Our Sutton reporter, BELLE MONT, on the latest gerrymandering efforts of the council which many think are far from a laughing matter
Stone me. Sutton Council’s Liberal Democrats are up to their old tricks again, with a proposal going before an extraordinary council meeting tonight for boundary changes that would carve up Tory strongholds in the borough and isolate the independent-held Beddington North ward.
Tony Hancock used to take his comedy very seriously. But Sutton’s LibDems’ attempts to create a new ward in the borough, to be called East Cheam – where the BBC radio star of the 1950s had his fictional home – is no laughing matter, as council leader Ruth Dombey and her mates seek to fix future elections to keep their grasp of power.
Now wonder Hancock once said, “I want nothing to do with politics, what do they do for the common man?”
There is just a single item on tonight’s agenda – a motion to ratify the council’s proposals to the Boundary Commission for ward reorganisation in the borough.
Dombey’s LibDem council this year set up what was supposed to be a cross-party working group to tinker with the borough’s ward boundaries to ensure that, with expected population growth, each electoral area will have a similar number of voters per councillor. The boundary review was a process which Croydon went through before the 2018 local elections.
Sutton’s cross-party group met to establish timelines for submissions, which were due by September 30. The talk was always about a politically neutral council submission, drawn up by council staff based on input from councillors.
This agreement progressed well until the summer. Following the most recent meeting of the working group, in June, the council published outline proposals in August and requested further feedback from councillors.
There was some minor disagreement across the parties concerning these proposals, a council source told Inside Sutton. However, less than a fortnight ago, on October 4, the council announced the Extraordinary Council Meeting to ratify the proposals.
When the proposals were published, they differed markedly from those proposed in August, with the LibDems being accused of abusing council resources for their party political benefit – gerrymandering.
The changes are so stark because they carve up of some of the staunchest Conservative wards in the borough, where there can have been little input from LibDem members simply because they have few members in these wards.
For example, Belmont ward currently has three Conservative councillors. Under the new proposals being presented tonight, this has been shrunk to a two-councillor ward. Sutton West, where two of the three councillors are Tories, is also to be shrunk to a two-member ward.
The areas removed from Belmont and Sutton West – in the most pro-LibDem parts of these wards – have been turned into a long strip of a ward to be known as… East Cheam.
Meanwhile, Sutton South, with two of its three councillors being LibDems, sees little change. The old Wandle Valley ward is split into two new wards under the new proposals, likely to deliver an additional LibDem councillor.
Beddington South was in the August proposals still called Beddington South. Not any more. Beddington South becomes Wallington East under these new proposals, probably to help disguise the fact that it has the sodding great Beddington incinerator on its doorstep.
These changes – not seen by the opposition parties until the council meeting was announced, and never discussed by the working group – would likely give the ruling LibDem administration an extra two- to four-seat advantage on the council. Under the 2018 boundaries, the LibDems hold 33 of the borough’s 54 seats, with the Conservatives on 18 and three independents.
Only 10 councillors responded to the consultation, so the changes seem to be driven from elsewhere.
In considering borough boundaries, ward patterns should reflect as far as possible community interests, and identities and boundaries should be recognisable to local residents.
But according to a senior council source, “Here, the administration has decided, without consultation, to drop names that would be familiar to our grandparents, and introduces a fictitious name like East Cheam!
“An extra member or two for the LibDems would, of course, mean another few quid in the leafleting coffers.”
A senior Tory said: “We were explicitly told way back in February that a cross-party submission to the Boundary Commission would hold weight. This is an attempt at gerrymandering, pure and simple. The LibDems and officers have dropped any pretence of this process being neutral. They have politicised it for gain, and should be ashamed of themselves.”
The motion to tonight’s Council is proposed by Dombey and seconded by Sam Weatherlake, a LibDem who sat on the working group.
“The motion has the temerity to reference the cross-party working group, as though there is agreement with the proposals,” the Tory source said. “But we do not agree. We shall be making our position crystal clear.”
Nonetheless, the LibDem majority on the council will ensure the motion passes.
But, like all the best Hancock sketches, there is a punchline.
The Tories believe the LibDems have grossly politicised what should be a neutral process. “This could come back to bite them,” said the source.
“The Boundary Commission is fiercely independent, and as they also have our proposals for the borough, which more closely reflect the August cross-party submission, I think they will be unhappy at the LibDem attempt to bounce them into these cynical carve-ups of Tory wards.
“They will see this for what it really is: a LibDem submission masquerading as an agreed council proposal.”
In true Sutton Council style, though, whoever put together the plan for tonight’s meeting failed to think through the physical boundaries of the Civic Offices. The half-hour meeting, ahead of a regular committee meeting, will attempt to squeeze most of the borough’s 54 councillors and a dozen officials, plus the public, into a small meeting room.
Bloody marvellous, as the lad himself might have said.
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