what we have before us.

Of course, the commission would have been ready to contemplate the much bigger and more complex review necessary to consider the district councils as well, but only if there had been a reasonable consensus on that being the way forward. Within the individual districts, there were not the same electoral disparities. There has never been that consensus. As I said, the district councils do not present electoral inequalities to merit the review in their own right.

A number of noble Lords have criticised the quality of the consultation. As a matter of course, the commission proceeds carefully through public consultations on council size. The quality of the maps has been criticised. My understanding is that the council was given the full mapping in electronic form, which would have enabled the council, had it so wished, to disseminate and generate local maps in whatever form and as flexibly as it wished.

My noble friend has suggested that the commission was unstoppable in its approach. The reality is that, as a result of the representations made by the county council, the commission extended its usual consultation periods, allowing in total 32 weeks, or eight months—a very generous definition of consultation for those of us who are used to systems of government consultation. It allowed six weeks’ consultation on the total number of councils required; 12 weeks of inviting submissions on electoral division patterns, which would of course have been the point at which the county council could have come forward with a proposal that would have dealt with the single anomalies; and then a further 14 weeks on draft recommendations for new electoral boundaries. By most normal definitions, that is ample opportunity for people to have their say. My advice—again, it may be challenged—is that the county council did not contribute. Its representations were directed only to challenging or delaying the review.

The council has also challenged the adequacy of the electoral projections used in the review, yet these were the projections that it supplied. It complained that because electoral registration is a district council responsibility, it could not be expected to do better. The commission responded that in no previous case has a county council insisted, like Cumbria, that it cannot or will not supply the requested information. That said, I am advised that the commission recognised that questions might be raised on the council’s figures, and took steps to mitigate any ill effects. It judged the council’s overall growth projections reasonable, and not indicative of unusual volatility in the number or distribution of electors over the coming years. It adjusted for known developments. Above all, in drawing electoral divisions, it secured high levels of electoral equality on current registration figures. That is important. If there were subsequent variations, the fact that there was this high level of accuracy at this stage would mean that it would be very unlikely that, over time, the imbalance would become too great.

The council says that the final recommendations will be defective because it had no worked projections for 2017. The commission has the council’s own projections for six years to 2016, which would normally have covered the five years from the completion date set in the Act. The only reason for the delay in completing the review was the extension of the consultation as a result of the county council’s own resistance—meaning that, in this case, the commission had no specific projections for the final year. However, the Act says that the commission,

“must have regard to any”

likely changes, and the commission has explained how it has done so.

Projections are necessarily inexact and the commission resists the council’s attempt to import into the Act the specific requirement to project figures for each year. My understanding is that if the council had persisted and wished to challenge it, it could have made a legal challenge. Indeed that would be the only normal remaining mechanism left to it. It chose not to, maybe because it could not afford to do so or maybe it received advice that the case was not as strong as it should be.

My noble friend Lord Campbell-Savours listed a series of questions, most of which, in terms of the specific costs, I am not in a position to answer. In his powerful contribution about the nature of democracy, my noble friend Lord Judd made some very valid points. Democracy is based on local representatives elected by local communities where there is an affinity between those communities and those who represent them. However, to achieve that affinity and electoral fairness requires a dialogue at local level and it is clear from the discussion that we have had in your Lordships’ House this afternoon that in this instance that dialogue was not as successful as it normally is in other cases.

I hope that on the basis of what has been said with regard to the commission’s rationale and the extensions to the consultation it provided, my noble friend Lord Liddle will feel able to withdraw the Motion in his name. I also hope that the commission will read very carefully the comments that have been made and reflect on their implications both for the way it conducted itself in this case but also in the way it conducts itself in future boundary reviews.

I thank the noble Lord, Lord Harris, for his contribution, and clarify and confirm that these are matters for the Local Government Boundary Commission for England. It is normal procedure in such cases that the Government do not take a position.

My Lords, I thank my noble friend Lord Harris of Haringey for his robust reply to our Motion of Regret. He has done the Local Government Boundary Commission for England proud; I am only sorry that there does not appear to be anybody from the commission here to have listened to it. Before I sit down, there are a couple of points that I wish to correct.

There is nothing political about this. There was unanimity between the Conservative and Labour members on Cumbria County Council that they did not want this boundary review to proceed. They were not trying to stop it for reasons of party advantage but because they thought it was a completely unnecessary exercise at a time of great austerity when vital services are being cut. They did not want to have to waste their time on it. Frankly, the boundary commission could have dealt with the problem of the overexpansion of the electorate in one ward by simply making some marginal adjustments, such as putting the 1,500 voters into adjacent wards, without having to go through the whole process of a full-scale boundary review, which no one in the county really wants and which, on the eve of an election, has had disruptive effects in terms of local representation and community identity.

I thank my noble friend Lord Harris very much for making the case for the boundary commission; I only hope that the boundary commission listens to this debate and will in future take note of what has been said about how it should proceed. I hope it will accept that responsibility. On that basis I am prepared to withdraw my Motion of Regret.

Motion withdrawn.