In July 2008, the Boundary Committee for England, which is part of the Electoral Commission, published draft recommendations entitled ‘Future electoral arrangements for West Sussex County Council'. The Committee, in carrying out electoral reviews for local authorities, is responsible for deciding the number of councillors and the names, number and boundaries of wards and divisions.
The last review in West Sussex took place in 2004. Following a request from West Sussex County Council in January this year, the Electoral Commission agreed to direct the Boundary Committee to undertake a new boundary review, with a presumption towards ‘single-member' electoral divisions.
The review began on 26 February 2008 when the Boundary Committee invited the submission of proposals.
It is anticipated that final recommendations will be published by the Boundary Committee on 31 October 2008.
In coming to its conclusions, the Committee will attempt to strike a balance between the following considerations, set out in legislation:
‘electoral fairness' (defined as ‘when one elector's vote is worth the same as another's', achieved by ensuring that each councillor has an electorate of approximately equal size);
- community identity and interests, and;
- effective and convenient local government.
2. The Proposals
2.1 Single-member divisions
West Sussex currently has 62 electoral divisions, eight of which are represented by two members, giving a total of 70 elected members.
The Boundary Committee is proposing that there should be 71 electoral divisions and 71 elected members under the new arrangements.
Wherever possible, I agree that we should aim for single-member divisions. I believe that they will encourage greater accountability, reduce duplication of effort and ease any confusion that may exist over who is responsible for a division. However, I note that the Committee is not required to recommend single-member divisions and that they should not be created at the expense of the statutory criteria, part of which is to recognise community identity and interests.
2.2 Electoral fairness & community identity
In its draft recommendations, the Boundary Committee says:
‘If electoral imbalances are to be minimised, electoral fairness should be the starting point in any review. We therefore strongly recommend that, in formulating electoral schemes, local authorities and other interested parties should also make this their starting point, and then make adjustments to reflect relevant factors such as community identity and interests. Five-year forecasts of changes in electorate should also be taken into account and we aim to recommend a scheme which provides improved electoral fairness over this period.'
I do, of course, agree that electoral fairness should be a principal concern and recognise that decisions should be made in the context of the statutory framework. However, the Boundary Committee clearly acknowledges that:
‘Absolute electoral fairness is unlikely to be attainable. There must be a degree of flexibility.'
The Boundary Committee also states:
‘We note that the County Council's proposals are characterised by an absence of community identity evidence...'
One of the proposals for the Horsham district - the main focus of this submission - is to move Ashington from the Storrington Electoral Division to a new ‘Billingshurst and Shipley Electoral Division'.
In the case of Ashington, I believe that community identity and interests have been largely ignored. I will go on to explain why I believe this to be the case in the next section.
3. Why Ashington should not be transferred from the Storrington Division to the Billingshurst and Shipley Division
3.1 Geographical links
Ashington is situated in the south of Horsham District and Billingshurst in the north of the district. Ashington is just 3 miles from the main population centre of Storrington and 11 miles from Billingshurst, the main centre of population in the proposed Billingshurst and Shipley Electoral Division.
In stark contrast to its relationship with Billingshurst, Ashington shares common interests and identity with the neighbouring communities in Storrington, Washington, Thakeham, Amberley and Wiston - all of which are nestled along the South Downs. Ashington works very closely with these villages on a broad range of local issues.
3.2 Local representation
Under the proposals, a new Billingshurst and Shipley Division would be created. It has been described locally as an ‘artificial' or ‘synthetic' creation, since it would attempt to bring together a handful of settlements, with little in common, from the north and south of the district.
The new division would be dominated by Billingshurst, a large village with 6,531 people (2001 Census). Ashington in the south is much smaller with 2,351 people and will be extremely isolated, being situated in a narrow strip at the ‘foot' of the new division. Residents in Ashington will, quite understandably, fear that their needs and concerns will receive significantly less attention than those of Billingshurst.
