Poll proposal that maps out the way forward for wards

By Ian Swanson
Published March 23rd 2005 in Scotsman.com

BELOW is how Edinburgh’s council map could look by the time of the next local authority elections in 2007.

A massive shake-up of boundaries is needed to create new, larger wards - three or four times the size of the present ones - to fit with the new voting system.

But the initial proposals for the Capital, which have just been handed to the city council by Scotland’s local government boundary commission, have already sparked controversy.

Concerns have been raised that some of the 17 new super-wards put together areas which have little in common and other boundaries draw a line through existing communities.

One of the most radical proposals puts the Old Town and New Town together in one city centre ward stretching east-west from Abbeyhill to West Coates.

Another new ward stretches all the way from the city bypass to Haymarket, taking in most of Wester Hailes, as well as Stenhouse and Dalry.

And the Durhams area of Portobello would be split between two wards - one covering Portobello and Joppa, along with Craigmillar, and the other including Willowbrae, Mountcastle, Craigentinny and Duddingston.

No names have yet been given to these areas but the council has been asked to suggest names when it responds to this first stage of the consultation.

The commission has suggested the city’s 58 councillors should be elected from ten three-member wards and seven four-member wards, instead of the current 58 one-member wards.

But politicians across the party divide said they were surprised the new map was not predominantly made up of four-member wards, which give a better chance of the overall share-out of seats matching the share-out of votes.

The commission’s work was based on trying to achieve an equal number of electors per councillor and keeping natural communities intact.

The council has been given two months to come up with any changes it wants to suggest and after these have been considered the new map will go out to public consultation.

But the boundaries must be in place for the council elections in May 2007, when the single transferable vote (STV) will replace the current first-past-the-post system.

Edinburgh Tory group leader Iain Whyte raised some concerns about where lines have been drawn.

He believes Princes Street should have been used as a natural boundary rather than creating one city-centre ward.

He said: "The New Town and Old Town have entirely separate characters and are separate communities. The Old Town would link more naturally with the Southside and maybe Tollcross and the New Town with Broughton and Stockbridge."

Councillor Whyte said he was also concerned about the boundary commission proposal to split the Durhams area in half.

"That is a core area within the current Duddingston ward and a natural community which will be divided down the middle. It seems hard to justify," he said.

The city’s Tory leader said he also expected some calls for the proposed three-member Corstorphine ward to be expanded to include areas like Clermiston and South Gyle.

HOWEVER, he added: "My main concern is that it goes more for three-member wards than four, when the whole implication of STV was that you would have larger wards in city areas where it was easier for people to get about and three-member wards were for rural areas where people had greater distances to travel.

"Electorally it makes a big difference because the threshold to get elected in a three-member ward is 25 per cent, but in a four-member ward it’s 20 per cent."

"For the larger parties, it probably won’t matter much, but some of the smaller parties may be upset their threshold for getting elected is much higher."

Senior Labour councillor Frank Russell said the boundary commission appeared to have ignored natural communities in the proposed ward stretching from Wester Hailes to Haymarket.

"Part of Wester Hailes would go in with Baberton, Balerno and Currie and the rest with Dalry," he said. "It looks once again as if it has boiled down to the numbers game."

Councillor Russell admitted he was surprised more than half the councillors will come from three-member wards.

"We had expected more fours and we were surprised to see so much of a lean towards threes."

But Labour council leader Donald Anderson said he was not too concerned about the high proportion of three-member wards.

"The key thing is to try and make this fit with natural communities and the arrangements for community planning."

"There are areas where that works well, but others where local councillors have expressed concern."

"We will have to take views from across the parties and across the city."

He said he hoped it would be possible to produce an agreed cross-party response from the council to the Boundary Commission, rather than each political group coming up with its own proposed changes.

LIB Dem group secretary Paul Edie was reasonably happy with the proposed map.

"We’ve not had a chance to analyse it as a group yet," he said. "It looks OK, although it might need a bit of fine tuning here and there."

Bob Smith, secretary of the Boundary Commission, said his staff had produced the proposals for Edinburgh working with a map produced by the council highlighting what it saw as the Capital’s natural communities.

They had begun by trying to build wards of the necessary size by bolting together existing wards, but found it was not working, so started afresh.

The target was to draw the boundaries so there would be 18,242 voters in each three-member ward and 24,322 in each four-member ward.

And most of the proposed wards are within 3.5 per cent of that target.

Mr Smith said that the large proportion of three-member wards was just the way it worked out, using natural communities and the target number of voters.

Once the city council responds with any suggested amendments, his staff will look at the map again and the commission will consider whether to accept the changes.

Then the revised proposals will go out to public consultation for 12 weeks, probably starting in June.