7. Electoral boundary reviews (Q14 to Q16)
7.1 Chapter 2 (Section 6) of the consultation paper discussed the role of the Local Government Boundary Commission for Scotland (LGBC) in defining and carrying out periodic reviews of electoral boundaries (for Scottish Parliament constituencies and regions, and local government wards) and councillor numbers (in each council and in each ward).
7.2 The consultation asked a series of questions about (i) the process of conducting boundary reviews (ii) the independent nature of the LGBC and (iii) the option of allowing flexibility (in certain circumstances) in the number of councillors in local government wards.
Reviewing local government electoral arrangements (Q14)
7.3 At present, a review of local government electoral boundaries is carried out every eight to twelve years across Scotland, with all boundaries reviewed at the same time, as part of a single nationwide exercise. The consultation paper discussed the option of moving to a rolling programme of reviews of local government electoral boundaries (i.e. the boundaries for a number of council areas would be reviewed each year, with the aim of reviewing all 32 areas within a set period). It was stated that there was no intention to move to rolling reviews for Scottish Parliament boundaries.
7.4 The consultation paper suggested that a rolling programme of reviews could help deliver a more locally focused approach than the existing system of a single nationwide review. It might also help with managing the work programme of the LGBC. However, the consultation paper also noted that a rolling programme might mean that there were differences in the approach to reviews undertaken at different points in time, and might make it more difficult to be certain about the exact number of councillors across Scotland at any particular point in time.
7.5 Question 14 asked respondents what they thought about moving to such a system:Question 14: Do you think that we should move to a rolling programme of reviews of local government electoral arrangements? [Yes / No]
7.6 Altogether, 691 respondents answered the tick-box part of Question 14, with just under three-quarters (71%) expressing support for moving to a rolling programme of reviews of local government electoral boundaries. There was an almost identical pattern of responses among both organisational and individual respondents (Table 7.1).
Table 7.1: Q14 – Do you think that we should move to a rolling programme of reviews of local government electoral arrangements?
7.7 A total of 132 respondents – 28 organisations and 104 individuals – provided comments at Question 14. The views offered are discussed below.
Views of those who agreed with a rolling programme
7.8 Those supportive of the introduction of a rolling programme described such a move as sensible, pragmatic, and practical – they thought it would result in a system that was ‘fit for purpose’. More specifically, respondents thought such a system would:
- Encourage a more locally focused approach, by giving more time for local consultation, and consideration of local factors and relevant data
- Support participation and engagement in the review process, partly as a result of the increased profile of individual reviews in local areas
- Result in electoral areas that were more accountable through improved representation, and in more sustainable wards based on natural boundaries which would need changing less often.
7.9 It was also suggested that a rolling review programme would (i) be helpful to local authorities in their preparation work for elections and (ii) ease the pressure on the LGBC with work spread over a longer time period.
7.10 However, it was also common for respondents to stress that, should a rolling review programme be introduced, there would need to be a clearly defined work programme, with a consistent approach and appropriate quality control processes adopted across all reviews. Any future change in the number of councillors allowed per ward (see Question 16) was flagged up as a specific factor which might result in different reviews being carried out under different frameworks. Respondents also emphasised the importance of public input to the process as a way of enhancing accountability and democracy, and of working in partnership with local communities and local government.
7.11 Some respondents offered views on how a rolling programme might be taken forward. Suggestions mainly focused on issues related to the timing, and included: (i) reviewing all wards within specific Scottish Parliament constituencies or Valuation Joint Board areas at the same time; (ii) prioritising areas that were undergoing rapid population change (with some suggesting a rolling programme might allow more frequent review of such areas); (iii) ensuring that reviews were not too frequent (minimum time periods of 10 and 20 years between reviews were proposed); and (iv) only implementing agreed changes at the time of the next election. There was also a suggestion that local authority boundaries themselves, as well as the boundaries of wards within local authorities, might also be considered as part of a rolling review programme.
7.12 Some respondents were, however, cautious and offered support for a rolling programme only if the proposed move would not result in confusion for the electorate, or if the process was shown not to be wasteful.
