In which Alan Collins from Medway Elects tries to figure out if new ward boundaries would result in a different political map in Medway..
The Local Government Boundary Commission for England have dropped their draft recommendations for new ward boundaries in Medway.
The organisation has proposed a scheme of 24 wards, increasing the number of councillors from 55 to 60, one more than they originally proposed when they opened the initial consultation.
Whilst there is much which may be debated in the proposals, as The Political Medway’s resident data nerd, I’m going to be looking at one key question: what would last year’s local election results have looked like if it had been fought under these proposed ward boundaries, with one caveat: this is an entirely unscientific analysis as there is insufficient local data to produce a firm set of predictions. Instead, this is based on local knowledge from the 13 years I have been politically active in Medway, personal observations made at last year’s count and some more general assumptions. And I am going ward-by-ward in the order they appear in the LGBCE’s report.
The first of three single-member wards, anyone who has ever ventured out to Grain or Allhallows will know that this is the most remote area of Medway and whilst it will be the largest ward geographically, it will be one of the smallest in terms of population. It forms the eastern part of the present Peninsula ward, which last year was a close contest between competing Independents, the Conservatives and UKIP.
The proposed All Saints takes in Lower Stoke, Independent Mick Pendergast’s local area, and on that basis alone I would suggest he would still have been able to win in this new ward.
Hoo St Werburgh & High Halstow
The bulk of the rest of Peninsula falls within the proposed Hoo St Werburgh & High Halstow ward, gaining parts of Strood Rural and losing parts to the LGBCE’s proposed new ward of Strood Rural. Independent Ron Sands’ stronghold is in Hoo, where he is also a parish councillor, and on that basis I would suggest he would still have won, while the Conservatives should still easily have picked up one or both of the other seats.
However, the LGBCE proposals add a fourth councillor to the peninsula and based on the results last May this may have been enough to allow incumbent UKIP councillor Roy Freshwater, also a Hoo parish councillor, to retain his seat. Given the gap in votes between the Freshwater and the fifth-placed Conservative candidate, I am leaning towards suggesting this would have been a three-way split.
The Peninsula has variously elected Conservative, Independent, Labour and UKIP councillors over the past 23 years, so expect both of these proposed seats to continue to be fierce rural battlegrounds in future elections.
The LGBCE are not proposing significant changes to the existing Strood Rural ward, besides the alterations along the boundary with Peninsula discussed above. This was a safe Conservative hold in 2019, and I do not think the result would have been much different under the proposed new boundaries.
Halling, Cuxton & Strood Riverside
This will likely be the most controversial proposed ward. 99 individual submissions were made to the LGBCE regarding the present Cuxton & Halling ward, which has been largely unchanged since at least the 1970s, the vast majority of which expressed concern and opposition to being merged with parts of Strood South as the two parishes are unique from the urban areas to the north. The LGBCE have acknowledged these concerns, but ignored them as retaining the present boundaries would either lead to under-representation with one councillor, or over-representation with two councillors. Instead they have proposed merging the ward with the eastern part of Strood South.
In 2019, Cuxton & Halling was a safe Conservative hold, while they comfortably held two of the three seats in Strood South. The third was a close-call, with Richard Thorne only beating the Labour challenger by 19 votes. On this basis, I would suggest that the Conservatives would have held all three seats under the proposed new boundaries for this ward, but watch this space for urban Strood.
This is the easiest ward to predict, as the LGBCE are not proposing any changes to the boundaries of the existing Strood North ward. In 2019 the Conservatives won two of the three seats, with Labour taking the third. This ward has always been a Conservative/Labour battleground, and I would expect that to remain the case in future elections.
The LGBCE are proposing that the remainder of Strood South become a new ward called Strood West, which forms a significant part of urban Strood south of the A2. Based on how close Labour came to taking the final Strood South seat in 2019, it is entirely possible that both seats could have been won by the Conservatives or by Labour, and so I have erred on the side of caution and am predicting one each for the purposes of this exercise. Expect this ward to become a key battleground in future elections, if adopted.
