Boundary shake up could see three become one

Councillor Timothy Billings at work in the garden of his home on Arran.

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By Hugh Boag

Arran will have to fight if it wants to retain two councillors after the local council elections in two years time.

The Boundary Commission has proposed that the Arran representation is cut to just one councillor to represent the island and this has been supported by North Ayrshire Council.

At a recent full council meeting, held remotely, the council backed the the proposal for Arran to be a single member ward, despite being aware that they did not have to decide until after the people of Arran have had their say in the public consultation due to start before the end of the year.

Arran presently has three councillors who represent the Ardrossan and Arran ward and it is only by coincidence that two of them – Conservative Timothy Billings and the SNP’s Ellen McMaster live on the island. The other, the SNP’s Tony Gurney, lives in Ardrossan.

However, as a result of the 2018 Islands Act the boundaries are being redrawn across Scotland ahead of the local council elections due to be held in May 2022, with Arran being redrawn as a single member ward.

Currently North Ayrshire has 10 wards, comprising 33 members in total. As a result of legislative changes relating to the number of Members in each ward, the Commission’s current proposals now align ward boundaries with those of the six North Ayrshire Localities.

In his report to the council the head of democratic services Andrew Fraser said: ‘The Commission propose an Arran ward with a single member. It is important not to forget that the current boundary review of North Ayrshire is required because we are an ‘islands authority’ in terms of the Islands (Scotland) Act. This review is linked to the principle of ‘island proofing’ in the Act, which recognises that the needs of islands can be different from those of the mainland, and regard should be had to the needs and impacts of islands, rather than simply adopting a “one-size-fits-all” solution driven by mainland needs. This aligns with Locality Planning in North Ayrshire, which embeds this principle in all six of our Localities.

‘The proposal in the Islands (Scotland) Bill to allow a 1- or 2-Member ward for islands arose from a commitment by the then local government minister to Arran community groups to include this in the consultation on the Bill. The concern by Arran groups, common to islands elsewhere, was that if part of a mixed mainland/island ward it could end up with no resident councillors. As much of the community work of the island takes place in the evening when ferries no longer run, it would be difficult for non-resident councillors to fully engage in that work.

‘At this stage it should be noted that any island ward is subject to the same constraint as the rest of North Ayrshire, that there should as far as possible be a ratio of 3000 electorate per councillor.

‘Arran has a forecast electorate of 3,858, which would result in a one member ward having a variation from parity (i.e. under-represented) of 18 per cent, and a two member ward having a variation from parity (i.e. over-represented) of 39 per cent.

‘Based on Arran’s profile of rurality and deprivation, had it been located in one of the purely island authorities, it would have had a ratio of 800 electorate per councillor, entitling it to five councillors. Because it is located in a predominantly mainland authority, its ratio is driven by the mainland population, contrary to the principle of island proofing. Having regard to this, if it is in the interests of Arran that there are two Members rather than one, there should be scope for the Commission to exercise greater latitude than normal.

‘In developing the current proposals, the Commission on 7 April 2020 noted that “a single-member Arran ward with variation from electoral parity of +18 per cent but a 2-member Arran ward would offer variation from electoral parity of -39 per cent. On balance the Commission believed that a single-member Arran ward offered more acceptable variation from electoral parity. In terms of effective and convenient local government, Arran enjoys good quality transport links both to and from the mainland and within the island compared to other island communities.

‘It is also understood that the Commission was keen to understand the views of the Arran community before considering a two member ward. While Arran groups were anxious to ensure that there was a resident councillor, this can never be guaranteed. Electoral law allows candidates to stand for any council ward as long as they either live or work within North Ayrshire or an immediately adjoining authority. Nevertheless, if Arran was a ward in its own right, only Arran voters would determine this.

‘It would be open to council not to respond to this issue at this stage in order to better gauge community views during the public consultation, he added

At the meeting Arran and Ardrossan Councillor Timothy Billings proposed an amendment arguing that the council should support a two member ward which, he said, would provide the residents of Arran with a greater diversity to its representation, give continuity during periods of a member’s absence, and improve public access to members across Arran’s large rural areas. The amendment was defeated.

Sidebar: Why Arran needs two councillors

By Councillor Timothy Billings

‘The proposed change to make Arran a single ward is very much welcomed. After three years as a councillor I know that trying to effectively represent half of a ward that is 15 miles away and takes well over an hour to get to has real challenges. Separation of the two parts of Ardrossan and Arran makes a lot of sense for both communities.

‘The main issue here is about the number of councillor members that Arran should have – one or two. There are cases to be made for both numbers, but I am proposing that the council recommends to the Boundary’s Commission that Arran has two councillors.

‘I have spoken with a range of people on Arran including a discussion at last month’s community council meeting. Whilst this was in no way  representative or comprehensive I did hear a number of views and reasons, and all were supportive of two councillors.

‘The reasons for why I consider that two councillors is the correct position are as follows:

‘First is to provide a greater diversity of representation. Scottish councils for many years have been three or four members wards elected by a form of proportional representation. This provides us with councils with a wide base of representation that are not dominated by a single view of the world. This is also reflected within individual wards, where we have a range of people with differing views, skills and approaches. This is a valuable asset when it comes to representation within the council.

‘If Arran were to have a single councillor that diversity of representation within the ward would be removed, and whatever an individual councillor may think about his or her abilities there will be many constituents that would see not having a choice of representative a significant disadvantage.

‘Two councillors will maintain that diversity for Arran which is enjoyed by all other areas of North Ayrshire council area.

‘Second is to enable continuity of representation. We all go away (or we used to anyway) or have to be absent for other reasons. Should one councillor be absent then constituents would have the option to approach the other.

‘Third is the large geographical size of Arran, which let us remember is comparable in size with the mainland of North Ayrshire. Councillors are all about local representation, and with the best will in the world trying to cover a disparate rural community has its challenges. If this were to be a single councillor it would reduce their local presence.’