Lancaster City Council ward boundary changes will ‘push out young and privilege the old’

Fears have been raised that young councillors and voters will be ‘pushed out’ of Lancaster City Council politics under potential changes to electoral ward boundaries by the Local Government Boundary Commission.

Friday, 3rd December 2021, 2:59 pm
Updated Friday, 3rd December 2021, 3:29 pm
Oliver Robinson, president of Lancaster University Students' Union and also a city councillor. The president role is independent of party politics. November 2021. Photo: Oliver Robinson.

A review of ward boundaries is underway across the whole city council district including Lancaster, Morecambe and rural communities.

The city council was notified of the review in February and councillors were recommended by the commission to raise awareness of the project. A recent period of public consultation ended in November.

In January 2022, the commission will publish its final recommendations. The new wards are due to begin in the local elections of May 2023, if approved by Westminster.

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The commission says councillors should each represent a similar number of voters. Each geographic ward should reflect local community interests and identities, and be based on easily identifiable boundaries, such as natural or built features.

It states that examples of community identities include common interests or issues which may bind a community together or separate it from other parts, transport links, community or residents’ groups, and local facilities such as medical and leisure centres and shops. But is says evidence is needed to show these factors exist.

In addition, wards should not be too large or small, and should be effective for local government needs.

At present, the commission’s draft recommendations are that Lancaster City Council should keep 60 elected councillors, which is the number it has now. But the boundaries of 15 wards should be changed along with some ward names, it recommends. Councillors should represent 15 three-councillor wards, five two-councillor wards and five single councillor wards, it recommends.

Under the new arrangement, University & Scotforth Rural Parish would go into the more rural Ellel ward while the university would link with a more urban ward. Halton-with-Aughton and Lower Lune Valley wards would be merged. But the proposed University ward changes are causing concerns to some.

Among them is Oliver Robinson, who is president of Lancaster University Students’ Union and also a Labour city councillor for the ward. A former student, he has graduated from the university and has made Lancaster his home.

Emphasising his role with the student union is independent of party politics, Oliver said: “The Students' Union has discussed this and the executive committee wrote to the Local Government Boundary Commission .

“Each time I mention this potential change to anyone, they are astounded that this is even being considered. Even if some kind of change was needed, it seems obvious to most people that this is a bad idea.

“Suburban south Lancaster has radically different needs and requirements to the Lancaster University campus. The campus is a distinctive community with almost all the elements required under the commission guidelines. It doesn’t have a school but it does have health facilities, a sports centre, leisure and community amenities, common interests and a large population. It is also one of the only places in the country that I’m aware of where the university is so distinct and compact.”

He added: “It’s frustrating that although students make up 15 per cent of the Lancaster district’s population there are only a few representatives of students and young people on Lancaster City Council – the current councillors from the University and Scotforth Rural ward and others from Morecambe, where there are some young Morecambe Bay Independent councillors.”

He also said students' links to rural surrounding areas of Lancaster and awareness of rural issues were stronger than may appear.

“Lancaster University is a campus on a hill but right next to the countryside. It’s a compact campus but with open spaces. The University & Scotforth Rural ward may not appear to be an instinctively natural ward but I certainly think students have a lot in common with rural residents on issues such as the area’s development. Equally I think rural residents are effected by university developments too. So there is more common ground between us than some people would allow for. We are all neighbours at the end of the day. But we are not really neighbours with suburban south Lancaster. ”

Oliver said the number of registered student voters in the university ward may have fallen in recent times, perhaps connected to international students. But he had not seen detailed figures on local population changes.

But he added: “This proposed university ward boundary change does feel disproportionate to potential changes elsewhere. There have been some other changes to wards around the district but this university ward feels oddly targeted, I think.

“There was one submission asking what the Local Government Boundary Commission has done about the university ward? I’m not aware of any other submissions asking about other specific wards. It seems to be a push to put the university into south Lancaster, which sits rather oddly with me.

