Boundary Commission Loses The Plot In Cheshire

by Jackie_South on November 21, 2011

In recent weeks, I have been posting a series on the impact of the proposed parliamentary boundary changes in the North West.  I’ve covered Cumbria, Lancashire, Greater Manchester and Merseyside north of the Mersey to date, leaving Cheshire and the Wirral, the subject of this post.  I’ll follow this all up with a summary post soon so you don’t have to wade through everything.

First things first: a map of the proposals for Cheshire and the Wirral.  As before, current constituencies are shown in green, the proposed ones in black. 

You may recall that the Cheshire West ward of Poynton has been transferred to the Greater Manchester constituency of Hazel Grove & Poynton as part of the proposals.  Over all, Cheshire and the Wirral have lost two seats, from 15 to 13. 

Before my usual run-through of the proposed seats, it is worth spending a bit of time on the over all approach, which has led to some fairly bizarre proposals. 

First, given the difficulty in the boundary review before the 2010 election, the Commission opted not to take Wirral as part of the Merseyside review, but instead as part of Cheshire.  The reason for this was that the previous review originally proposed a seat that crossed the Mersey to combine Wallasey and northwest Liverpool via the Kingsway tunnel.  This created outrage on the basis that these were very different communities and that the link of a single tunnel was not sufficient to overcome this.

Second, the less urban parts of Cheshire – those excluding the unitary boroughs of Halton and Warrington – had undergone a recent local government reorganisation.  Before, Cheshire county council plus six district authorities covered these areas.  In 2009, this structure was replaced through the creation of two new unitary authorities (in addition to Halton and Warrington): Cheshire East and Cheshire West & Chester.  Because May 2011 was the first election that used the resulting new ward boundaries, the commission decided that it could not use either those new wards, nor the old district ward boundaries. 

Instead, it decided to use the old county council ward boundaries.  This has created wards that have far bigger electorates than either the old district wards or new unitary authority wards would have done, making their job harder for themselves.  Their report did not set out why they did this: to me it seems a bit arbitrary and bound to lead to some problems given that it cuts down their flexibility, as I discussed earlier in the year.

These two factors, plus a third that I will cover later, have helped make what is probably the most bizarre proposal in the country: the constituency of Mersey Banks.  This gets a special map of its own to illustrate the problem below.

But first, the other proposals, running roughly eastwards from Wallasey…

Wallasey

When I looked at the possible boundaries on the Wirral back in April, I thought that the most logical expansion of the Wallasey constituency was to extend it south-west by adding Upton ward from the current Wirral West seat.  Instead, the Boundary Commission have opted to extend it south-eastwards to take in Bidston & St James ward from Birkenhead.  This now stretches the seat beyond the docks that form the natural boundary between Birkenhead and Wallasey as far as the edge of Birkenhead Park.

Wallasey was a Conservative seat from the end of the first World War until 1992 (with a short break 1942-45 due to an independent winning a by-election) and Angela Eagle has been its only Labour MP.  However, it is now a solid Labour seat by a margin of over 20% in 2010.  The addition of Bidston & St James will make it safer still.

My projection of the 2010 result based on the proposed boundaries:

  • Labour: 25,406 (54.5%)
  • Conservative: 13,641 (29.3%)
  • Liberal Democrat: 6,236 (13.4%)
  •  UKIP: 1,205 (2.6%)
  • Other: 107 (0.2%)

Birkenhead

Labour’s safest seat on the Wirral is Frank Field’s Birkenhead, with a majority of 15,395 (43.6% of the vote).  The proposals transfer Bidston & St James ward to Wallasey, and add Bebington ward from Wirral South and Upton ward from Wirral West.

Both the new wards are Labour-leaning, but not as strongly as Bidston.  The increase in the electorate size from 62,432 to 76,650 means that the numerical majority goes up (to 17,307) but the percentage majority falls to 36%.  That’s still pretty comfortable though.  My projection of the 2010 result based on the proposed boundaries:

  • Labour: 28,439 (59.3%)
  • Conservative: 11,131 (23.2%)
  • Liberal Democrat: 7,732 (16.1%)
  •  UKIP: 496 (1.0%)
  • Other: 165 (0.3%)

Hoylake and Neston

This constituency replaces the current Wirral West seat, which the Conservative former TV presenter Esther McVey took off Labour last year by 2,436 votes (6.2%).

