Boundary Commission Proposals re Wester Ross, Strathpeffer and Lochalsh
The proposals adversely affect rural areas in particular, Caithness, Sutherland, Wester Ross and Eilean a’ Cheò which would all see a reduction in member representation. The proposals overall in the Highlands, show a reduction from 74 to 72 members and would be in place as of the May 2022 full Council election. A reduction in councillors will have a significant detrimental impact on rural communities. Councillors will be required to cover even larger geographic areas with no reduction in the number of community councils, schools or community groups and initiatives seeking engagement with their local councillor, resulting in a democratic deficit for the communities in question.
Highland Council was last reviewed in 2015 and reported in 2016 during the 5th Review of Electoral Arrangements. At that time 6 councillors were cut from Highland 80 to 74 at present. A further review is now required under the Islands (Scotland) Act 2018. This Act recognises the importance of the Scottish Islands and the opportunities and challenges they face.
Only four councils are going through this exercise, Highland, Argyle and Bute, North Ayrshire and the Islands.
The Cross Party Group on Highland council took a very strong position that the changes proposed by the Boundary Commission fail to recognise the specific Highland context, particularly in relation to parity, sparsity, rurality and deprivation and, if implemented, would result in significant democratic deficit in a way that is at odds with the purpose of the boundary review which was meant to be specifically focused on reflecting the requirements of the Islands (Scotland) Act. It is therefore recommended that the proposals should be rejected in their entirety.
At a minimum, this should ensure no reduction in the total number of elected members in Highland, but still more importantly, to press for the number of members to increase where there are clearly increases in population that warrant it; where large geographic wards require additional members to ensure appropriate levels of democratic representation; and to ensure there is parity across Scotland in terms of island representation. Fundamentally, increases in one area of Highland should not result in decreases in another.
One of the aims of a review is to ensure electoral parity. This means having the same number of electors per councillor in all wards of a council area. Parity on the islands has been set at 1 councillor for every 800 electors and so these councils will get additional councillors and enhanced democratic representation. In Highland the parity level has been set at 1 to 2,800 electors across the entire area, whether island, rural or urban. This will result in fewer Councillors, creating a substantial democratic deficit in Highlands. We already have significant challenges in effectively representing constituents across the Highlands and these proposals from the Commission will exacerbate this problem. They are treating Highland wards the same as urbanised central belt council wards and are taking no account of our geography sparser population in rural areas.
The intention of the Islands Act was to increase democracy for islands, large and small and yet for Highland this is having the opposite effect. This is an extraordinary outcome and demonstrates a total disregard for the spirit and purpose of the Act. There are a smaller number of sensible and logical proposals for Inverness, including an increase in Councillors for more populous areas and recognition of the increased workload in SIMD areas in central Inverness Ward. There are also areas where the status quo is also to be welcomed – such as in Badenoch and Strathspey. However, in the main, the proposals show a total lack of strategic thinking and have opened up the old chestnut with regard to Inverness, who would be gaining councillors and the rural areas would be losing councillors This is perceived thinking by most people in the rural areas, that all the power is being pulled into Inverness, by ignoring the unique needs of rural Highland.
Ward 5 Boundary Proposals and Objections.
- It is proposed that ward 5 be split with; Strathpeffer, Contin, Garve, Marybank, and Scatwell areas are to be moved into Dingwall & Black Isle Ward.
- Dingwall would have its councillors increased from 4 to 5.
- The rest of Wester Ross & Lochalsh would be the new ward with the loss of one councillor from 4 to 3.
At present ward 5 is the biggest geographical ward in the whole of Europe, just under 5000km square. What the boundary commission has not realised is that by cutting the ward, travel will be long and even more arduous for the three remaining councillors and that means communities will be seriously disadvantaged if the councillor numbers are cut to three in the remaining part of Wester Ross.
The four present councillors have objected to these proposals and this is summarised as follows.
- Cuts across CC boundaries
- Puts too much pressure on 3 councillors, on the remaining Wester Ross area.
- Too much emphasis on number of people, not geography.
- No recognition of scale of area and number of settlements.
- No understanding of diversity, identity and needs of communities.
- Have only just established an Area Committee for the current ward, where local financial decisions will be made.
- Preferred and best option is current boundary with 5 Members.
The community councils of Garve and Achnasheen, Strathpeffer and Contin have already objected to these proposals and do not want to be moved into Dingwall, as they feel they would be swallowed up by that area. They also do not want to lose the newly set up area committee which has their issues at the forefront of that new committee. They see that joining back in with Dingwall and Black Isle they would lose the influence they have at present, especially Strathpeffer which is a key community in the new committee but would become a minor player if it was back in with Dingwall.
The same can be said for Ullapool which again is a key community, however this would be lost as it would probably have to join up with Skye, and the New Wester Ross, Strathpeffer and Lochalsh committee would be disbanded.
Due to the new Area Committee being set up Money from the council is dis-aggraded to the area, therefore all money due to the area goes to the area, one example of this is the Coastal community fund, Ward 5 was awarded £340,000, due to having an area committee in place,
if there was no area committee the money would be shared by other wards.
The preferred position is that the area remains as Wester Ross, Strathpeffer and Lochalsh and one more councillor is allocated to the area. At the very least the area quota remains as 4 councillors.
Dr Ian Cockburn
Cllr for Wester Ross Strathpeffer & Lochalsh.
Area Committee Chair
Any complaints or comments regarding these proposals should be directed to the Boundary Commission through their website and consultation page which is open till the 26 January 2021.