At present, Ashington has a County Councillor who maintains an extremely close relationship with all of the South Downs villages in the Storrington Division, built up over the last 11 years. It is unlikely that a County Councillor with roots in the Billingshurst area will be familiar with the needs and interests of Ashington, or vice versa.
The district councillors for Chanctonbury Ward represent Ashington, Thakeham, West Chiltington and Wiston and have an extremely close relationship with their colleagues in the Chantry Ward, which includes Storrington, Washington and Amberley. Local representatives at parish, district and county level have worked in tandem for many years to deal with common issues in the South Downs villages.
Ashington is situated in my Arundel and South Downs constituency and Billingshurst is situated in the Horsham constituency of Francis Maude MP. Although it states in the draft recommendations that the Boundary Committee cannot take Parliamentary constituencies into account, this anomaly adds further credence to the view that Ashington will be located in the "wrong" electoral division.
3.3 County Local Committees
A network of County Local Committees has been set up by West Sussex County Council to act as a bridge between local communities and the County Council, enabling residents to play a more active role in decision making.
Ashington Parish Council has played an active part in the Chanctonbury County Local Committee (CLC) for a number of years. The Chanctonbury CLC brings together the County Councillors for Pulborough, Henfield, Storrington and Bramber Castle.
Whether or not Ashington is moved into the North Horsham CLC alongside Billingshurst, the issues that most affect Ashington will continue to be discussed at the Chanctonbury CLC.
Children attend the local primary school in Ashington and graduate to Rydon Community College in Storrington (Middle School) and Steyning Grammar School (Upper School).
Ashington belongs to STARS, the Storrington Area Rural Schools group, which also includes schools in Storrington, Steyning, Amberley, Thakeham, Washington and West Chiltington.
3.5 Health Services
Residents of Ashington look to the South Downs villages of Storrington and Steyning for the provision of local health services, such as doctors and dentists.
3.6 Transport links
There is no main, direct transport link from Ashington to Billingshurst.
3.7 Local facilities
Ashington residents normally choose to visit Storrington and Steyning to access local facilities, such as banks, shops, pubs and post offices. They do not, generally, use the facilities in Billingshurst. For major facilities, residents will normally travel to Horsham or Worthing.
As a South Downs village, Ashington has extremely close links with Storrington, Thakeham, Wiston, Amberley and Washington. This relationship is an essential part of Ashington's identity - an identity it does not share with Billingshurst.
It is already clear, from the letters and e-mails that I have received, that there is deep concern about the proposal to move Ashington into the Billingshurst and Shipley Electoral Division. The opposition comes from individual residents, Ashington Residents Association, Ashington Parish Council, Washington Parish Council, Storrington Parish Council, Wiston Parish Council, Storrington County Councillor Frank Wilkinson, local district councillors and others.
It is extremely important that, for the legitimacy of the new arrangements, the views of the local community in Ashington are taken into account. The current boundary proposals will have a profound effect on the way in which the area is represented, and by whom.
The village is, in my view, right to insist that it is grouped with communities to which it has some affinity. Once this process is complete, it will need to feel a sense of belonging and believe that it will be appropriately represented. It is their interests, as the local electorate, which must come first.
As the Boundary Committee has clearly acknowledged, although it must maximise ‘electoral fairness', it ‘must also have regard to the desirability of fixing clearly identifiable boundaries and to maintaining local ties.'
I believe that the draft recommendations have been designed with the best of intentions but, in relation to Ashington, will need to be considered further. As it stands, there is very little recognition in these proposals for the community identity and interests of Ashington and I believe that it has a very strong case for remaining within the Storrington Division alongside Storrington, Washington, Thakeham, Wiston and Amberley.
It is clear that the statutory framework does provide flexibility to allow for the consideration of community identity and interests. I would therefore urge the Boundary Committee to exercise this flexibility when it makes its final recommendations for this area.
MP for Arundel & South Downs