England & Wales Democracy, devolution and governance

Boundary changes could weaken local links

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This article first appeared on the Total Politics website

The findings of the long awaited Boundary Review are made public today – having been liberally leaked yesterday. The number of parliamentary seats is cut from 650 to 600 and the sizes of constituencies regulated so that with a small number of exceptions, they all have between 72,000 and 80,000 residents.

Most of the media attention has focused on the impact this will make on the national electoral picture and on the political big beasts who may be left fighting for their seats. But it’s also worth asking what difference the boundary changes might make for local politics.

They will mean that more parliamentary constituencies cross council boundaries. Undoubtedly this will make working life more complicated for some MPs and council leaders, particularly where these relationships cross political lines: the more idealistic amongst us might hope that this could lead to some new collaborative relationships but there must also be a risk that it leads to clashes and territorial jealousies. These are unlikely to be in the public’s best interest.  For many councils there will also be technical issues around electoral administration, some will need to conduct reviews of polling stations and some will need to design new joint arrangements with neighbouring authorities.

The real impact, however, is on the citizen.

We have already moved a long way from a principle of coterminousity: the idea that we have different layers of political representation linked to a single place. In many ways this idea is already a convenient fiction, the relationships between community, identity and geography are both complex and fluid, but these changes stretch the link between our political representation and our sense of place even further.

This is exacerbated by other changes to the public sphere including the introduction of elected mayors, elected police commissioners and new arrangements for the scrutiny of health services. All of these have different political geographies making it harder for citizens to know who represents them, where, and for what.

It’s fundamental to democracy that citizens should be able to exercise political agency, and their ability to influence their elected representatives is a crucial part of this. There’s also a growing recognition across the political spectrum that many of the complex social challenges we face cannot be solved by government acting alone but require a more collaborative relationship between communities and the state. This is turn depends on an easy interface between citizens and government; but we are at risk of making democracy more complicated just when we should be making it simpler.

One result of this will be that the role of local councillors should become more important than ever. They are both the most local layer of governance and a fixed point in a rapidly changing landscape. As such they can provide a vital link between the citizen and a broader political system that can seem both abstract and remote. To do this effectively, however, councils and councillors themselves need to have an effective voice within all the other layers of government. Despite a near universal rhetoric about the importance of localism, the jury’s still out on whether that’s going to happen any time soon.

What do you think the implications of the Boundary review will be? Get in touch or leave a comment below.