Labour’s best ward in Wirral West is Upton, which is now transferring to Birkenhead.  In come the two most Conservative wards from the Labour marginal Wirral South: Heswall and Clatterbridge.  A further addition is Neston & Parkgate Cheshire county council ward, a Tory-inclined area from the Labour marginal Ellesmere Port and Neston.

The proposed seat gets named after the towns at its northern and southern ends, although West Kirby and Heswall are both larger than Hoylake.

All these changes to Wirral West push things further towards the Conservatives, stretching that majority out to 11,000.  My projection of the 2010 result based on the proposed boundaries:

  • Conservative: 27,674 (49.0%)
  • Labour: 16,593 (29.4%)
  • Liberal Democrat: 9,704 (17.2%)
  • UKIP: 1,849 (3.3%)
  • Other: 662 (1.2%)

Chester

The City of Chester was another constituency that the Conservatives won back from Labour last year, by a similar majority to that in Wirral West (2,583 votes, 5.5%). 

The proposed changes to the seat are a bit odd, as a result of the ward-size straight jacket the Boundary Commission fashioned for itself that I explained above.  This transforms the seat from one that is fairly compact around the City itself: it loses the City’s southern suburbs to the Winsford seat and gains two whole county council wards (Groves & Whitby, Ledsham & Willaston) from Ellesmere Port & Neston, together with all of Mickle Trafford ward, which is currently split between the City of Chester, Ellesmere Port & Neston and Eddisbury.

Both the two whole new wards contain parts of Ellesmere Port, in particular Groves and Whitby which is wholely part of that town.  Given the odd changes that this all creates elsewhere, it does seem odd that this ward has been included at the expense of the more naturally Chester Boughton Heath & Vicars Cross ward.

The proposed name also drops the ‘City of’ part, presumably because the district of that name has been abolished.

It may all seem a bit strange, but it should help Labour a little, shaving a chunk off that Tory majority.  My projection of the 2010 result based on the proposed boundaries:

  • Conservative: 22,826 (40.7%)
  • Labour: 21,187 (37.8%)
  • Liberal Democrat: 9,105 (16.2%)
  • UKIP: 1,856 (3.3%)
  • Other: 1,098 (2.0%)

Winsford

Winsford is the successor to the current Eddisbury constituency, covering rural southwest Cheshire and based around the town of Winsford and the villages of Tarporley, Kelsall, Audlem and Malpas.  It is now a safe Conservative seat, although Labour did reduce the majority to 1,185 in 1997.

Despite the name change (Eddisbury was the name of one of the county hundreds in the constituency, so was a bit obscure as a name), the proposed changes are fairly minor.  Part of the county council ward of ‘Abbey’, covering the ground between Northwich, Winsford and Middlewich, transfers to the Northwich seat whilst its section of the Mickle Trafford county council ward moves over to the Chester seat.  In return, it is proposed to add some territory from the current City of Chester seat: Boughton Heath & Vicars Cross ward and a small part of Gowy ward (the majority is already in Eddisbury).

Although Winsford itself is a Labour town, it only contributes 27% of the electors.  The rest is strongly Tory, with the Lib Dems, who came second in 2010 here for the first time, boosted slightly by the new additions.  My projection of the 2010 result based on the proposed boundaries:

  • Conservative: 25,525 (50.7%)
  • Liberal Democrat: 11,928 (23.7%)
  • Labour: 10,751 (21.4%)
  • UKIP: 1,724 (3.4%)
  • Other: 383 (0.8%)

Crewe and Nantwich

Unlike the big changes made in the west of the county, those in the east are fairly minimal.  In fact, no changes at all have been proposed to the current Crewe and Nantwich constituency, which the Tories gained from Labour in 2008 at the by-election caused by the death of Gwyneth Dunwoody.  Labour is strongest in the railway town of Crewe, the Tories in Cheshire cheese making Nantwich and the surrounding rural areas.