“It’s in the Students’ Union’s interest that students are represented well in local government and that their interests can and will be heard. The union is a community group and a major charity and it represents 16,500 students at Lancaster University.

“Councillors in this ward have a history of working with the Students’ Union and students elsewhere in the city. Examples include activity on the climate emergency, preserving Lancaster’s nightlife, such as the Sugarhouse nightclub, and activity around ill-thought or ill-executed developments.

“The fact is that students at the campus are able to take part in democracy in a way that other students are perhaps not able to. It’s an opportunity for young people to feel empowered, to be seen and heard, to be accessible and become known to the wider Lancaster community.”

And he emphasised: “There appear to be some double standards here. The argument seems to be that it’s OK for old people to represent young people but it’s not OK for young people to represent old people. I’m not sure about that. I understand that some older voters may not feel represented by a 19-year-old but it’s also important that both communities are respected and fee satisfied with the outcome.”

Oliver said the ward had been represented by various parties over the years, including Greens and Lib Dems, so he did not think potential party political gains or losses were a motive behind the current review. The universty ward is currently represented by two Labour councillors, Oliver Robinson and newly-elected Fabiha Askari, along with Eco-Socialist Independent councillor Katie Whearty.

Oliver added: “I don’t think it matters what parties represent students. But I do think it’s important that students can represent students.

“It’s also really important that young people are involved in politics. Young people bring good things to politics. We often hear older politicians asking where are the young people for the future? But in Lancaster we have young people involved in politics who are being pushed out.”

As part of the recent ward review consultation, Labour councillor Erica Lewis has written to the Local Government Boundary Commission.

She said the changes would privilege older people over young and also hamper younger candidates from black and minority ethnic groups.

She said: ”Coun Fabiha Askari was recently elected for the university ward and is going to be an excellent councillor. She already has a history of service and campaigning for individuals, by providing material support to refugees and asylum seekers in Lancashire, and action on systemic racism in higher education. Both issues are of keen concern to her residents and she is engaging not only the largest employer in her ward but one of the largest employers in the district.

“Fabiha also happens to be someone very rare within local government. As she describes herself, she is a ‘young, brown, outspoken Muslim woman’. In a campaign where all her opponents had the benefit of being both white and male, she was the candidate who took the most personal abuse. This is a sad reality for too many women in public life today.”

In her letter to the commission, Coun Lewis said the University and Scotforth Rural ward is ‘very much a ward of two parts’.

She states: “The numerically dominant part is the students at Lancaster University. They are a younger than average, multi-cultural mix representing a cross-section of England and the Commonwealth. The other part of the ward is rural and agricultural.

“The ward is special amongst council wards because it routinely elects young people in their late teens and early 20s. It’s also a ward that has repeatedly elected black and minority ethnic councillors in recent years, which is distinct from many others.

“This does lead to some tensions. For example, some Scotforth Rural residents feel unrepresented by their young councillors and overwhelmed by the interests of Lancaster University. Some residents assume that their councillors are transient, although Fabiha has lived in Lancaster for a decade and went school here as well as university.

“This feeling appears to have led to Scotforth Rural Parish writing to the Boundary Commission urging that they be separated from Lancaster University’s student population in the current re-warding . Disappointingly, the Boundary Commission appears to have accepted this argument.

“This is doing what is all too-often done in public policy and public administration – privileging older people over younger people in the electoral system.

“Many institutions are moving to strengthen young people’s voices and participation. For example, the World Health Organisation is working with the YWCA, YMCA, Scouts, Guides, Duke of Edinburgh Award and the Red Cross/Crescent.”

She added: “As former leader of Lancaster City Council, I also know that rural issues have strong representation from many wards across the district. As the county councillor for the area, I’m grateful for the opportunity to represent those rural residents, their communities and the issues important to them. I am, after all, the niece of a dairy farmer.

“While I understand the concerns of Scotforth Rural Parish Council and rural residents, I think the larger injustice is for the Boundary Commission to abolish the ward that routinely elects young people and young BAME people to the city council.”