To split or not to split, that is the question

In redistricting on September 23, 2011 by dadge

Dear Boundary Commission,
ward-splitting is not against the law.

You’ve come up with proposals with no split wards but, frankly, it’s made you look a bit stupid. Making seats based on the 5% rule has turned the process into the kind of mathematical exercise that parliament used to rail against. Now, the fact that it’s in the air and unresolved makes the whole consultation process very difficult.

To back up your decision, you’ve included a very strongly worded section in your report, (page 8, pdf) suggesting there need to be “exceptional and compelling circumstances” to split wards, even though the law makes no mention of this. Indeed, a Lords amendment to put this in the law was not accepted by the House of Commons. Reading Hansard it seems to me that although MPs and lords don’t want wards to be split, they recognise that they will probably have to be sometimes.

Even if it was in the law, it’s not as strong a rule as it sounds. According to one legal definition, exceptional simply means “not usual in any way”, and it shouldn’t be difficult to argue that wards of a size that prevent the putting together of suitable constituencies are far from usual, since they exist in only a few areas. So, ward-splitting in Birmingham, say, would appear to be legally uncontroversial.

Ward-splitting in (e.g.) the Black Country is clearly more controversial, but it’s somewhat likely that once the principle of ward-splitting is accepted it will be extended to assist you to cross fewer local-authority boundaries and reduce the number of orphan wards. In the law as it stands, all boundaries are considered equally important, so to me it seems hard for you to justify to parliament the fact that so far you have shown a callous disregard for local-authority boundaries while treating ward boundaries as sacrosanct. Legally, you could attempt to justify this by suggesting it’s only an extension of precedent, but a valid counter-argument would be that, relative to LA boundaries, ward boundaries are transient and ought not to be shown the same respect.

My experience of assistant commissioners in the past suggests that some will split wards, but that if they do they might also come up with a Plan B in case you won’t allow it. It’s just a shame that no-one will know one way or the other till this time next year.

If you are worried in any way that parliament might vote down the whole review, you might opt in the end not to split any wards. It depends which way the wind’s blowing – perhaps there will be a groundswell of opinion among MPs that wards should be split, in which case you’ll go down completely the opposite track!

To get a feel for this we need to see/hear MPs’ own counterproposals.


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