New plan to keep electoral ward around Lancaster University welcomed as boundary review looks at other areas

Lancaster University student representatives have broadly welcomed a compromise on planned changes to electoral ward boundaries, meaning the city council is likely to keep a University ward around the campus in future, with some alterations.

By Robbie Macdonald, Local Democracy Reporting Service
Monday, 21st February 2022, 12:30 pm

However, some concerns have been raised over plans to cut the number of councillors representing the ward from three to two.

The existing University and Scotforth Rural ward was recently earmarked for scrapping, under a review by The Local Government Boundary Commission for England.

But now the commission is recommending a new, reshaped University ward focused on the campus area and served by two councillors in future, instead of the current three.

Lancaster University.

On a wider scale, the boundary commission has been reviewing every electoral ward across the Lancaster City Council district, including in Morecambe and Heysham.

It has published two sets of draft recommendations during the review phases. The first recommendations came last autumn, followed by a period for public feedback. and then a second set of updated recommendations were published this month. Further consultations are now running with the public until mid-March.

The commission is now keen to get public feedback on other parts of the district, especially the south and east, and including future suggested names of wards.

THE UNIVERSITY CAMPUS AND WARD

Lancaster University was developed in the 1960s and accepted its first students in 1964. In the early days, teaching took place at St Leonard’s House in the city, Students lived in houses in Morecambe or Lancaster.

The transfer of departments to the modern Bailrigg location outside Lancaster on parkland near the M6 motorway happened from 1966 to 1970, when the first four colleges were established, Students started living at the new campus from 1968. Since then, it has grown with buildings, facilities, students and staff to become a leading university in the UK and globally.

Students and staff are also active in the political life of Lancaster City Council, and represent a variety of parties and wards. For example, university law lecturer Richard Austen-Baker is a Conservative councillor for Ellel.

The boundary commission’s first recommendations last autumn included a suggestion to totally scrap the current University and Scotforth Rural ward, which includes the main campus and student halls of residence. Instead, it suggested merging different parts of the ward with other wards.

The commission said the some people felt the current University & Scotforth Rural ward, which is currently represented by three young councillors, does not serve adjoining rural communities or older residents well. It also said it wanted to ensure that each ward had a similar sized number of residents or variations in the number of councillors for each ward, reflecting larger or smaller populations.

Currently, the University & Scotforth Rural ward is represented by two Labour councillors, Oliver Robinson and recently-elected Fabiha Askari, along with a third councillor, Eco-Socialist Independent councillor Katie Whearty.

Environmental and socialist politics make up a significant part of Lancaster City Council’s political landscape. The council is led by a Green Party leader and an Eco-Socialist Independent deputy leader. Labour is an important force too and it made a number of contributions to the boundary commission on ward boundaries including around the university.

When the boundary commission called for feedback on scrapping the University ward, numerous arguments were made in favour of keeping it in some shape or form.

Some political observers privately questioned whether the level of dissatisfaction in the existing ward was ever genuinely significant in numbers – or whether a small number of people, whether they be residents or political parties, had exaggerated any issues for potential political advantage in the future under redrawn wards?

STUDENTS & PERMANENT RESIDENTS

Supporters of keeping a university electoral ward said Lancaster University forms an important and distinctive community in the city. There are around 16,500 students at Lancaster University itself, plus others at the University of Cumbria campus and local colleges.

The Lancaster University campus area includes student halls of residence, university buildings and infrastructure, a clinic and shops, which electoral ward maps are supposed to reflect, they argued.

More fundamentally, university students risked losing their democratic ‘voice’ in the city council, if ward boundary changes dilute their presence as a community and simultaneously an electoral force.

Regarding age differences, supporters of a University ward argued that young councillors were well-able to serve older residents. Create a different ward system would ‘pushed out’ students and ‘privilege’ older people over the young, they argued.

CAMPAIGN

Among those involved in recent campaigning was Oliver Robinson. He is a former philosophy student who has graduated and is now the current President of Lancaster University Students’ Union. In addition, he is an elected Labour councillor for the University ward on the city council.

He said his arguments in favour of keeping the University ward were about democracy and fully reflecting the city of Lancaster’s community.

Speaking about the latest ward recommendations, he said: “Overall, this is good news. It’s good that we have saved the university ward as a distinctive community. By and large, the new proposals represent urban and rural areas quite well, along with the university. So these new suggestions have got to be good for both permanent residents in Lancaster and students alike.

“My colleagues and I at the Students’ Union had a few moments of celebration when we heard about the new revised recommendations. Although it’s rather a shame that the local boundary commissioners are recommending the number of university ward councillors be cut from three to two, I’m not sure that they had much choice on the matter.

“Having said that, in future I would like to dig-down into some of the assumptions and data which has been used in this review of the district. But at the moment, given what data has been put on the table, I don’t really see what other choices the commissioners could have made. ”

Asked if he was pleased with the campaign to keep a distinct university ward, he said: “I’m delighted with it. It was refreshing to see a wide array of stakeholders, individuals and organisations coming together to represent the university community’s voice in the city. I think it’s vitally important that the democratic links remains between the university and the city, that students who don’t have a voice elsewhere have a voice on the city council and we have elected students.