Results from 2010:

  • Conservative: 23,420 (45.8%)
  • Labour: 17,374 (34.0%)
  • Liberal Democrat: 7,656 (15.0%)
  • UKIP: 1,414 (2.8%)
  • BNP: 1,043 (2.0%)
  • Other: 177 (0.3%)

Congleton

Like Crewe & Nantwich, no changes are proposed for the Congleton constituency, covering the east Cheshire towns of Congleton, Sandbach, Middlewich and Alsager.  The seat has always had relatively comfortable Conservative majorities, but with a reasonable Lib Dem vote.  The results in 2010 were:

  • Conservative: 23,250 (45.8%)
  • Liberal Democrat: 16,187 (31.9%)
  • Labour: 8,747 (17.2%)
  • UKIP: 2,147 (4.2%)
  • Other: 449 (0.9%)

Macclesfield

Despite Macclesfield town itself returning Labour councillors, the surrounding rural areas that form parts of the Manchester commuter (and footballer) belt are overwhelmingly Tory, making the current constituency safely Conservative.

This won’t change with the boundary changes proposed.  Macclesfield transfers the town of Poynton to the Greater Manchester seat of Hazel Grove and Poynton and also loses its half of the county council Alderley ward to the Northwich seat.  In return, it gains the town of Wilmslow from Tatton: Wilmslow is less Conservative than the rest of that constituency, with a strong Lib Dem showing, but the Tories were still probably just ahead there in 2010.

The outcome is a seat that is a seat that is almost as safe for the Conservatives as the current one.  My projection of the 2010 result based on the proposed boundaries:

  • Conservative: 24,418 (47.3%)
  • Liberal Democrat: 13,509 (26.2%)
  • Labour: 9,205 (17.8%)
  • UKIP: 1,064 (2.1%)
  • Other: 3,441 (6.7%)

Northwich

The town of Northwich is mainly in the current Weaver Vale constituency.  That seat however only makes up just over 30% of the proposed seat. 

In fact, over 60% comes from the current Tatton seat held by George Osborne, and so we should regard the Northwich proposal as the successor to that seat.  Other than Wilmslow, which moves over to the Macclesfield constituency, Tatton comprises Knutsford, ultra-rich Alderley Edge, Marbury and Northwich’s eastern and northern suburbs.

To all of this, 1,966 electors come in from Macclesfield, in the from of the remainder of Alderley ward, and 4,475 from Eddisbury as part of Abbey ward.

The Boundary Commission stated something quite odd in its initial proposals document: in their explanation for the creation of the nonsensical Mersey Banks seat, they stated that they had to do this because the other options they could produce were even more unpalatable.  They listed these, stating that one was linking central Warrington and Knutsford.  It didn’t make clear why joining two town centres that are only ten miles apart is so abhorrent, but you have to wonder whether this had more to do with the fact that this would wreak Osborne’s seat rather than anything to do with geographical logic. 

It looks as if the creation of the Northwich seat was really about keeping the Chancellor happy.  When the review came out, a journalist asked Osborne how he felt about Tatton being abolished.  He calmly stated that Northwich was replacing it – a fair comment but one that might have appeared tactless to fellow Tory Graham Evans, the Weaver Vale MP.

Labour is ahead in Northwich town itself, but nowhere elsewhere.  This will remain a safe perch for Gideon, albeit with a slightly smaller majority than Tatton and with Labour replacing the Liberal Democrats in second place.  My projection of the 2010 result based on the proposed boundaries:

  • Conservative: 26,500 (50.1%)
  • Labour: 13,012 (24.6%)
  • Liberal Democrat: 9,730 (18.4%)
  • Other: 3,619 (6.8%)

Warrington South

The borough of Warrington is still big enough to justify two seats on its own.  However, Warrington North was a little too small and Warrington South a little too large.  In addition, changes elsewhere meant that some territory from the neighbouring borough of Halton needed to be added.

The current constituency contains Warrington town centre, the town’s southern and western parts and the outlying village of Lymm (almost equidistant between the town centre and Knutsford).

The proposals lose the western side of Warrington and add in two wards to the east of the town centre plus three wards from Halton that cover the Runcorn suburbs of Norton and Daresbury.

