Preston needs changing to stay the same…

Preston City Councillor Bill Shannon, (LibDem, Ingol), has set out why he believes the city council requires serious reform if it is to survive in the long-term. In short, Cllr. Shannon believes Preston can no longer remain as a mid-sized unit on the banks of the River Ribble, constrained by the compromise boundaries drawn around it forty-ish years ago.

Whilst disagreeing with Cllr. Shannon on certain subjects I won’t go into here, he’s absolutely right about the future of our city. For Preston to survive, it needs to change, and that means a slow but sure process of amalgamating services as a precursor to full merger with neighbouring administrations.

The fix-and-fudge of local government reform generations ago has left its mark across the country, particularly England where there’s been less change than in either Scotland or Wales. Almost all the local authorities created in the 1970s as a compromise position to the contentious Redcliffe-Maud report remain in place today, their sizes and shapes unmoved despite mammoth changes in population, work-load and responsibilities, employment and the like.

Nobody in Manchester, for example, can fully explain why the council area is such an elongated blob. Of course cynics can suggest plenty of reasons – it kept out largely Tory-leaning bits in Trafford and the semi-rural north, it ensured the Airport and its growth area had to use the “Manchester” name, and so on. Generations away from the map redrawing, the reality on the ground is a population almost unrelated to the official demarcation lines.

Preston, like Manchester, is a city constrained by the flicks of an administrator’s pencil. The city doesn’t stop at the Ribble; people who live to the south are no less “Prestonian”, or less likely to work in Preston, on the grounds of living on the opposite side of an arbitrary border.  The reality of life in this part of Lancashire has seen Preston grow in stature and relevance, and all within the lines of a borough decided upon on a coin-toss in the 1970s.

The financial consequence for the city and its people is profound and dangerous. The only way to safeguard the integrity of Preston, and to ensure the financial security for the services provided for people who live here, is to be bold on the manner in which administrations are formed.

Cllr. Shannon builds a two-step process. Initially councils need to share services, cutting back on duplication which builds up in the everyday processes of providing day-to-day services. As Preston is a two-tier city, served by 57 city councillors and ten County Councillors, there’s plenty of duplication amongst the administrative scaffolding around the representative buildings housed here. Numerous towns and cities across the country are dealing with the Government’s budget slashing by sharing services, and this process can only continue.

The next step, hinted at in Cllr. Shannon’s statement, is a full merger with neighbouring authorities, and is something I’ve always supported. It’s not enough for back-room staff in Preston to work alongside those in the Boroughs of Fylde and South Ribble. Preston is an economic possibility stifled by its status, locked in by suspicious and cynical council leaders in neighbouring towns.

The modern economic reality is too serious for such parochialism. Our city boundaries need to respect that work, study and play in this part of Central Lancashire is no longer respectful of invisible lines drawn on across rivers and along roads. There’s no legitimate reason for South Ribble, Chorley or Fylde being separate when hundreds of thousands of residents already treat Preston as their “hub” for employment, university or college study, or social/piss-up outpost. There’s no legitimate reason why, having cooperated in reducing costs by merging backroom jobs, local councils can’t take the natural step to amalgamate.

My principle is “sphere of influence”. If you live in Tarleton, you’re within the Southport “sphere of influence”, only to be denied by the decision to create Sefton in the 1970s. Preston suffers the same – thousands of potential workers, students, and wealth creators living in Bamber Bridge, Leyland, Chorley, Kirkham, Lytham, all denied by an arbitrary line on a map.

Let’s respect opportunity more than geography. I’ve no time for the types in historic county organisations who wish to reclaim parts of the world which have no existed in forty or more years. I don’t accept calls to “bring back” such places as Middlesex or Westmorland, no more than I do any request to scrap decimal currency.

There’s far too much broken with our democracy – the voting systems at local councils are as close to “corrupt” as you can get, and Scotland is proof of how to resolve that simply by converting to the STV voting system. One other issue is the size and composition of the councils at this level – outdated boundaries drawn for partisan reasons. Cllr. Shannon says we need the “necessary courage” to create a new council, what would inevitably be called “Greater Preston”. I agree with him.

