Attending council meetings is not my favourite activity but I dragged myself to
yesterday’s General Purposes Committee meeting because the subject matter was far
too important to miss. The Committee was set to approve - or not - the Conservative’s ward
proposals to the Boundary Commission (BC). Oh, who am I trying to kid with the not
word? A Conservative party proposal was to be considered by a committee with
a Conservative majority. The result could only go one way.
The importance of the decision cannot be over emphasised. It will affect the number of Bexley councillors and has the potential to change the colour of the council. When the parliamentary boundaries were up for discussion four years ago, the local Tories’ proposals were blatant gerrymandering. It proved to be of no consequence but only because the traitorous LibDems backtracked from their coalition agreement with the Conservatives.
So important was the decision last night that joining me in the public gallery was leader Teresa O’Neill (Obsolescent Boundaries Excised), cabinet members Don Massey and Philip Read and councillors Geraldine Lucia-Hennis and Joe Pollard. Joe graciously acknowledged my presence, the others pretended I wasn’t there. No other residents were there either.
Among the other people who weren’t there was all the Labour and UKIP councillors apart from the two and one respectively who are committee members. If nothing else it gives the impression they are not really interested.
The Committee is chaired by relative newcomer Cafer Munur whose approach to the job tends towards the informal and laid back. Almost a homely chat about politics with his mates while watching the football and sinking a few beers. There is no beer but he is not at all bad as a referee. Whatever his technique it works quite well.
The picture above hides all the Tories apart from councillor Hurt in the right foreground. Behind him were councillors Rob Leitch, Linda Bailey, Sharon Massey and well hidden from the lens, vice-chairman Nigel Betts.
If you take a close interest in the existing ward boundaries you may come to the conclusion they are not particularly clever. Where I am, near Lesnes Abbey, the ward extends north across the railway line towards Thamesmead and southwards up the hill through the woods towards the Woolwich Road and Brampton. I regard neither direction as being part of my home patch. However if I walk east or west I cross the ward boundary within little more than five minutes.
The centre of Welling is hopelessly divided. You can be in four different wards just by crossing the road. It’s not the best way of building a community. Further to the south, wards straddle the A2. All rather silly.
The new plan is heavily biased towards natural and man made boundaries. The three cross borough railway lines, the A2 trunk road and the almost straight line marked out by Crook Log, Broadway, Albion Road and Watling Street.
Being parochial again, I regard my home territory as running from the borough boundary in Wilton Road through to the Asda store flanking Picardy Manorway. To the north the railway is an obvious barrier and to the south the uninhabited escarpment which marks the edge of the Thames’ floodplain forms a natural barrier. And that more or less marks the proposed ward boundary too. Nice.
As far as I can see other wards are similarly logical but there are bound to be anomalies here and there. For example the new Brampton ward excludes more of Brampton Road than it includes.
To keep the BC happy each councillor has to have a similar number of electors to represent so it won’t always be possible to have a perfect community based ward and as I understand it, that is where the UKIP proposals fell down. The plan under discussion yesterday evening must have taken a great deal of thought and senior officer time and UKIP simply doesn’t have the resources to emulate that. It may explain the leader’s mocking praise at the council meeting.
One of many things that makes setting boundaries difficult is that the numerical target of similar ward populations is a moving one. The 21,500 homes planned for Bexley is going to upset a few apple carts but apparently the BC will only take into account those with planning permission, so that is relatively few. Bexley council has assumed that the number of electors will rise from its present total of 179,439 to 189,189 by 2021.
One reason for Bexley council being keen on community based wards is that the BC rates them very highly. Instead of adjusting ward boundaries to justify three councillors it would much rather that the number of councillors is adjusted to suit a community. This has led to Belvedere, or at least the part of it centred on the Nuxley Road shopping area, being defined as a small self-contained community to be represented by one councillor.
But enough of the generalities, what did the committee members have to say? First Mr. Nick Hollier the Human Resources manager related what had happened hitherto.
The council had unanimously decided that 45 was a reasonable number of councillors and the BC had been persuaded to agree.
The BC had encouraged members of the public and political parties to submit their ideas directly to it. Mr. Hollier said that UKIP and the Conservatives shared their ideas with council officers but Labour had decided not to do so, a decision which allowed the Conservatives to make merry later in the meeting.
The definitive proposals must reach the BC by next Monday.
The first councillor to speak was Sharon Massey who said she was pleased to see that her ward, Danson, would no longer be like a big doughnut with the park in the middle. The new boundary will be Danson Road.
Councillor Rob Leitch was also very pleased to see “natural boundaries restored”. “Common sense had been brought back into boundaries.” The proposals are “extremely good”. Councillor Nigel Betts said “the division of long roads into three pieces was absolutely barmy but that has all been ironed out now”.
Councillor Daniel Francis (Labour, Belvedere) thanked the officers for the great deal of time they had spent on answering his questions but he was concerned about the electoral numbers. “There are a number of developments which we somehow missed and in my ward there are whole blocks in Belvedere Park where we are lucky if there is 5% registration and some are zero and elsewhere some have been counted twice.” (†)
Daniel found it “bizarre that GLA and Bexley led” housing schemes do not appear in their own housing assessment projections. Similar anomalies, he said, appeared with Peabody Housing funded schemes.
