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LGC briefing: Boundary changes could expose system fragility

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Commentary on the Boundary Commission’s review of constituencies

The coverage today of a Boundary Commission review aimed at reducing the number of UK constituencies from 650 to 600 focused heavily on the number of high-profile MPs set to face potential re-selection under the proposals.

While there will be a degree of nervousness on the green seats at what the future may hold, the potential impact of the proposals on local government will also be a cause of some concern in town halls across the country.

The commission’s guide to the review makes it clear that while it will identify constituencies by reference to local authority boundaries “as far as practicable”, it would be “often necessary to cross these boundaries” to comply with the statutory electoral population range.

While the commission could not immediately clarify how many cross-boundary constituencies currently exist, the assumption is there will be a significant increase in number.

This would result in a wider prevalence of neighbouring councils working together, adding a further layer of complexity to already labour-intensive and pressurised processes.

While the vast majority of polls run smoothly, recent concerns have been expressed over potential brittleness in the system.

Earlier this year, a joint report by the law commissions of the four UK countries described the current electoral law as “complex, voluminous and fragmented”.

Perhaps sensing the direction of travel, it called for one returning officer to gain “explicit” powers to direct others where an election covered more than one area, suggesting the legal framework for elections across council boundaries is currently far from clear.

In a report following last year’s election, the Association of Electoral Administrators said electoral administrators were “stretched beyond belief” and delivering elections in “an increasingly complex and challenging environment”.

The AEA in June then warned a government decision to extend the deadline for applications to register to vote will introduce “serious risk” to the administration of the EU referendum.

These concerns reflect a degree of concern, perhaps strengthened by recent events in Barnet and last year’s scandal in Tower Hamlets, that returning officers and electoral administrators should receive further support from government for the vital work they do in upholding the integrity of our democracy.

The findings of the review, if approved by parliament, would come into effect on an election day that could prove to be one of the most challenging.

The staging of up to five different polls based on varying electoral systems, such as mayoral elections, local elections and a potential general election – alongside significant changes to the way some returning officers are expected to operate – could risk exposing any fragility in the system.

While returning officers and support staff have proved time and again they can deliver in sometimes difficult circumstances, the AEA is calling for some of the elections to be moved to an alternative date. 

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