“Preston” was once over  half the size it is now, growing in size only when the separate borough of Fulwood was added in the 1970s. Now the next step has to be taken, not just to correct the problems of Prestonians living far beyond official borders, but to ensure the financial security of Lancashire’s true heart. Anything else is not an option – staying still won’t mean staying the same.

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masters of the map

Constitutional reform turns even the strongest man to jelly. Tony Blair was known to switch to ‘glazed eyes mode’ whenever someone mentioned a policy not related to the important stuff – like academy schools and PFI hospitals and invading Iraq without justification, that sort of thing. Mention ‘House of Lords reform’ to Blair after the 92 hereditary peers fudge and you might as well have been discussing boot polish.

For David Cameron, constitutional reform was supposed to be over and done with by last Christmas. Help defeat voting reform, stifle the Lords and cover party funding legislation with more grass than you’d find on a teenager’s windowsill. Well you don’t always get what you want, eh?

In the week we find that ‘man of the match’ is to be trademarked I wonder what we could come up with for our D-Cam. “You can’t always get what you want” seems a bit over blown, even if it is accurate. After all, I genuinely believe he wants to reduce the size of the Commons for good reason and not just partisan advantage. This is the proposal which sees Nadine Dorries’ constituency disappear, remember, it’s not as though the Conservatives come out of this without some advantage. Anything which might just open the door to the possibility of a new constituency being formed called “Valleys of Ribble and Lune” seems like a ruddy good scheme to me.

(Disclaimer, that might just have been an idea for which I’m partly responsible. At least I admitted it now, eh?)

What phrase should be look towards selling off to the highest bidder then? “We’re all in this together” seems to have lost more credibility with every passing nano-second so that’s out. “Compassionate Conservative” joins “Quiet Bat People” in the lexicon of the clinically insane. What about “be careful what you wish for”? That could be the 2015 manifesto title. “Party Chairman Grant Shapps, there, holding up the Conservative Manifesto, ‘”Be Careful What You Wish For”, it’s cover showing Nick Clegg in a car with the windows slightly ajar and the engine running, hint hint.”

Regular readers will know that I’m somewhat fond of the ongoing process of reducing the size of the Commons, as I see it without all the nanny goat bleating from the benches opposite. “Gerrrrrymandering!” they….bleat, I suppose….like so many of those people who stand outside shopping centres handing out pocket sized leaflets entitled ‘Let’s Think About Jesus;.  Only in this case it’s “Let’s Listen to Ed Balls”, for which there can be no greater punishment for committing any of sins for which Christianity has cobbled together over the years. I admit that the boundary review has turned into a pile of arseache, with Nick Clegg gambling on acting tough on the one subject matter 90% of the general population don’t care if he acts tough about or not. You see, I’m not that obsessed about equalising constituency sizes to think that it’s the first topic of conversation at the Cricketer’s Arms, no matter how many times I try to shoehorn it into whichever debate is ensuring amongst the barflies. And trust me on this, I’ve had a punch swung at me for daring to suggest that black holes might exist, it’s a tough crowd.

In his pursuit of the one constitutional reform which benefits his party the most (….well, second most, there’s still an in-built Labour bias in the system due to First Past the Post but let’s not meander along that cul-de-sac),  Cameron is in the territory marked ‘at least he tried’. No assists, no goals – he could be the Stewart Downing of politics. Now there’s a phrase I know won’t be trademarked.

Boundary proposals – North West England

I have agreed to help the North West Region LibDems with their submission for this year’s great Parliamentary Boundary jamboree, so this post should be treated more a précis than any suggestion of what the Region is suggesting instead.

In very brief terms, what the Boundary Commission for England has performed is a highly impressive, highly skilled, and ultimately very controversial. In some cases, the proposals are simply not workable. They should be cohesive, coherent, and democratically valid.

However, commenting much on these proposals in this medium won’t get me very far with the bods in Region, so I present instead a quick overview of what is being proposed.

