Electoral reviews: offering support

Posted on 20/09/2022 by Ed Hammond.

Before the pandemic, we and the Local Government Boundary Commission for England (LGBCE) embarked on a project looking at the way that councils (and councillors) engage with electoral reviews. This project is now concluding – it will result in the publication of our research, and amendments by the LGBCE to their guidance to councils on electoral review. The bulk of the research was written by Kate Grigg, our former Senior Research and Policy Officer, with some additional work having been done by me.

In this blogspot I wanted to set out a bit more about this work and to highlight our offer of support to councils working with the Commission on electoral reviews.

Some background

Many readers will be familiar with the process of electoral review, overseen by the Local Government Boundary Commission for England. The LGBCE is a body independent of Government (it reports to the Speaker’s Committee of the House of Commons) with duties to carry out reviews of the boundaries of local government areas in England. In particular it carries out electoral reviews, a process by which a judgement is made as to whether the boundaries of wards / divisions within a local authority should change (usually as a result of population change).

Our work with the LGBCE engages with two stages of this process. Firstly, the way that councils prepare submissions as part of the review process. Submissions set out the council’s views on what change is needed, and need to be informed by evidence; individual councillors or political groups sometimes make their own submissions. Secondly, the way that councils implement the LGBCE’s plans for change, once they have been announced.

What are the key areas of learning?

While the research itself will be published in the coming weeks, we are able now to share some of the headlines.

  • Good submissions have some common characteristics in terms of substance – they are clear on what the submission’s objectives are, they have a clear and direct style which is informed by evidence, they put forward arguments on size which are framed with the needs of local people, they connected to a sense of local place, and they set out a consistent narrative around councillors’ roles and responsibilities;
  • Good submissions also have common characteristics in terms of structure and style – they will provide robust demographic and electoral data, they will consider alternative council size options and their impacts on council effectiveness, they will be framed around the organisation’s strategic vision for the future and they will place councillors’ voice front and centre.

We think that there is a list of key, substantive areas that submissions all need to cover – things like the wider national and local policy context, local geography and demographics, a sense of councillors’ role and roles, and an understanding of how technology and social media have impacted on councillors’ roles.

There is potential learning around the outcomes of reviews too. We found that while impacts on democratic representation are variable, councils going through the process did tend to demonstrate better decision-making and better relationships and – to a degree – more confidence in pursuing wider organisational change. Cost savings – while these were a prevailing issue for many councils – while not negligible tend to be fairly limited.

Member turnover instigated by warding changes was in some instances said to “shake up” the councillor cohort, with new councillors bringing new perspectives – although councils did risk losing the expertise of long-standing members.

A support offer

The above sets out only a very brief summary of the findings – the full report is out in October.

Conducting this detailed research has provided us with some valuable insights into how councils can engage with electoral reviews in the most productive ways. We are in the later stages of developing a support offer to authorities framed around assisting in the production of high quality submissions, and in evaluating the implementation of review findings afterwards. We should stress that this is not an offer which is “endorsed” by LGBCE, although they are happy for us to offer it to English councils in a manner aligned to their forthcoming new guidance on the subject.

As part of this support offer, we expect to be able to:

  • Work with members and officers to clarify the council’s objectives for an electoral review;
  • Assist in the development of an evidence base for a council’s official submission, and the agreement of a structure for that submission. This may involve taking a leading role in drafting, or providing support through quality assurance;
  • Evaluating the impact of an electoral review and understanding how councils can maximise the positive elements of that impact. Part of this may be about assisting with implementation planning.

If you have an electoral review in the pipeline, and think we might be able to help, why not get in touch? Please contact Ed Hammond at ed.hammond@cfgs.org.uk or 07764 684 182.

About the Author: Ed Hammond

Ed leads CfGS's work on devolution, transformation and on support to councils and other public bodies on governance and accountability.