If Manchester City Council gets away with this, with no public shame, so will other local authorities across England.
The Manchester City Council example offers a simple 1-2-3-4 guide of how to fix English ward boundaries, and potentially elections.
- MCC proposed boundary changes
- Manchester City Council proposed to keep all of its 96 Councillors, and to revise the ward boundaries across the City of Manchester’s 32 wards.
- MCC sent it’s proposals to the Local Government Boundary Commission for England (LGBCE), as required, as part of the 2016-17 Manchester Ward Boundary Review.
- MCC removed residents/voters from the notification list
- Despite the clear LGBCE requirements on every Local Authority, Manchester City Council, MCC “decided” that the “comprehensive mailing list” for notification and consultation across Manchester, “would not contain resident groups”.
- This breaches the “minimum information” required by the LGBCE to meet the statutory requirements. The LGBCE states that the notification list must be “comprehensive … including resident associations, community groups etc.”
- So when the LGBCE sent the notification letters, they just went to MCC’s list of professionals working in Manchester, not to the residents / voters groups who live here. The electorate was not notified.
- Despite the LGBCE’s request that MCC use “channels you would normally use to engage residents”, MCC did not use the e-bulletin email list which it routinely uses for its local updates and consultations. The press-releases too didn’t get published.
- MCC got away with it
- Despite all of this, the LGBCE did not take action. Across the 32 wards in Manchester, with 370,000 registered voters, the LGBCE received responses from just 6 local organisations, 7 residents and 1 Councillor. The 2nd consultation (‘on draft recommendations’) prompted just 13 individual responses.
- Later, in response to formal complaints from 8 community and business organisations in Manchester, the LGBCE described the failure to notify Manchester residents as “regrettable”.
- The LGBCE has also acknowledged that as a result, “The Commission’s draft and final recommendations were almost entirely based on the proposals of Manchester City Council”.
- By refusing to withdraw its recommendations, the LGBCE has effectively claimed that in England just 4 tweets, a Facebook page, and a webpage (that people would need to know about to find) are sufficient public notification for a council to change the ward boundaries.
- Blame the LGBCE
- Since then, the local MPs and Councillors have told local people that the boundary review, and the controversial boundary changes, are all the responsibility of the LGBCE, not MCC. (They say it categorically face-to-face, but are careful to only imply it in writing.)
- This can be heard as implying that the lack of notification and consultation was also due to the LGBCE, not MCC.
That’s how simple it is to fix the ward boundaries in England in 2017.
The leaders of Manchester City Council clearly assumed they could get away with it. If MCC can get away with it, then so can your council. And so can any other near-single-party local authority.
The Local Government Boundary Commission for England (LGBCE) seemed ill-equipped for the reality of party politics, and has been unwilling to act even when clear breaches have been pointed out by the electorate.
Manchester as a test case
Manchester is a good test case for 2 reasons:
- The case regarding process is well researched: a small team has investigated it in depth, and focussed at every stage on the breach of due process. The eight community and business organisations complained formally to the LGBCE, followed the LGBCE complaint procedures in full, and obtained information under the Freedom of Information Act. A parallel complaint was made to MCC.
- The rationale for the ward boundary review is to equalise ward populations. So transferring Whitworth Park and Art Gallery out of Moss Side has no possible justification.
The evidence is clear, and all there. This includes the key acknowledgement from the MCC Corporate Complaints Team that: “it was decided that the list would not contain resident groups”.
This admission, together with the specific changes made to the boundaries, inevitably raise the appearance of conflicts of interest by Manchester City Council. It will undermine belief in democracy and further undermine participation for a generation.
The research also showed just what it takes to make a complaint. This includes not only wading through pages of self-congratulation in MCC and LGBCE documents to find the relevant points, but also dealing with responses that repeatedly individualise and emotionalise the complaints and obfuscate the breach of due process. It has shown that the ward Boundary Review system is not only unfit for purpose, but also immune to criticism.
Examples of the breach of notification
It is not just residents’ associations that were removed or omitted from MCC’s “comprehensive mailing list“:
- Whilst MCC proposed to transfer the Whitworth Park and Gallery from Moss Side to Ardwick, neither the Friends of Whitworth Park nor the Art Gallery were notified of MCC’s proposals or the consultation.
- Whilst MCC proposed to split Rusholme’s famous ‘Curry Mile’ down the middle, with each side of the road in a different ward, the Rusholme Community Traders Association was not notified of MCC’s proposals or the consultation.
- Moss Side ward has many active resident-led community groups as well as residents associations. Yet even those in regular contact with Manchester City Council, which have won awards from the Council for their contribution, were not notified of its proposals.
- Some of the prime development land in south Manchester is transferred from Moss Side into Whalley Range, across the dual carriageway. Within that area, neither the two Moss Side residents associations, nor those who created and maintain the award-winning Moss Side Community Allotments, was notified of MCC’s proposals or the consultation.
The lists go on, across Manchester. The breach of the LGBCE requirements and of the principle of open Government could not be clearer.
Do ward boundaries matter?
Manchester City Council knows that ward boundaries matter. In its proposals for Manchester, MCC described the wards as “the building blocks” for Manchester’s democracy and administration. Moreover:
Ward boundaries can also determine who wins elections. They determine the identity and average wealth of a ward. They impact on property values and developer profits.
Wards are therefore also about equality and inequality, mix and segregation:
- The prime development land for new owner-occupier houses (stated in the 2015-16 Moss Side ward plan) was originally going to diversify ownership and income in the ward. Now MCC proposes to reallocate it to Whalley Range, while Moss Side gains more streets of old terraces with HMOs.
- In MCC’s proposals, every ward adjacent to Moss Side is described positively as having green spaces. The green spaces and leafy streets are part of the “Proposed Character” of the wards. Yet “multi-cultural” Moss Side is stripped of Whitworth Park and Gallery, and is proposed by MCC as just a “high-density residential area” (p33-4).
- In Moss Side’s “Proposed Character” MCC is left describing what Moss Side will be near, whereas the 2015-16 ward plan described what the ward contained.
In each way, Manchester City Council’s proposals for Moss Side and the adjacent wards impoverish Moss Side, and increase inequality between wards.
Beyond the financial, Manchester City Council is taking out of Moss Side the beautiful Whitworth Park that defines where we live, and gives us shared pride in our area. Whatever the media say about Moss Side, residents know there’s a great community and parts of Moss Side are beautiful.
It is that shared sense of ownership, and responsibility and care for shared assets like these, that brings diverse people together and holds a community together.
Commitment to community is also the story behind the Moss Side Community Allotments. It has been created by years of voluntary work, for adults and children in Moss Side to experience planting and growing food, learn gardening, seeing hens lay eggs, and so on.
For these reasons the LGBCE’s 2nd criterion for ward boundaries, along with equalising ward size, is “the need to reflect the identities and interests of local communities“. It is part of why the process requires notification and consultation.
For more detail on the significance of Whitworth Park and Gallery for Moss Side, there are maps and explanations on the post Fight to keep Whitworth Park in Moss Side.
Evidence and full documentation
Original documents are linked and described in the Manchester Ward Boundary Review – Annotated Library This includes Manchester City Council’s original proposal documents, the complaints to the LGBCE, the responses, and MCC’s admission on removing residents’ groups.
It includes the concise 3-page Complaint-to-LGBCE-by-8-community-organisations-in-Moss-Side-and-Rusholme focussed on the failures of process.
An electoral observer has summarised the findings in a 2-page report to the Electoral Commission. It is available on request from simon24 [at] wearemossside.org.uk (include all three s’s). Please state your organisation, contact details, and purpose.