If you want to react to these changes, either do so in this blog (for I’m always up for seeing what other people suggest), or go to the Boundary Commission’s website.

City of Manchester

1) Blackley and Broughton.  Includes the Broughton and Kersal wards of Salford Council, and brings in Cheetham, Moston, Newton Heath, Crumpsall and surrounding areas.  The Charlestown ward is moved into a proposed cross-border seat called Middleton


2) Manchester Central.  Two city centres in this proposal – Manchester and Salford, four wards from each coming together into one constituency.

3)Manchester Gorton, Takes Ardwick, Gorton, Levenhsulme, Longsight, Moss Side and Rusholme

4) Manchester Withington. Loses Didsbury from the existing seat.  Includes such areas as Chorlton and Chorlton Park, Old Moat, Whalley Range and Fallowfield.

5) Middleton. Very close to an idea I had for a “Middleton, Moston and Failsworth” seat way back when, this new cross-border creation brings together communities whose common theme is close proximity to the point at which three local councils meet. Includes Chadderton, Heywood and Middleton

6) Wythenshawe. The southern quarter of Manchester, with Sale Moor ward from Trafford, also incorporates Didsbury.

City of Liverpool

1) Bootle.  Due to the size and shape of Sefton’s wards, it’s no wonder things are a bit messy round there. One Liverpool ward is attached (they call it an “orphan” in the business) to this slight return to a previous constituency.  Kirkdale joins the southern swathes of Sefton.

2) Huyton and Halewood. This is the natural successor to existing Garston and Halewood, and incorporates only two Liverpool wards.  Why it drops “Garston” is a mystery.

3) Liverpool North A boring name for a pick-n-mix seat including, amongst other bits, Kirkby Central, Croxteth, Warbrek, and the Netherton/Orrell ward from Sefton.

4) Liverpool Riverside An expanded version of the existing seat –  includes the city centre, Everton, Picton and St Michael’s

5) Liverpool Wavertree  I think this is unchanged – includes Allerton, Hunts Cross,  Cressington, Woolton and Wavertree itself.

6) Liverpool West Derby Has been expanded and includes, amongst others,  Anfield, Knotty Ash, Tuebrook/Stoneycroft, Yew tree and Stockbridge from Knowsley.

City of Salford

1) Blackley and Broughton. As above

2) Leigh. In what is a badly drawn and incorrectly named seat (this is me trying not to judge or suggest alternatives), the outskirts of Leigh are attached to Irlam, Walkden and Little Hulton.  So not quite “Leigh” really, more “Salford East and Tyldesley”.

3) Manchester Central. As above

4) Swinton Or perhaps “Eccles and something, something”.  This is the left-over bits of Salford – Barton, Eccles, Pendlebury, Winton, Swinton, and Worsley.

Borough of Wigan

1) Leigh. As above

2) Makerfield Altered a bit – includes Ashton, Bryn, Lowton (both East and West), Winstanley and perennially mispronounced pub-quiz favourite Worsley Mesnes. Clue – it’s not “mes-nes”

3) Westhoughton The border-line fringes of both Wigan and Bolton combine in this one – includes Hindley and Leigh West, the latter being, pretty much, the town of Leigh.

4) Wigan. No change – the town itself plus Standish, Pemberton, Ince, Shevington and the ward name which looks like a mis-print “Aspull New Springs Whelley”.  No commas.

Borough of Bolton

1) Bolton North. Incorporates Astley Bridge, Heaton, one half of Horwich, Tonge with the Haulgh, and Crompton.

2) Bolton South which brings together Kearsley, Farnworth, a trio of Levers and Harper Green.

3) Bury North is over 90% Bury, and brings in Bradshaw ward from Bolton

4) Weshoughton as above

Borough of St Helens

1)  St Helens North 
2) St Helens South and Whiston   Neither of which change at all

Borough of Trafford

1) Altrincham and Sale.  The existing seat extended a bit further.

2) Stretford and Urmston.  Not much change here either –  Davyhulme, Stretford, Urmston, Clifford and Ashton-upon-Mersey all incorporated.