“Lancaster University alone has around 16,500 students, which is 10 to 15 per cent of the area’s population. The commissioners have noted that not all students will be eligible to vote for various reasons but, nonetheless, having an arrangement like this is the only way to have a strong student voice in the city.”

Oliver said the revised ward boundaries generally appeared to be better suited to local neighbourhoods, communities and the geographic realities than previous suggestions. In the autumn, some of the first proposals for city wards such as Castle had chopped communities in two with boundary edges suggested ‘half-way up streets’, he said.

Eco-Socialist Independent councillor Katie Whearty is a Lancaster University student and one of the three current University & Scotforth Rural councillors,

She said: “I welcome these latest recommended ward boundary changes which better-reflect both the student and rural communities, as two separate distinct bodies.

“However, I do have concerns surrounding the impact of a reduction in ward councillors on student representation within the city council.

“While the new boundaries would provide a more logical and beneficial representation of rural communities, which I support, I would like to see a proposal for a ward that provides a more cohesive grouping without diluting the benefits of the current system, in providing an opportunity for the city’s vast student population to be reflected.”

‘SIGNIFICANT OPPOSITION’

Regarding the university ward, the latest update report from the commission states: ”We received significant opposition to our proposals in this area from residents, local councillors, student representatives and the Constituency Labour Party. We also received a petition of 48 names in opposition to the draft recommendations. All these submissions argued against our proposal to link the university with the more urban area of Scotforth East to the north.

“A number of these submissions referenced local representation for students and young people and explained how this may be undermined by an arrangement that linked Scotforth East with the university. The petition supported the retention of the existing University & Scotforth Rural ward ‘to ensure proper representation for this distinct community and diversity on the council, with full representation for Scotforth East in a separate ward’.

The boundary commission said Labour councillor Jason Wood argued that Scotforth East was ‘an urban community centred around landmarks of Barton Road playing fields and Burrow Beck; and has the A6 Scotforth Road as its defined western boundary’. He suggested the first draft recommendation to link the university with Scotforth East was ‘nonsensical to residents and councillors’ and added that the university campus is unique.

Most residents are first-year students who live on campus and ‘thus have a high level of constituency turnover every year’, as opposed to residents of Scotforth East who are ‘relatively static’, he said.

This view was echoed by a local resident from Scotforth East ward, who argued that they have ‘community ties with other long-term residents living in the suburban area’. The university was a ‘vastly different’ area with mainly short-term residents. Another resident agreed that Scotforth East

‘lacks anything in common with the university campus’, the commission said.

Labour councillor Anne Whitehead, Lancaster Students’ Union and two local residents had argued for a separate two-councillor ward for the university, with the residents reiterating the ‘unique circumstances’ of the campus and Coun Whitehead noting the separation and differences of the communities of Scotforth East and the university.

The commission states in its updated recommendations: ”In our view, respondents have set out compelling circumstances related to the university campus. We have been persuaded that a warding arrangement that links the university with any part of urban Scotforth would not reflect communities in the area.

“While we could revert to the existing University & Scotforth Rural ward here, and we note the arguments from the Constituency Labour Party, we also remain of the view that an arrangement which links the university with the rural Scotforth parish would undermine local community identity.

“As part of our further draft recommendations, we are inviting

comment on a proposal for a two-councillor University ward that would comprise only the university campus, as well as the Bailrigg Student Living development. To facilitate such a ward, an additional councillor has been added to the urban area across southern Lancaster.

“We acknowledge that our proposed University ward would have an electoral variance of -16 per cent (the recommended typical number of voters in any ward) under a council size of 61. However, we have been persuaded that there are unique particulars relating to the composition, circumstances and geography of the campus that justify the high variance. This proposal also allows us to reflect the balance of the evidence across the more urban area of southern Lancaster.

OTHER DISTRICTS AND NAMES

In addition, the the commission is now seeking views on other wards. Its latest report states: “We have decided to hold a period of consultation on further draft recommendations in the rural east, central and southern areas of the district. We believe we have received sufficient evidence relating to the rest of the district to finalise the recommendations. ”

Comments are wanted on ward suggestions for Scotforth East, Scotforth West and Bowerham. Ideas include a two-councillor Scotforth East ward and a two-councillor Bowerham ward, based on proposals by the Lancaster Constituency Labour Party

A revised Scotforth West ward plan is also based on the proposal made by the Constituency Labour Party, subject to two minor amendments. To reflect comments made by Green councillor Dave Brookes regarding the community and access routes of electors in Aldcliffe Yard, the commission is proposing to slightly adjust the northern boundary of Scotforth West so these electors are included in Castle ward. It is also slightly amending the north-eastern boundary so that electors in Railway Street,

Boundary Road, Meadowside and Springfield are united within the same ward, again reflecting evidence of local communities.

The latest draft proposals are based on a city council size of 61 councillors. This is one more than previously thought. The commission has suggested an additional councillor to provide a stronger balance in the urban south of the district.

The boundary commission emphasised the new period of public comments, saying: “We welcome all comments on these proposals, particularly on the location of the ward boundaries and the names of our proposed wards. This stage of consultation ends on March 15.”

See the commission’s website here.