Greenwich could get four more councillors if the council gets its way when the political map of the borough reviewed later this year – thanks to a booming population and social media making existing councillors busier.
Most of London’s 32 boroughs are having the number of councillors they have reassessed by an independent body – the Local Government Boundary Commission for England. Neighbouring Lewisham and Bromley are going through the process now, Bexley had a review in 2015.
The review does not affect the borders of the borough itself – they were last changed in 1994 – but the wards inside the borough. Greenwich is divided into 17 wards, which elect three councillors each by the first-past-the-post system. Each is paid £10,415 for what is meant to be a part-time role, others are paid more for holding decision-making positions, chairing panels or other roles. The process also does not affect MPs.
Last night, Greenwich councillors backed a report – submitted at the last minute – recommending increasing the number of councillors from 51 to 55 to better represent a growing population. A Conservative amendment aimed at holding allowances down to ensure the increase would not cost residents more money failed, but the opposition also backed the increase in councillors. The boundary commission will now take the council’s view and include it in its deliberations before the public gets to have its say on the proposals.
It has been 20 years since the last review, which saw the number of councillors cut from 62 to 51. Since then, new developments mean the borough now has thousands of new residents. While Eltham South ward has only 9,532 electors, Peninsula ward – east Greenwich, Greenwich Peninsula and part of Charlton – now has 16,790. Both still have three councillors. The Eltham South population is forecast to drop slightly by 2025, while Peninsula is expected to have over 22,000 electors by then.
Similarly, Woolwich Riverside – which also includes the part of Charlton by the Thames Barrier – is expected to go from 14,720 to nearly 20,000 residents in the next five years, as the Royal Arsenal continues to be developed and Charlton Riverside’s first new homes appear.
If the commission accepts the council’s recommendation, the new councillors will be squeezed in by redrawing boundaries to create new wards. While rules that state council wards have to have three members no longer apply, Greenwich has asked that no wards have just one councillor – as was common in London until 2002.
“Taking the last three years, casework shows around a 12-15% increase with residents finding it increasingly easy to contact their local councillor due to social media and efforts by the council to increase participation,” a report to councillors last night said. “Residents increasingly expect timely responses to receive queries about services and to ask for assistance.”
“An increase of around 8% in councillor numbers will assist members to provide the governance and scrutiny functions required and to provide representation for residents.”
The review is likely to start a political battle, with the Conservatives’ traditional strongholds in and around Eltham now representing a smaller percentage of the borough’s population than in years gone by.
However, the Tories will also be noting some of the more affluent residents moving into new developments in the north of the borough. Across the river, Conservative candidates have been elected to Tower Hamlets seats on the Isle of Dogs as the population has changed. What happens on Greenwich Peninsula – where many new developments are largely isolated from the rest of the borough – will be especially interesting.
The Liberal Democrats and Greens will also be looking at how they can take advantage of the electoral map being redrawn, while Labour will be zealously looking to protect its huge majority.
The timing of the review could help all parties. Unlike in other polls, votes in May’s mayoral election are counted electronically and so are accurately broken down to ward level, enabling political groups to closely monitor local shifts in their support.
New wards could also prove controversial to people outside politics. While Lewisham’s population has increased, that council opted to stick with 54 councillors, meaning it had to rearrange wards to better represent people around new developments in the north of the borough.
An early proposal saw the Ladywell ward disappear from the electoral map, leading to a vociferous – and successful – “Save Ladywell” campaign last summer. However, Lewisham’s system of ward assemblies, which distribute local grants, mean more people identify with their wards – a phenomenon which may not apply in Greenwich, which has declined to host such a system.
Current recommendations suggest Bromley should drop from 60 to 58 councillors, while the number of Bexley councillors was slashed from 63 to 45 in 2016.
However, Newham is due to gain six councillors to cope with its growing population, with new wards created in the Royal Docks, Canning Town and the Olympic Village in Stratford.
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