Boundaries get in the way

Cherwell District

Cherwell District

The Local Government Boundary Commission is conducting a review of Cherwell District Council’s ward boundaries.  These happen regularly at all levels of government and are always a nightmare to insiders and a matter of almost total indifference to electors generally.  Before reflecting on the likely outcome of the review, it might be quite illuminating to think about boundaries. Most of the time, I suspect we accept their existence and their impact on us without question. Take some examples:

I live at Nell Bridge House in Adderbury. The Post Office stipulates that I live in the Postal Town area of Banbury and totally ignores the county of Oxfordshire in its workings. I am five miles away from Banbury and do not feel part of it. My post code is OX17 which at least distinguishes Adderbury from Banbury (OX16). Bloxham and Bodicote enjoy OX15 but are also wrapped into Banbury as their Postal Town.  Cross the county boundary 100 yards from Nell Bridge House and you are in Northants but the Post Code is still OX17.  Turn left and drive to Kings Sutton and it is still Kings Sutton and the Postal Town remains Banbury despite the village being in Northants.  I wonder if HM The Queen includes Slough (her Postal Town) when writing from Windsor Castle?  I doubt it.

Energy companies and BT employ different boundaries.  The Thames Valley Police area covers three counties and is sub-divided along different lines and so it goes on.  It would be impossible to design coterminous boundaries for different organisations so we have to learn to live within what we are given – at least most of the time.

When it comes to government and local government, boundaries are even more confusing.  Locally, Nell Bridge House is in Adderbury which is a Parish in its own right with its own parish council, elected every four years.  In turn it is a part of Cherwell District Council which covers the three rural areas of Banbury, Bicester and Kidlington plus the villages that surround them.  Cherwell is elected in thirds with no elections in each fourth year when the county council elections occur (next due in 2016).  Cherwell is one of five district councils that make up the county of Oxfordshire.  The others are West Oxfordshire (also elected in thirds), South Oxfordshire and the Vale of White Horse (both elected all-out once every four years) and Oxford City (elected in halves every two years).  Confusing?  It certainly is!

Towns like Banbury have a mayor as their civic leader; Kidlington is technically a village (allegedly the biggest one in England!) and, in common with other villages, the civic leader of their parish council is the chairman. District and county councils have a civic leader called a chairman except for the City of Oxford which, because it has Christchurch Cathedral, is entitled to have a lord mayor although he is not a peer!  If you live in a street on the edge of the City of Oxford, you may find that one side of the road is in the City with elections every other year while the other side of the road is in a district council with all-up elections once in four years.  all designed to confuse and dissuade people from taking an interest.

Moving up to the parliamentary level does not get any easier.  Most of Cherwell (Banbury, Bicester and their proximate villages) is in Banbury constituency but Kidlington is in Oxford West & Abingdon constituency.  Witney constituency is just about contiguous with West Oxfordshire District Council with the result that Cameron thinks of local government as equal to this tiny district and he has little conception of the major role played by county councils in two-tier areas.  Many MPs are the same.  It gets more confusing in the south of the county with Henley and Wantage constituencies plus Oxford East in the eastern half of Oxford City.

Now to the boundary review proposed for Cherwell District Council.  The Local Government Boundary Commission is an independent body whose duties are specified by law and is free to reach its decisions within that legal framework.  The review is charged with deciding:

  • the number of councillors appropriate for the council;
  • the number, boundaries and names of council wards;
  • the number of councillors in each ward.

Cherwell currently has 50 councillors serving 28 wards with a variety of arrangements as follows:

Banbury has 4 three-member wards: Easington, Grimsbury & Castle, Hardwick and  Ruscote and 2 tw0-member wards: Calthorpe and Neithrop.

Bicester has 4 two-member wards: East, North, South and Town and 1 three-member ward: West.

Kidlington has 1 two-member ward: North and 1 three-member ward: South.

Most of the villages are arranged in single member wards: Adderbury; Ambrosden & Chesterton; Caversfield; Cropredy; Deddington; Fringford; Hook Norton; Kirtlington;  Launton; Otmoor; Sibford and Wroxton.

However, Bloxham, Bodicote & Milcombe, The Astons & Heyfords and Yarnton, Gosford & Water Eaton are grouped into 3 two-member wards.

The Local Government Boundary Commission proposes significant changes of which I wholly disapprove. The Commission is driven by arithmetical equality of voters in each ward.  They argue that large differences in ward sizes are unfair because they give some voters more valuable votes than others.  If you remember that the sizes of parliamentary constituencies vary hugely (average electors in England 72,127;  in Scotland 66,.593; in Wales 57,040; in Northern Ireland 66,146) and you remember the appalling low turnout for local government elections, I think this argument for equality of representation per ward is utterly spurious and leads to wholly inappropriate division into wards.

The Commission has decided to impose 16 three-member wards on Cherwell.  While this has been broadly the pattern in the urban areas (two- or three-member wards are the norm), it is not true of the rural areas.  To understand the outcome of the proposals and why they are so undesirable, let us take a case study of Adderbury, the village in which I live.

At present, Adderbury is a single-member ward in Cherwell District Council and the elected member is Cllr Nigel Randall.  Nigel represents some 2,200 electors.  His ward is up for election once in four years when he will have to canvass some 1,000 houses in Adderbury.  There is a single parish council which he will be expected to attend as an observer monthly.

The Commission proposes creating a new ward comprising Adderbury, Bloxham and Bodicote with three councillors elected one in each of three years with a blank fourth year when the county elections occur.  This much larger ward will comprise close to 7,000 electors in some 3,4500 houses. If Nigel is one of the three councillors, he will be faced with two choices:

  • Nigel can either turn out once in four years to canvass 3,500 houses with whatever team of helpers he can muster or
  • Nigel can work with his other two colleagues and turn out in three years out of four to canvass the patch with his colleagues.

There are three parish councils in these three villages and it is not unreasonable that they will expect to see all three of their councillors every month.  The councillors could agree to split their responsibilities with one taking each parish council but this would only happen if all three elected members were from the same political party.

In order to make work manageable and to avoid duplication, it would make sense for the three councillors, once elected, to agree how they split their representation, each taking one of the three villages.  However this would only happen if they were of the same political party.  In any case, if they want to be re-elected, they have to ensure they are known across this large ward so the idea of dividing responsibilities is almost certainly a non-starter.  Will people like Nigel Randall and others presently looking after single-member wards want to take on a much more onerous role in 2016?  You will have to ask them but I suspect there will be quite a struggle to find willing candidates for this changed political landscape.

In my view the whole proposed arrangement is a complete nonsense and it would make much more sense to create three wards, albeit of different sizes called Adderbury (2,300 electors), Bloxham (2,900 electors) and Bodicote (1,800 electors). Electors would know quite clearly who was their councillor and could hold them properly to account.  In two or three-member wards, this accountability is lost.  Most electors will have no idea who is hard-working and who is idle.  Once again, the blind imposition of equality over all other values creates an undemocratic nonsense.

About Keith R Mitchell CBE

Qualified as a Chartered Accountant in 1967. Pursued a successful career in financial training and publishing until selling his interests in 1990. Elected a County Councillor for the Bloxham Division in 1989. Leader of Oxfordshire County Council 5 November 2001 to 15 May 2012. Chairman of the South East England Regional Planning Committee July 2002 to July 2005. Chairman of the South East England Regional Assembly July 2005 to July 2008. In HM the Queen’s 2007 Birthday Honours, appointed a Commander of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire in recognition of services to local government.
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