The LGBCE are only proposing minor alterations to the three Rainham wards, so they do not need to be explored in great depth. Rainham Central gains all of Rainham North up to the railway line, but loses Lonsdale Drive and other roads in the south-east to Rainham South. It was a strong Conservative hold in 2019, and the result would likely have been largely unchanged if the election had been fought on the present boundaries.
What the LGBCE take with one hand, they give with another. Making up for losing parts of the existing ward to Rainham Central, the organisation are proposing that the remaining parts of Rainham north of the A2 are moved from Rainham South to Rainham North. This was one of the Conservatives’ safest wards in 2019, so these minor changes would not have affected that outcome.
Again, the changes to the ward discussed above are too minor to affect the 2019 result, which was another strong win for the Conservatives.
Chatham & Old Brompton
River was a ward which was never going to survive the boundary review, and these proposals split it across five different new wards, to varying degrees. Brompton and Chatham high street would be merged with part of Chatham Central to create a large ward running from Dockside down to the urban heart of Chatham.
In 2019, the Conservative majority over Labour in River was just 4.5%, while the Labour majority over the Conservatives (who came third behind Ukip) in Chatham Central was 33.3%. Whilst it could be argued that the Conservatives might have retained one of the three seats here, given the demographic of the parts of River which have been included in this proposed ward, I think it is more probable Labour would have taken all three.
The LGBCE are proposing to add a small part of River ward, taking in the police station and new developments around Asda, to the existing Gillingham North, whilst ceding the car park at Mid Kent College (which currently falls in a different ward to the college itself) to the proposed Chatham and Old Brompton ward. The most significant changes to the ward, though, come along its boundary with Gillingham South, where the LGBCE are proposing to shift the boundary north from Brompton Road and the High Street to Saunders Street, Burnt Oak Terrance and then the disused railway line.
Urban Gillingham was a strong Labour area in 2019, with a 35.5% majority in Gillingham North and a 30.9% majority in Gillingham South. This means that many Labour voters will be moved from one Labour ward to another, and so the final result would not have been much different under the proposed boundaries.
Whilst gaining significant ground from Gillingham North, the LGBCE are proposing moving all of the ward falling east of Gillingham Road into an enlarged Watling ward. However, as above I do not think these changes would have had a significant impact on the final result last year.
The LGBCE are proposing splitting the existing ward of Luton & Wayfield, whilst moving Hopewell Drive from Princes Park to the new Luton ward, together with parts of Lordswood & Capstone. In 2019, Luton & Wayfield was safe Labour territory, and I do not think splitting the ward or adding two roads from a neighbouring Conservative ward would have altered the outcome here dramatically.
St Mary’s Island
Currently part of River ward, St Mary’s Island is a unique and growing community, and it is not much of a surprise that the LGBCE have proposed giving it a single-member ward of its own. From personal experience canvassing on the island I know that it has become a prominent Conservative area, so it is likely they would have taken this seat last May. However, as the island population grows, as the amount of social housing increases and as the demographic shifts, we could see this becoming another battleground in future elections.
As discussed above, the LGBCE are proposing an enlarged ward, extending its northern boundary from Sturdee Avenue to the railway line. Adding additional areas around Priestfield will benefit Labour considerably, and they could probably take all three seats in this new ward. However, in 2019 veteran incumbent Wendy Purdy topped the poll by 21 votes, and it is likely her personal vote would have been enough for her to hold her seat. Whether that will hold true if these boundaries are adopted for 2023 will remain to be seen, particularly given Cllr Purdy has lost her seat before.
One of the more interesting proposals put forward by the LGBCE is to create a single-member ward taking in the Davis Estate, Rochester Airport and the new developments on the former Mid Kent College site. The boundaries take in the southern part of the current Rochester South & Horsted ward, which in 2019 was won comfortably by the Conservatives. I’m not sure anyone would have challenged them much here under the proposed new boundaries, but it could be another one to watch in future elections.
It’s probably fair to say that many people who do not live in or around the Chatham Intra area will not have heard of it before, which is why, although it is a recognised area within Medway Council, the LGBCE are specifically inviting comments on the proposed name of this ward. The difficulty with naming it comes, in part, from the fact that it takes in part of River ward, Chatham Central and Rochester South & Horsted to create a new, mixed ward sandwiched between Chatham & Old Brompton and Rochester East.