Views of those who disagreed with a rolling programme
7.13 Those opposed to the introduction of a rolling programme of reviews gave a range of reasons. Most often they thought it was important that the same principles and methods should be applied to all reviews (local and national). There was concern that a rolling programme of reviews might involve different approaches being used in different areas which would lead to a lack of consistency in the conduct of reviews. It was argued that difference in approaches and outcomes could, in turn, have an impact on voter understanding and confidence in the system, and may lead to pressure for more frequent reviews in some areas.
7.14 Respondents were also concerned that a rolling programme of reviews might:
- Lead to a lower profile for individual reviews and reduced public awareness with regard to the review process
- Increase the potential for ‘gerrymandering’(i.e. the act of altering electoral boundaries for political advantage) (because of a lower profile)
- Result in increased public confusion, and have a negative impact on local accountability and electorate engagement
- Cause difficulties for political parties and other groups in planning their campaign work (e.g. in getting access to up-to-date electoral registers), and for local government administrators in planning for elections
- Be less cost-effective than the current system.
7.15 There was also some concern that a rolling programme was not practical because of the impact that changes in one area might have on other areas (the consultation paper did, however, state that all wards within a local authority area would be reviewed together).
7.16 Some respondents simply indicated that they were happy with the current review system – they thought it worked, did not want ‘change for change’s sake’, or were not convinced by the stated advantages of a rolling programme.
7.17 Among respondents who were opposed to a rolling review programme, there were also some more general comments on the appropriate frequency of boundary reviews, with suggestions including that: (i) reviews should only be undertaken when a problem or difficulty arose; (ii) reviews should take place at the end of the parliamentary or council term only; (iii) frequent reviews were not necessary; or that (iv) reviews should not be done often because of the expense involved.
Views of those who neither agreed nor disagreed with a rolling programme
7.18 Around a fifth of those offering comments at Question 14 did not provide a response to the tick-box question (i.e. they did not answer ‘yes’ or ‘no’ to the question of whether Scotland should move to a rolling programme of reviews). This group of respondents was largely (although not exclusively) made up of organisations; in particular, it included all the electoral bodies who commented at this question.
7.19 Many of the points made by this group of respondents were similar to those made by other respondents. However, their responses typically discussed both pros and cons of introducing a rolling programme of reviews, noting, for example, the consistency offered by the current approach versus the opportunity to concentrate on individual councils, or the importance of responding to changing demographics versus the need to take account of the resources involved in carrying out reviews.
7.20 Respondents in this group also offered views on the broader impact of a move to a rolling programme. They highlighted:
- The need to take account of electoral cycles, noting (i) the implications for electoral planning within local authorities, and the need for any work programme to take account of the time required to undertake polling district reviews, produce electoral registers etc., and (ii) the potential implications of some areas or wards being reviewed prior to an election and others not
- The need to consider how the process would align with reviews of parliamentary boundaries.
Independence of boundary reviews (Q15)
7.21 The consultation paper set out the existing role of Scottish Ministers and the Scottish Parliament in relation to boundary reviews, and respondents were invited to give their views about the relationship between the LGBC and Scottish Ministers / the Scottish Parliament, particularly regarding recommendations made by the LGBC. There were three tick-box questions which asked: (i) whether Scottish Ministers ought to be able to change the recommendations of the LGBC (Question 15a); (ii) whether the Scottish Parliament should be able to challenge the LGBC’s recommendations (Question 15b); and (iii) whether LGBC recommendations should be required to be implemented without change (Question 15c). A fourth question (Question 15d) asked respondents to comment on their answers.
Question 15a: Should Scottish Ministers be able to change the recommendations of the Local Government Boundary Commission for Scotland on Scottish Parliament constituencies and council wards? [Yes / No]
Question 15b: Should the Scottish Parliament be able to challenge the recommendations of the Boundary Commission on Scottish Parliament constituencies and council wards? [Yes / No]
Question 15c: Should the recommendations of the Commission be implemented without change? [Yes / No]
Question 15d: Please comment on your answer.
7.22 A total of 702 respondents answered Question 15a. Table 7.2 shows that a majority (56%) indicated they were opposed to Scottish Ministers being able to change the recommendations of the LGBC on constituencies and council wards. However, this view was more prevalent among organisations (80% expressed opposition) than among individuals (who expressed more mixed views, with 55% opposed and 45% in favour).
