BERTIE WORCESTER-PARK reports on the latest threat to the LibDems’ one-party state in south London
Sutton residents are to get an additional councillor. And the sacred memory of Tony Hancock is to be enshrined with one of the borough’s wards to carry the name of “East Cheam”.
But for Sutton’s Liberal Democrats, who have controlled the council with a vice-like grip for 30 years, that’s about as good as the news gets, after a set of boundary changes have been delivered ahead of the next local elections in May 2022 which could end their hegemony.
It’s been a challenging six months for Ruth Dombey and her LibDem councillor colleagues: first Tom Brake, the borough’s last LibDem MP, lost his seat, then the residents of New Mill Quarter rumbled the rip-off heating system that the council had imposed upon them.
Now the Local Government Boundary Commissioners have delivered a report which seems likely to strengthen Tory hopes of winning back the council for the first time since 1986, and even provides a glimmer of hope for electoral success for Labour.
The recommendations are more restrained than those introduced in Croydon for the last Town Hall elections in 2018, though the commissioners say that the boundary of every ward will be changed. In many cases, the most noticeable change will be in the name given to the ward.
Sutton currently has 54 councillors representing 18 wards, each of which has three councillors. In 2018, Sutton residents voted in 33 Liberal Democrats, 18 Conservatives and 3 Independents.
From 2022 (subject to parliamentary approval and that’s unlikely not to be forthcoming), there will be 55 councillors representing 20 wards – 15 three-councillor wards and five two-councillor wards. Each councillor will be representing an average of 2,788 electors.
These reviews are conducted every 20 years or so, the Commission says, “to make sure councillors will represent about the same number of electors, and that ward arrangements will help the council work effectively”.
Professor Colin Mellors, the chair of the Commission, said: “We are very grateful to people in Sutton. We looked at all the views they gave us. They helped us improve our earlier proposals. We believe the new arrangements will guarantee electoral fairness while maintaining local ties.”
Among the changes the Commission has highlighted, “Sutton West ward has been renamed Sutton West and East Cheam to reflect local communities after the Commission received comments from residents in the area who felt that they lived in Cheam, rather than Sutton.” As if anyone would want an address in Sutton! Horror of horrors!
It means that for the first time there will be an area officially identified as “East Cheam”, although it seems most unlikely that anyone will find an address there of 23 Railway Cottages, as invented by Tony Hancock for his 1960s comedy show.
The only people likely to be laughing at this, though, are opposition councillors, as the East Cheam renaming is about the only proposal which Dombey’s LibDems made to the Commission which has been adopted. And as a consequence, the Tories have got a better boundary in Belmont, and even Labour think they may have done a bit better with the boundaries for their perennial target, Sutton Central.
Labour missed out on a council seat in Sutton Central in 2018 by just 32 votes. Party members think that these boundary changes will assist their prospects next time, when they are also looking at the two St Helier wards. With the residents of 300 homes in New Mill Quarter getting overheated over the council’s high-charging heating company, the small ward of Hackbridge may also see swings against the LibDems, who have been barred from canvassing on the new housing estate.
Boundary Commission reviews tend to be an exercise in horse-trading, with various political groups offering up their version of “fair” boundaries, which usually try to take in areas that support their party, while discarding neighbourhoods that tend to vote against them, in an effort to tie down as many voting areas as favourably as possible. After a few months pondering the proposals, the Commissioners deliver their version of the maps.
In Sutton, it appears that they have frustrated all the LibDems’ gerrymandering efforts.
Beddington North ward becomes just Beddington, where the strong personal support for independent Nick Mattey seems likely to continue, while the Commission rejected proposals to create a ward named Roundshaw, but have renamed Beddington South as South Beddington and Roundshaw, recognising the estate there more than 50 years after it first started being built.
“There is little real change to the other wards,” a source said today. “The Tories will be happy with that. Some were the core LibDem wards, but with Brake gone, we may see them struggle to retain them.”
The Commission has made further changes to its earlier proposals. Details can be found on its website.
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