3) Wythenshawe  As above.

Borough of Oldham

1) Ashton-under-Lyne Takes the three Ashton wards and combines with Failsworth, Hollinwood and one half of Chadderton.  Name change needed perhaps?

2) Middleton. As above

3) Oldham and Saddleworth An expanded version of the existing Oldham East

4) Rochdale South No, it doesn’t make sense, but it’s Crompton, Royton’s northern ward and Shaw attached to Castleton, Kingsway and Deeplish amongst others.

Borough of Rochdale

1) Middleton As above

2) Rochdale North and Rawtenstall  A very ye-olde Lancashire seat this one, taking the town centre of Rochdale and all parts around and attaching it to the southern cotton and factory villages of Rossendale.

3) Rochdale South As above

Borough of Stockport

1) Cheadle  Combines, amongst others, Bramhall, Cheadle, Davenport and Heald Green

2) Denton Gives one ward – Bredbury and Woodley – to a cross-border seat with the Denton and Droylsden parts of Tameside

3) Hazel Grove and Poynton. Attaches Hazel Grove and Marple with Poynton from over the border in Cheshire

4) Stockport  The town itself, also including both Heatons and Reddish. I don’t mind saying at this point that I had proposed “Didsbury and The Heatons” but this was swiftly never spoken of again

Borough of Bury

1) Bury North takes Bradshaw from Bolton
2) Bury South doesn’t appear changed at all

Borough of Tameside

1) Ashton-under-Lyne As above

2) Denton As above

3) Stalybridge and Hyde. The existing seat, plus Dukinfield

Borough of Knowsley

1) Huyton and Halewood,. As above.

2) Liverpool North.  As above.

3) Liverpool West Derby. As above.

4) Maghull. One of the posher bits of Sefton (the other being Southport) attached to left over bits of Knowsley. The ward names are fairly anonymous – Park, Northwood, Whitefield – though these cover the northwest fringes of Kirkby.

5) St Helens South and Whiston.  As above.

Borough of Sefton

1) Bootle. As above

2) Liverpool North. As above.

3) Maghull. As above

4) Southport.  The existing town of Southport with approximately 2/3rd  Formby.

Lancashire –  Boroughs of Chorley, West Lancashire, and South Ribble

1) Chorley is drawn to be completely coterminous with the Borough

2) South Ribble is barely changed at all, adding Farington and Lostock Hall back into a seat they should not have been taken away from in the first place.  Also includes Tarleton, North Meols, Hesketh Bank, and Rufford from West Lancashire.

3) West Lancashire is unchanged – Ormskirk, Skelmersdale, Burscough and surrounding fields of what appears from the train to be two-thirds of the county’s entire vegetable import for the year

Lancashire – City of Preston, Boroughs of Fylde, Wyre,  Blackpool and Ribble Valley

1) Preston expands to take almost all the city wards – oddly, and somewhat free of all logic and reason, this means Lea, Cottam and Fishwick are all excluded. Would be the first time since, I think, before the Second World War that so much of the borough was included in the same constituency – only the rural parishes and Lea and Fishwick are elsewhere.

2) Fylde continues to incorporate the parish of Lea and Cottam. Otherwise the other major addition is Poulton-le-Fylde from Wyre.

3) Lancaster is very oddly named – the boundaries are essentially the same as “Lancaster and Wyre” which existed between 1997 and 2010.  Anyway, this is “Lancaster, the M6 Corridor and bits of rural Preston”, including Grimsargh, Goosnargh and Woodplumpton. I’m not making up any of those place-names.

4) Blackpool North and Fleetwood is essentially status quo ante

5) Blackpool South avoids the temptation to cross into Lytham St Annes and cause a riot, by  moving ever more suburban. Includes Squire’s Gate, Layton, Stanley, Waterloo, Bloomfield and Claremont.  I think the Tower is in this seat.

6) Ribble Valley continues to be a right old funny one – not only continuing to include Bamber Bridge, but now Fishwick, which would mean one of Preston’s main thoroughfares (not to mention some of the most socially and economically troubled parts of England) are hobbled onto one of the most expansive and rural.