Table 7.2: Q15a – Should Scottish Ministers be able to change the recommendations of the Local Government Boundary Commission for Scotland on Scottish Parliament constituencies and council wards?
7.23 A total of 701 respondents answered Question 15b. In contrast to the response at Question 15a, there was general support for the Scottish Parliament being able to challenge the recommendations of the LGBC – 75% were in favour. However, there was again a different pattern of response among organisations and individuals – three-quarters (76%) of individuals supported this idea, while organisations were more divided in their views (with 53% answering ‘yes’ and 47% answering ‘no’) (Table 7.3).
Table 7.3: Q15b – Should the Scottish Parliament be able to challenge the recommendations of the Boundary Commission on Scottish Parliament constituencies and council wards?
7.24 Finally, at Question 15c, answered by a total of 671 respondents, a large majority (73%) did not think that the recommendations of the LGBC should have to be implemented without change. Individuals were more likely than organisations to offer this view (73% compared to 58%) (Table 7.4).
Table 7.4: Q15c – Should the recommendations of the Commission be implemented without change?
7.25 Thus, across the three tick-box questions respondents indicated a degree of opposition to Ministers being able to change recommendations, support for Parliament being able to challenge recommendations, and opposition to LGBC recommendations being implemented without change.
7.26 A total of 319 respondents – 31 organisations and 288 individuals – commented at one or more parts of Question 15 (a to d). More than half of those who did so commented in a general way – i.e. they did not comment directly on any of the sub-questions at Question 15 (or the sub-question they were referring to in their comments was not clear). These respondents offered general comments on the boundary review process; the role of ‘independence’ in that process; the approach taken by the reviews; and the roles of Ministers (or the Government), Parliament, and the LGBC in the review process.
7.27 Thus, the following sections discuss overall views first, before summarising comments on the roles of Ministers and Parliament in challenging and changing boundary review recommendations, and on the role of the LGBC more generally.
7.28 It should be noted that the views of respondents were complex, covering multiple variations in roles and relationships between different bodies with an involvement (or potential involvement) in the boundary review process. Further, respondents did not always make a clear distinction between ‘challenging’ and ‘changing’ recommendations in their responses. Thus, the analysis presented is high level in nature, and concentrates on the principles that were important to respondents in answering the various parts of the question.
Overall views about the independence of boundary reviews
7.29 There was a commonly expressed view that independence and impartiality were crucial to the boundary setting process in order to protect against political interference or ‘gerrymandering’. There was, though, a range of views on what constituted ‘independence’, and the type of arrangements that would deliver the required level of independence.
7.30 There was also a widespread view that the work of the LGBC should – like the work of all public bodies – be transparent and open to scrutiny, and subject to challenge where justified by the evidence or where due process had not been followed. There were differing views on the form that scrutiny and challenge should take, with some suggesting this should be provided by the Scottish Parliament or Scottish Ministers, and others suggesting it should come from outwith Parliament and / or the Government.
The role of Ministers in boundary reviews
7.31 The response to Question 15a shows that most respondents were opposed to Scottish Ministers being able to change LGBC recommendations and this view was reinforced in the comments from respondents which, in the main, indicated opposition to or reservations about Ministerial involvement in the boundary review process. A common view expressed by respondents was that Ministerial (or government) involvement was not compatible with an impartial or neutral process. There was concern about gerrymandering (or the perception of gerrymandering). However, some supported the option of Ministers being able to intervene, either as representatives of their constituencies with knowledge of local circumstances and evidence, or because they had access to relevant information as a result of their Ministerial status. Most often, though, respondents thought this should be restricted to challenging but not changing recommendations. Others suggested that any Ministerial interventions should be subject to parliamentary debate and challenge.
7.32 Less often, respondents said that it was appropriate for Ministers to have an active role in the boundary review process because of their status as part of the elected government.
The role of the Scottish Parliament in boundary reviews
7.33 The response to Question 15b shows support for Parliament having a role in challenging the recommendations of the LGBC. Respondents generally thought that this role should be limited to challenge (as framed in the question) – they did not want Parliament to be able to overrule or ‘derail’ the recommendations of the LGBC. They saw the role as scrutinising, debating and questioning the recommendations of the LGBC, and thought that this was a legitimate function for Parliament given its knowledge of the Scottish context, and for MSPs given their role in representing their constituents.
