Redefining the boundaries

By Doug Archibald
Published January 14th 2005 in icDumfries

SCOTLAND’S local government electoral system is about to undergo its most fundamental change ever.

Decades of tradition will be swept aside in time for the next council elections in 2007.

The massive revamp means the electorate will have to get used to the idea of:

l being represented by up to four councillors;

l voting, by preference, for all candidates in new, enlarged wards; and

l returning councillors who will effectively be employed with a salary.

Proportional representation under a single transferable vote system is set to take councillors into the 21st century.

It’s part of the price tag the Liberal Democrats put on their pact with Labour to run the Scottish Executive.

Plans for the switch, under the Local Government Scotland Act 2004, are fairly well advanced.

The Boundary Commission has been charged with producing the finalised local authority maps, although a lot of fine tuning and consultation with councils and the public is yet to take place.

To get the new single transferable vote to work, new larger wards have to be created.

Dumfries and Galloway Council has been working on their view for the past four weeks or so.

Their preferred option is to create 15 new wards, four in Dumfries.

Alex Haswell, corporate support and governance boss, explained: “The government has set up a working group to look at multi member wards which must have either three or four elected members.

“The Boundary Commission has now been charged with setting them up.

“In doing that they have to have regard to local communities, local community ties and natural boundaries as well as the numbers.

“They have also said that, for the first election, they will, as near as is possible, form the new electoral wards by amalgamating existing ones.”

Members have been wrestling with the challenge and have come out in favour of three members for rural wards and four for those in towns.

But establishing exactly what a community comprises, is not easy.

“It’s very difficult,” said Mr Haswell.

“When you talk to individuals, they see their community as their village or their small town.

“But to get the level of electors, and it’s not people it’s electors, the community has to be fairly large.”

Councillors took the four former districts, Wigtown, Stewartry, Nithsdale and Annandale and Eskdale, as a starting point and worked down.

Some areas were well recognised such as mid and upper Nithsdale.

Others, such as Castle Douglas, Glenkens and New Galloway naturally come together.

While smaller towns can probably stand as one area, it was different in Dumfries with its larger population.

The town has been divided into four.

“The one area everyone was one hundred per cent in agreement with was north west Dumfries,” Mr Haswell added.

“It is a recognised community.

“It becomes a bit more problematic when you come to the rest of Dumfries but basically what members said is ‘we’ll go for Dumfries central, Dumfries south and Dumfries north east.”

Nothing, however, is yet written in stone. They are simply general recommendations.

No borders have yet been defined.

But natural boundaries such as the River Nith and even A75 are likely to play a part.

An added complication has also been the numbers of the electorate involved.

The Boundary Commission is seeking potential voter numbers in 2009.

So members have had to take into account work at the massive housing development at Barnhill in Dumfries which could potentially add a further 800 electors to the equation.

The recommendations will go to the Boundary Commission and, at the end of the day, it will decide the final layout.

While the public will be invited to put forward their views, there is nothing in the legislation to allow for a public inquiry if there is a major fall out.