Lancashire – City of Lancaster

1) Lancaster. As above

2) Morecambe and Lunesdale  A slightly bigger version of the current seat

Lancashire – Boroughs of Blackburn and Darwen, Hyndburn, and Rossendale

1) Blackburn is virtually unchanged. Includes only seats within and surrounding the town itself – amongst their number, Audley, Ewood, Livesey with Pleasington, Wensley Fold, Little Harwood and Roe Lee.

2) Darwen and Haslingden takes areas from three boroughs, including Oswaldtwistle and Haslingden, expanding the current Rossendale and Darwen seat into new directions,

3) Burnley South and Accrington joins together the industrial bits from both these stoic northern towns, including Cliviger, Huncoat, Hapton, Rosehill, Clayton-le-Moors, Overton and Gawthorpe.

4)Rochale North and Rawtenstall As above.

Lancashire – Boroughs of Burnley and Pendle

1) Burnley North and Nelson. Takes the borough of Pendle and slots the most immediate neighbours at the bottom. Nostalgics amongst you might think it’s a reinvention of an old seat, but it is pretty much untested territory.

2) Burnley South and Accrington. As above.

parallel lines

For a small island with enough room (just) to move about in, we sure do like having our towns, cities and counties carved up by administrators waving their sharpened HBs on a lazy Tuesday.  Through centuries of governmental landgrabs and civil servant line wobbling, there is barely half-a-year free of local administrative boundaries, or parliamentary boundaries, having changed for the benefit of democratic cohesion and representative validity.

Common changes which carry on without much comment outside the local press, if at all, are the product of the Local Government Commissions, hardy souls whose responsibility starts and ends with the Town Halls and Civil Centres of Great Britain. Right now, if you’re that way out of an evening, you can comment on the proposed council ward shake-up of Purbeck council. THRILLING, I am sure you agree. Some of you may even learn where Purbeck is, for I’m sure it came as news to me.

Next week sees the bigger brothers of the local boundary shakers take to the centre stage of political discussion, and boy, will it be bigger. You may have heard the cries of “Gerrymandering!” from the summer of last year, from ill-informed bitter opponents of the somewhat overdue plans to cut the number of MPs and do something about the huge difference in Westminster constituency sizes.  When the Boundary Commission for England publishes its proposals for the 500 English seats in a weeks time, followed by Northern Ireland and Scotland before November, and Wales in the new year, it will be part of the greatest constitutional shake-up since devolution.  Not since 1945 have Westminster constituencies been subject to such radical reforms.

First off – the reasons why it’s obviously a good idea to take an axe to 50 Members of Parliament and a stretching device to those seats which border soon-to-be-abolished constituency units.  Quite obviously, all boundaries are fake. All of them, completely invented. From the decision to draw country lines round mountains and through lakes by means of happenstance and expediency, through to contemporary council ward shapes, every attempt by some form of establishment or other to carve up nation states begins with circumstances nobody wants. It’s a measure of man how we agree to the invisible lines which bind us into boxes and files and codes: most significance is only drawn in this country through somewhat petty partisanship.  I often wonder what opponents of the forthcoming parliamentary boundary review would do in Israel or Somalia or Western Sahara.

We need smaller, more relevant democracy in this country, one in which the machinery of party politics is left to tick and tock far away from the streets and playing fields of peoples every day lives. To lost 50 MPs in one go is but a small step – it is necessary to take the axe to the ‘payroll vote’, reduce the size of most Town Halls and create more local, responsive parish/neighbourhood councils. Reducing the number of MPs by just 50 to 600 is a small, vital, and progressive step in the right direction. Having done nothing to reform the parliamentary establishment, it’s very rich of the Labour Party to sound off about ‘representing the people’.  Losing 50 MPs saves money in the long term, and opens up the possibility of greater,  more significant reforms in the long term.  Proportional representation, above all, an elected Senate, an axing of two-tier local government….Can you hear the creaking in the old guard’s strides?