7.34 Some respondents did, however, think that Parliament should have a more formal role in authorising the recommendations of the LGBC, i.e. that Parliament should have the ‘final say’ in accepting or rejecting recommended changes. In arguing in favour of parliamentary involvement, some respondents suggested that Parliament’s elected status gave it authority over the (unelected) LGBC.
7.35 Respondents offered a variety of comments on how parliamentary involvement in considering LGBC recommendations might work, as follows:
- Parliament’s role should be restricted to approving or rejecting but not changing recommendations.
- Parliament’s role in changing recommendations should be clearly prescribed.
- A ‘super-majority’ (e.g. two-thirds) should be required for Parliament to reject or change a recommendation.
- A consensus or cross-party support should be required for Parliament to reject or change a recommendation.
- Parliament’s committee system might be the appropriate forum for considering boundary changes.
- Parliamentary involvement should be part of a wider process of challenge and consultation.
- There should be joint Parliament / LGBC processes for dealing with recommendations rejected by Parliament.
7.36 Some wished to see local government having a role in the challenge process (see also paragraph 7.40 for comments on local government input to reviews). As such, there was a suggestion that, while Parliament should have a challenge role with regard to parliamentary boundaries, that role should lie with local government for council boundaries.
7.37 Respondents who expressed opposition to Parliament being involved in boundary setting thought that – like Ministerial involvement – this risked undermining the impartiality and independence of the process. Respondents argued that those with an interest in the outcome of reviews should not have a role in the process of responding to such reviews.
Views on the Local Government Boundary Commission for Scotland and the review process
7.38 Although the consultation questions focused on the role of Ministers and Parliament in considering review recommendations, it was common for respondents to also offer views on the LGBC, and the boundary review process.
7.39 With regard to the LGBC, some thought that this body acted impartially, and that their integrity and independence were fundamental to the boundary review process. However, others expressed concern that the LGBC was not neutral in carrying out its work. For example, there were suggestions that the LGBC tended to promote the interests of the party in power or act in the interests of the UK Government rather than the Scottish Government. With regard to this latter point, there were calls for all boundary decisions in Scotland to be within the remit of the Scottish Parliament. Others suggested steps that might be taken to ensure the impartiality of the LGBC. These included involving representatives of different political parties in the work of the Commission, taking steps to recruit more widely to the LGBC, or inviting international scrutiny of LGBC work.
7.40 With regard to the review process itself, respondents offered a range of other comments, with a particular focus on how it might be improved. These included the following:
- Criteria in determining boundaries: In general, those commenting on this issue thought that the current process put too much emphasis on achieving ‘parity’ in representation (i.e. the principle of having roughly equal numbers of electors per elected representative). As noted in the consultation paper, parity is currently the over-riding factor in determining electoral arrangements. However, respondents were critical of recent boundary review recommendations and called for a more flexible approach that put greater emphasis on local circumstances such as geography and community ties. The alternative view, expressed less often, was that boundary review criteria on parity and ward / constituency population size should be adhered to as closely as possible.
- Community input to boundary reviews: A range of respondents argued for greater community input to the boundary review process, whether that was in the initial development of recommendations or through a process of subsequent consultation and challenge. Respondents felt this was important in ensuring local circumstances were considered in the review process and getting the best outcomes for local people. They thought this should involve local government and other local bodies as well as individuals, with the importance of involving equality groups also noted. The use of referenda was suggested for getting approval for major changes.
- Scrutiny, appeal or challenge mechanisms: There was a range of calls for mechanisms for scrutinising, challenging or appealing the recommendations of the LGBC, outwith the government or parliamentary systems. There were several suggestions relating to court-based systems or the use of the judicial review process. Respondents noted that any such mechanisms could be open to elected representatives or the government, as well as to members of local communities.
- The importance of consensus and partnership working: There were several suggestions for how the approach to boundary reviews might incorporate consensus or partnership-based working across stakeholder groups. While this was seen as important at local level during initial reviews, it was also highlighted as important in responding to challenges to recommendations.
7.41 There was a view that expertise, clear guidance and criteria, and strong evidence were important in ensuring robust recommendations, and that sound processes would reduce the need for subsequent challenge and change.
