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Councillors, boundaries and local democracy: the next five years

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Since the Local Government Boundary Commission for England was established as a stand-alone body in 2010, we have completed 100 electoral reviews of local authorities.

Now is a good time to take stock of the trends we have observed and ask what they might tell us about local democracy in the future.

There are two main components to an electoral review. First, we recommend the total number of councillors to be elected to the authority. Then we redraw ward or division boundaries to accommodate those councillors.

In general terms, our 100 reviews have revealed a two-speed system in English local government. In particular, local authorities have opted for one of two approaches to the number of councillors they think they need for the future.

Occupying the first category are councils that have thought deeply about the opportunities inherent in the review process. Increasingly, these authorities have opted to reduce the number of members elected to the council. They have thought about the changing role of members and how that links with service transformation.

In many cases, councils have aligned decision-making processes with strategic priorities rather than simply mirroring their range of activities. They have also thought about how they support elected members. After all, a well-trained and resourced councillor is more effective than even the most energetic of untrained elected members.     

The second category of councils is comfortable with the status quo. They do not see the benefits of aligning electoral arrangements with strategic priorities. In some cases, authorities have told us they need councillors to fill the gap left by a reduced professional workforce. On the role of councillors in the community, they believe that councillor numbers should be proportionate to the volume of casework. 

Over the years, the commission has felt able to accept both approaches. In fact, over 90% of the reviews completed since 2010 have resulted in the number of councillors which the council itself proposed.

However, the imperatives that motivated councils to join the first category are likely to continue into the future. Financial pressures will persist. Service design will develop and the role of councillors will continue to change.

A further factor is likely to see our first category expand. Emerging legislation suggests that devolution deals must be accompanied by streamlined governance arrangements. In other words, councils that share the same outlook as our first category will be better prepared to take advantage of the legislation.

Over five years we have amassed a wealth of good practice on all these issues which would be interesting to any council, especially those that wish to make the leap from one category to the other. Our door is always open to councils that want to know more.

Max Caller, chair, Local Government Boundary Commission for England





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