What begins next week is not gerrymandering. The Labour Party can cry all it wants (not least because they did so well in persuading the Boundary Commission under their regime to divide Derbyshire, East London and a fair amount of Wales in their favour).  By making the new parliamentary seat rules so tight, so rigid, so difficult to twitch, alter, manoeuvre, the Coalition has created a refreshing alternative to the old school horse trading of years gone by. Having followed the most recent review, which ran up to the 2010 election having started over 10 years previously, I know only too well how ‘stitched up’ everything felt.

There is nothing in the Great British Rule Book which dictates “An MP must not represent both rural and urban communities”. We are a small island, where urban sprawl exists almost everywhere, and the outdated ideas of ‘rural isolation’ and ‘high street magnetising suburbs to its core’ all reek of ancient arguments dusted off by those most likely to do well from favourably drawn lines. It is not beyond the means of any conscientious MP to represent town, city and farmland in one go.

Cheaper democracy, and more vibrant too, as candidates fight over unfamiliar territory at the next election. Yes, the resulting constituencies in some parts of the country may have some contrived elements – watch out Leeds, things aren’t going to be pretty – though when did it become necessary for the United Kingdom to be marked up in straight boxes? This is not the United States, we do not need compact squares and rectangles to make it easier to colour in the lines.

Cheaper, vibrant, more reflective of the ‘commute to work’ culture, and more relevant to the population shifts in northern cities and the affluent south. The recent previous reviews finalised their ideas ready for 1983, 1997 and 2010;  from this year onwards, the reviews must take a maximum of 5 years. The most recent English review saw parts of the country experience two general elections and a change in Prime Minister before they finally got the chance to vote in the seat designed for them half-a-generation gone. It’s not very modern of our democracy to take outdated population figures and expect representative seats to be drawn from them.

Cheaper, vibrant, up to date, relevant, reflective – and independent. We are not the US – appropriation  is carried out by pen pushers and map mechanics, not political appointees and the interested parties. Our parliamentary representation is the more precious and important because of the way in which we draw our lines; it is vital we retain that independence, something opponents of the new regime seem to take for granted.

Is it a Tory gerrymander? No, and it is not because Labour supporters have proven it. The left-leaning Democratic Audit published its report and found rock solid Labour seats in Manchester, Liverpool, east London and Scotland remained even with the tougher, tighter electorate rules. As I discovered when thinking about submitting my own proposals to the Commission, the domino effect caused by the new regulations make the creation of isolated blobs of party support very hard indeed.

Labour’s opposition seems to be tainted by two flavours – bitterness that they didn’t get here first when they had the chance, and uncertainty over the safety of their smaller, compact inner city seats. It should do our parliamentary system some good if Labour, and all other parties, have to fight that little bit harder in newer, more unusual seats. Why the Labour Party is so obsessive in their opposition is beyond me; are they so cynical? Or bored, and in need of anything to shout down if it’s seen as easy enough to do?

Our attitude towards the ever changing, always shifting representative means seems mostly shrug-shoulders and rooted in the past. We cling to “Greater Manchester” and “Merseyside”, both of which no longer exist. We occasionally scratch our heads at “Middlesex”, and look in vain for “Clwyd”.  Our incessant bored fiddling with figures and numbers have awarded Southport with a PR postcode and L-accented Post Offices.  Next week sees one opportunity to take seriously the new chapter in representation which will revitalise our relationship with candidates, parliamentarians and politics. It’s lazy and churlish to whinge about the radical nature of the review process; remember, only 50 MPs are going. I would prefer far less with a proportional voting system; maybe you want even fewer than 500 by 2020.

If you want more information about the great boundary re-jig, then Wikipedia is your friend. Whatever happens when the Boundary Commission for England declares its provisional plans next week, let’s try and get through it without too much bruising.

I have been asked to advise the North West Region Liberal Democrats on some specific constituencies for the North West of England, and will be present at a number of North West public consultation meetings on behalf of them.. The proposals I linked to in this post are my own ideas, almost all of which are absent from those which are being considered by the NW Region.