7.42 At a more general level, there were calls for: (i) a more fundamental reassessment of the boundary review process, with a preference stated for a partnership-based approach involving local and national government; (ii) a consistent approach to the process for setting all electoral boundaries (UK Parliament, Scottish Parliament, local councils), which should fall within the remit of the Scottish Parliament; and (iii) a revisiting of the approach to boundary-setting if Scotland became an independent country.
Number of councillors in each ward (Q16)
7.43 The consultation paper noted that current legislation (the Local Governance (Scotland) Act 2004) requires all council wards to have three or four councillors, but it suggested that there may be exceptional circumstance in which allowing wards to have fewer, or more, councillors would give the LGBC greater flexibility to take account of community ties and local geography when reviewing ward boundaries. The consultation paper also noted that the Islands (Scotland) Bill currently being considered by the Scottish Parliament would allow wards including inhabited islands to have one or two councillors. Question 16 asked for views about whether the LGBC should have flexibility (across the whole country) to recommend wards with between two and five councillors in appropriate circumstances (this provision would, thus, be in addition to the proposals contained in the Islands Bill).Question 16: Should the Local Government Boundary Commission for Scotland be allowed the flexibility to recommend wards which have between 2 and 5 councillors, instead of 3 or 4 councillors as at present? [Yes / No]
7.44 Altogether, 689 respondents answered the tick-box part of Question 16. Table 7.5 shows that nearly three-quarters of respondents (72%) were in favour of this suggestion, with a near identical pattern of responses for organisations and individuals.
Table 7.5: Q16 – Should the Local Government Boundary Commission for Scotland be allowed the flexibility to recommend wards which have between 2 and 5 councillors, instead of 3 or 4 councillors as at present?
7.45 A total of 164 respondents – 26 organisations and 138 individuals – provided comments at Question 16, as discussed below.
7.46 There was a lot of commonality in the responses of those who ticked ‘yes’ and those who ticked ‘no’, with respondents using their comments to qualify their answer in various ways. In particular, respondents often indicated partial agreement or disagreement with the proposal in that they agreed with flexibility at one end of the scale, but not the other (i.e. they supported the option of allowing wards with two councillors but did not support the option of allowing five councillors, or vice versa). In addition, some respondents commented on the pros and cons of the proposed flexibility without indicating clear support or opposition for the proposal. This group of respondents included some of the electoral and public bodies who responded to the consultation. Thus, the sections below look at general views on increased flexibility, before looking at flexibility regarding the maximum and minimum number of councillors per ward, and the implementation of a flexible approach.
General views on flexibility
7.47 Respondents indicating support for flexibility to recommend wards with two or five representatives generally argued that ‘one size does not fit all’. This group thought that Scotland was a diverse country, and that increased flexibility would allow greater account to be taken of rurality, population density, geography and travel times, ‘natural communities’, and the special circumstances of island communities in setting ward boundaries. Some said that they wished to see electoral parity given a lower priority in setting boundaries and local circumstances given higher priority (see paragraph 7.40).
7.48 Some respondents argued for greater flexibility than proposed in the consultation paper. However, others were more cautious, and offered several caveats and qualifications to their support for flexibility. Most commonly, respondents suggested that wards should only have less than three or more than four councillors in ‘exceptional circumstances’ governed by strict criteria, where there was a strong local case and local support, or where this would allow existing ward boundaries to remain unchanged, despite a shift in population. Others suggested that flexibility should only be used with government or parliament agreement. Some also noted the potential disadvantages of having fewer than three or more than four councillors (as discussed by those opposed to flexibility – see paragraphs 7.56 and 7.58) and, thus, thought that flexibility should be used sparingly.
7.49 There was also some concern amongst those who were generally supportive of the proposal about the motivation for the increased flexibility and how it might be applied. Respondents were clear that flexibility should be used where it was in the best interests of communities and should not be used for political gain in the interests of a single party or as a way of reducing the electoral chances of smaller parties.
7.50 As noted above (see paragraph 7.46), it was common for those opposed to flexibility to be opposed to either flexibility in the maximum number of councillors per ward or flexibility in the minimum number but not both. Those who indicated more general opposition to flexibility made two main points:
- They thought the current system based on three or four councillors worked well, or simply felt that two was too few and five was too many.