Councillor Francis is a great technician when it comes to dissecting council policy but the Conservatives were not in a mood to backtrack. The chairman said that the methodology had been discussed at the first Working Group and “there was a strict timescale and we needed to draw a line in the sand and the figures are predictions and not an exact science”.
Councillor Francis repeated that, for example, “the housing zone in Thamesmead are very large numbers.” “What would it do for the [electoral] variance?”
Mr. Hollier said his “figure of 189,189 had taken account of those things already”.
Councillor Leitch said the proposals were “an absolute best fit that tick the boxes set out by the boundaries commission. It is a very well thought through proposal”. It seemed to be a fair summary that could have brought the meeting to an end but his colleagues had other ideas.
Councillor Linda Bailey said “it would have been nice to have seen the Labour proposals. We have no idea of their proposals and it is a bit rich, for, you know, to be critical on that”. She “couldn’t see what the problem was”.
Councillor Sharon Massey however could “understand what councillor Francis is saying but we are going to have to agree to differ is the way forward on this. There had been nothing to stop him putting his figures forward. If you think you have something else which will have an effect you have a duty to bring it to this committee and not just report it to the boundaries commission”.
Councillor Chris Beazley (UKIP) thought the road he lived in in Welling had been carved into three and his community was divided. He provided several reasons for so thinking but councillor Leitch provided counter-arguments. The chairman interrupted by saying it was an issue that should have been debated at the Working Group.
Councillor Francis returned to the subject of electoral equality but rapidly moved on to the remaining trunk roads that will still be crossed by ward boundaries. One was North Cray Road and the other the A2016 in Erith. He also thought that using the Bexleyheath railway line as a boundary was “quite ridiculous in some cases” and reeled off a list of easy crossing points. He wasn’t happy about dividing the roads that climbed the escarpment that runs through Belvedere. Heron Road and New Road got a special mention. Neither was he happy with Belvedere Village and Picardy being designated single member wards.
It wasn’t difficult to predict some of the answers he would get while voices on all sides became raised. Hardly anybody lives east of North Cray Road so linking it with the western side seems to be the sensible course and New Road has a distinct top and bottom with a large uninhabited gap in the middle.
Cabinet member Don Massey stepped in to give the official answers. Allowing one two or three member wards had provided much needed flexibility and reducing ward numbers inevitably led to some new divisions. The east west “railway lines are a barrier even where there is a number of crossings. Separate communities have developed on either side”. There are acknowledged issues with the escarpment in the north of the borough. “It restricts actual movement. It’s a barrier”.
Councillor Massey said only 300 people live to the east of North Cray Road. He was “not in general in favour of one member wards but the community grouped around the Belvedere triangle was a natural one”.
The cabinet member’s defence of the Conservative proposals were both comprehensive and convincing. Councillor Betts said the proposals “were the best compromise there is”, which is probably a very fair assessment “and I think we should go with it”.
Councillor Rob Leitch agreed but added “there is nothing else on the table”. Turning the screw on Labour he said “it is easy to criticise when you don’t contribute”.
Councillor Francis made his point about future proofing the numbers again, or robustness as he called it. He believed there was “a deliberate attempt to split the community” around Belvedere and suggested it was “political expediency”.
Next he criticised the names of some of the wards a few of which referred to
places or historical facts which fell outside the ward bearing their names.
Voices became raised again. Some of the comments smacked of nit picking. What’s in a name?
As councillor Betts said, the BC has previously not objected to late name changes.
Councillor Sharon Massey said she had been studying the map of councillor Beazley’s address and decided she was sympathetic to his concerns but felt “every ward would have some sort of anomaly like that”. She was however “disappointed with Labour tonight”. “If ward names bother you so much you could have come up with alternatives [before] and discussed it”. It seemed to be a reasonable point.
She then very sarcastically said that Labour’s submission to the boundaries commission would be six words. “We don’t like the council’s proposal.” Labour was “lazy”. Sharon Massey can be a sharp tongued woman and it could be heard again in her tone of voice as she said “I know you find it hard to imagine but we have seriously tried to do it on what is the right thing for the borough” and on the face of it, sharp tongued or not, it would be difficult to disagree,
The last time there was a ward submission to the BC she said, it was the Labour proposal that was adopted and not the Conservatives’ “and we have won the elections ever since so we are obviously not very good at drawing up the right things to get us the right vote if that is what you think is the hidden agenda”. There was no logic to it but it sounded good at the time.
This was not Labour’s finest hour and the proposal went to the vote. For some unaccountable reason UKIP voted with Labour prompting yet more sarcasm from Sharon Massey. For good measure she told Daniel Francis to grow up. Don’t expect dignified decorum from a councillor more at home in strip clubs.
Maps of the council’s boundaries proposal are contained within the Agenda. Far too large and numerous to be shown here.
† some of the quotations related above were extracted from much longer speeches but for convenience have been compressed into one or two sentences.