The nature of this proposed ward makes it particularly difficult to come up with an accurate prediction. Given the urban nature of the ward, I am leaning towards suggesting that Labour would have won all three seats here, but it could well become a key battleground between Labour and the Conservatives in 2023.
Under the LGBCE proposals, Rochester East loses a few roads in the north to an enlarged Rochester West ward, while gaining western parts of Rochester South & Horsted and a small chunk of Rochester West to even it up. This may create a small shift in the demographics, but given Labour won Rochester East in 2019 with a majority of 28.5%, it would not likely have changed the outcome of this election.
In addition to the boundary changes with Rochester East, the enlarged Rochester West also gains the remainder of the present River ward, taking in the new developments as far as Doust Way and with the railway line and then Jackson’s Field forming a new natural boundary. This ward was always a Conservative stronghold until Alex Paterson won a by-election in 2018 and held his seat in 2019.
The altered boundaries will likely be more in the Conservatives’ favour, and they may well have taken all three seats here last year. However, given the incumbency boost Cllr Paterson received he would probably have still retained his seat under the proposed new boundaries.
Hempstead & Wigmore
Hempstead & Wigmore might have seen a few changes over the years, but it is a ward which is older than Medway council – and even myself! The LGBCE are proposing very minor changes to the ward, moving the single elector in Star Lodge into Watling ward and moving Hale Farm and its surrounding properties from Lordswood & Capstone to Hempstead & Wigmore.
The Conservatives won the ward with over two-thirds of the vote in 2019, and it would have taken considerable changes to the ward to trouble their dominance here.
Lordswood & Walderslade
Another significant change proposed by the LGBCE is the merger of the bulk of Lordswood & Capstone with a large chunk of Walderslade and a small portion of Princes Park. These are two Conservative strongholds, and in 2019 they took Lordswood & Capstone with 57.7% of the vote and Walderslade with 55.1% of the vote. It is, therefore, unlikely that any other party would have come close to challenging them under the proposed new boundaries.
Whilst the LGBCE are proposing moving small parts of the existing Princes Park to neighbouring wards, they are also proposing to add a small part of Lordswood & Capstone to the new ward. Overall, though, the changes are minor when viewed in the context of the 20.3% majority the Conservatives enjoyed over Labour here in 2019, and they would still have held on to both seats.
Wayfield & Weedswood
The LGBCE are proposing merging the rest of Walderslade with the rest of Luton & Wayfield, together with very small chunks of Princes Park and Rochester South & Horsted. Merging part of a Conservative-dominated ward with part of a Labour-dominated ward makes this a tough result to call, and it could have gone either way. I have, therefore, erred on the side of caution and am predicting one each for the purposes of this exercise. But this could be another key battleground in future elections.
The Final Tally
Overall, under these boundaries I have suggested that the Conservatives would have won 31 seats, Labour would have won 26 seats, the Independents would have won two seats and Ukip one seat. This would have given the Conservatives a majority of two which, given subsequent events, would have been lost on paper following the dismissal of Steve Iles from the Conservative group.
Whilst this is a fun exercise in “what ifs”, it is important to bear in mind that these are simply the draft recommendations. Much could change between now and the final recommendations when they are published in December, depending on the responses received during the consultation. It is also worth noting that the way people voted in 2019 is, to a certain extent at least, irrelevant. The way people vote over time changes, and other factors such as the makeup of the local community and the candidates themselves also have a part to play in deciding where voters will place their “X” on the ballot paper. I have factored these into this analysis for this exercise, but those factors will have changed by the time of the next local elections in 2023.
What is for certain, though, is that if these proposals are adopted as they stand, the days of the Conservatives winning an overall majority with a third of the votes, as they did in 2019, could well be behind us. Whether that is a good thing or a bad thing is for individual readers to decide.
The LGBCE consultation on their draft recommendations is open until 7 September. You can see a map comparing the boundaries of the current and proposed new wards, and have your say on the recommendations here.
Alan Collins is the creator of Medway Elects, which is committed to building a complete electoral history for Medway.
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