- They favoured a system based on greater standardisation in which all wards would have the same number of councillors (three or four) and / or the same number of voters per representative. This, it was said, would give equal choice to all voters, and would ensure that all areas were equally represented on councils.
Views in relation to flexibility in the maximum number of councillors per ward
7.51 There were two main reasons offered by those supporting the option of allowing more than four councillors per ward. Most often, respondents thought that that this would provide greater scope for wards to be based on natural communities (as discussed above). It was further suggested that this would lead to fewer boundary changes in the future as there would be the option to increase the number of councillors in response to population growth within a ward rather than having to redraw boundaries.
7.52 Respondents mainly emphasised the benefits for urban areas with dense populations, stating that flexibility to have more than four representatives would help prevent situations where boundaries cut through natural communities and traditional areas in order to create wards. It was argued that the proposed flexibility would empower local populations, and avoid the confusion, frustration and disengagement that resulted from areas being split simply to meet current criteria regarding parity of representation and number of representatives per ward.
7.53 However, it was also common for respondents to argue that bigger wards (in terms of population) with greater numbers of elected representatives were important in allowing proportional representation to operate effectively. Having a larger number of councillors in each ward allows a greater number of voters to have their views reflected in the outcome of the election; this is particularly the case in areas where the local electorate contains a more diverse range of political views. Respondents commonly referred to this as ‘proportionality’.
7.54 There were, though, different views on the minimum or optimum number of councillors required to achieve reasonable proportionality. Respondents variously suggested that there should, for example, be ‘at least four’, ‘no more than five’ and ‘up to ten’ councillors per ward. Some thought that wards should, as a matter of routine, be bigger than at present, with some suggesting that wards of three (or fewer) councillors should be the exception. There was a view that the LGBC should be required to recommend the largest practical size of ward in order to maximise proportionality.
7.55 Respondents also gave a number of other reasons for favouring wards with greater numbers of councillors. For example, they thought this would encourage more people to stand as candidates and would help support diversity in representation; would increase the accessibility of local representatives and protect against poor representation; and would offer opportunities for joint working between councillors. (Note, however, that, in terms of the final point, there was an alternative view that having a greater number of representatives per ward might be a hindrance to council working.)
7.56 Those who saw disadvantages in having more than four councillors thought this would create wards that were too geographically large to be coherent or manageable, and would be detrimental to voter recognition and awareness regarding elected representatives.
Views in relation to flexibility in the minimum number of councillors per ward
7.57 Those who favoured flexibility in allowing fewer than three councillors generally highlighted the advantages for sparsely populated rural areas, as this option would mean the LGBC could recommend wards which covered less extensive geographic areas than was the case at present (because of the need to achieve electoral parity). Those expressing this view thought that geographically large wards were detrimental because of: (i) the lack of links between the different areas and diverse communities included in the ward; (ii) the practical challenges faced by residents in accessing their representatives; and (iii) the challenges faced by councillors in acting as effective representatives and carrying out council business over large areas.
7.58 Those who expressed opposition to having fewer than three councillors mainly thought that this did not deliver proportionality or did not offer effective representation to local people (see paragraphs 7.53 and 7.55).
7.59 A range of respondents commented directly on provisions contained in the Islands (Scotland) Bill currently under consideration by the Scottish Parliament. Most often respondents expressed support for this, but there was a mix of views on whether such flexibility should be available in other areas, or whether the islands should be treated as a special case. Some, however, had reservations about the use of one or two member wards even in the islands, and highlighted the risks of uncontested elections and the benefits of multi-member wards for all voters.
Implementing greater flexibility
7.60 In terms of implementing increased flexibility, respondents highlighted the following:
- There would need to be guidance on the circumstances in which flexibility might be applied.
- Any boundary changes which made use of increased flexibility should require local input and be agreed in partnership with local officials and populations.
- Any presumptions regarding the treatment of adjacent two- and three-member wards would need to be clear.
- Any application of flexibility should take account of the impact on the local council, and the relative representation of different areas.
- Ensuring public awareness and understanding of a flexible approach would be important, at a general level and in relation to changes to individual wards.
- Any new system should be piloted.