The Council considered a report of the Corporate Director of Resources that sought agreement on the Council’s draft submission to the Local Government Boundary Commission England (LGBCE) in respect of Council Size (for copy see file of Minutes).
The Head of Legal and Democratic Services explained the purpose of the review and highlighted paragraph 10 of the report which advised of the variances. She pointed out an error in the LGBCE guide for Councillors on page 17 which referred to the number of councillors being 63 rather than 126. A member officer working group had been established to oversee the preparation of the Council’s initial submission on Council Size and the data requirements around housing and electoral forecasts, the deadline of which was 4 October 2022.
With regards to housing forecast data the Head of Legal and Democratic Services informed Council that up to date figures would be presented to LGBCE up to August 2022, rather than April 2022, giving a more accurate reflection of the projected number of houses to be built.
In moving the report Councillor A Hopgood, Leader of the Council said that the Local Government Boundary Commission Review presented an opportunity for the Council to reflect on how it operated currently and consider how it should operate in the future. It had been ten years since the Boundary Commission last conducted a review of Council size and therefore this review, which primarily sought to address the electoral imbalance across 20 out of the 63 electoral divisions, was timely. It was understood that Durham was one of a number of Councils in the north-east currently being reviewed.
The Leader reported that the Member Working Group were aware of the demands on Councillors time under the current arrangements. Those who responded to the Member survey all commented that the hours worked were well in excess of 16 hours a week. It could therefore be argued that the number of Councillors across County Durham should at least stay the same, if not increase. However, the Group acknowledged that maintaining the status quo or increasing the number of Councillors was likely to be unacceptable to the Boundary Commission. As had been explained, the Council was now an outlier in terms of the number of Councillors and recent reviews of similar authorities had resulted in recommendations on council size in the region of 100 Councillors.
The Group considered that it was better for the Council to seek to influence and shape the proposals in respect of County Durham rather than have arrangements simply imposed. The draft proposal therefore represented a pragmatic approach, which sought to balance the aims of the review against the needs of the residents of County Durham.
In seeking to agree a consensus, the Group had to compromise and therefore, the Leader encouraged individual political groups and/or Councillors to engage with the process and submit their own proposals to the Commission.
The Group would continue to work with Officers to finalise the response as outlined by the Head of Legal and Democratic Services. Once the response had been submitted to the Boundary Commission, the Group would begin working on the second phase of the review relating to warding patterns. Again, the Leader would encourage all Councillors to engage in that process at the appropriate time.
The Leader thanked all of the Officers who have been involved in preparing the Council’s submission and supported the Member Working Group and moved the recommendations.
In seconding the report, Councillor R Bell, Deputy leader and Portfolio Holder for Finance said that he supported the approach taken by the Member Working Group in seeking to agree a pragmatic response to the review. In preparing the response, the Group did consider the approaches taken by other Councils, which in some cases had relied heavily on significant delegation to Officers in order to achieve a reduction in Council size. Whilst some delegation to Officers was undoubtedly necessary and appropriate, the Group was keen to ensure that any proposals in Council size did not inadvertently create a democratic deficit.
Councillor R Bell noted the rationale for including housing projection data up to 30 April 2022 but considered it preferable that data up to 31 August 2022 was submitted. Whilst the projections may not change significantly, it was important that Members had confidence that the most up to date data was submitted.
He advised that the working group would be meeting shortly to agree the approach in relation to warding patterns. Once the Boundary Commission had made their recommendation in relation to Council Size in November, the Council would then be in a position to engage with all Members on warding patterns. Throughout the process to date, many of the questions that had been asked, related to the current stage of the review. Councillor Bell would therefore encourage all Members to take the time to understand, engage and help shape the process.
Councillor R Bell added his thanks to the Officers and all those involved in preparing the response and seconded the recommendations.
That the recommendations in the report be approved.