The Tories managed to snatch Warrington South from Labour last year by a majority of 1,553 (2.8% of the vote), with the Liberal Democrats only .  The proposed changes are enough to shift it back to Labour by a similar margin, but the seat remains a three-way marginal.  My projection of the 2010 result based on the proposed boundaries:

  • Labour: 17,910 (35.2%)
  • Conservative: 16,657 (32.7%)
  • Liberal Democrat: 13,981 (27.5%)
  • UKIP: 1,360 (2.7%)
  • Other: 967 (1.9%)

Warrington North

Unlike its southern neighbour, Warrington North is a reasonably safe Labour seat that currently covers the north and east sides of the town together with the outlying villages of Burtonwood, Culcheth and Winwick.

The seat is under-sized, and so three wards come in from Warrington South on the west side of town in exchange for two that depart on the east side of the town centre.  This eats into Labour’s majority somewhat, although the compensation for them is the advantageous impact on the South seat.  My projection of the 2010 result based on the proposed boundaries:

  • Labour: 21,526 (42.2%)
  • Conservative: 16,106 (31.6%)
  • Liberal Democrat: 11,693 (22.9%)
  • Other: 1,701 (3.3%)

Widnes and Runcorn

This is the successor to the current Halton seat, which covers most of the unitary district of the same name.  The district comprises those two towns, linked by the Silver Jubilee Bridge that spans the Mersey Estuary, although the seat doesn’t include all of Runcorn which falls partly in the Weaver Vale seat.  The constituency is safely Labour.

The changes proposed are relatively minor yet also very significant.  Three of those Weaver Vale Runcorn wards are added, together with the most westerly ward from Warrington: Penketh & Cuerdley.  In exchange two wards on the Widnes side – Hale and Ditton – are lost to the new Mersey Banks seat.  This is the big impact, creating the oddest element of this strange new seat (see below).

Whilst this will reduce Labour’s majority a little, it remains a safe seat for them.   My projection of the 2010 result based on the proposed boundaries:

  • Labour: 24,575 (52.7%)
  • Conservative: 10,170 (21.8%)
  • Liberal Democrat: 7,816 (16.7%)
  • BNP: 1,676 (3.6%)
  • UKIP: 1,477 (3.2%)
  • Other: 383 (0.8%)

Mersey Banks

This is a brand new seat, formed from the ashes of three abolished ones: Ellesmere Port & Neston, Weaver Vale and Wirral South.  As trailed above, it is a right mess.  So much so, it deserves a map all of its own (click on it, then click again to take a closer look):

I’ve labelled the wards in Wirral, Halton and Cheshire West & Chester in red.

The seat starts in the west at Port Sunlight on the Wirral, follows the Mersey south-eastwards to take in most, but not all, of Ellesmere Port, then carries on past the massive Stanlow refinery to the Weaver Vale towns of Frodsham, Helsby and Weaverham south of Runcorn, ending just west of Northwich.

And then, in what looks like an act of madness, the seat jumps across the Mersey to take in the wards of Ditton and Hale, that lie between Widnes and Liverpool John Lennon airport.  As you can see from the map, there is no link – bridge, tunnel or ferry – that directly links this northern element to the rest of the seat.  The most direct route is to use the Silver Jubilee Bridge in the heart of the Widnes and Runcorn constituency.

The map also shows that Ditton runs contiguously into Widnes and its suburbs such as Hough Green.

The proposal is an unholy mess, resulting from four decisions taken by the commission: the decision not to cross the Mersey in Merseyside; the decision to use the over-large county wards in Cheshire; the decision not to sub-divide wards into polling districts (as they initially indicated they might do, and as they have done in Northern Ireland and Scotland); and the decision to not carry out a number of other proposals that might have been controversial.  They listed those other unacceptable proposals as:

  • spliting the city centre of Chester (although they do split off its southern edge)
  • spliting the town of Winsford in two (although this splits Ellesmere Port)
  • dividing the town of Nantwich in two
  • linking the centre of Warrington and Knutsford (which might only be a problem if you are George Osborne)
  • a radical redrawing of all the seats in Cheshire

 I’m sorry, but all of those proposals seem better than what they have done here.

The new seat is made up from the following current constituencies: 38% from Ellesmere Port & Neston, 27% from Wirral South, 26% from Weaver Vale and 9% from Halton.  The first two are Labour-held marginals (although the wards taken are better for Labour than the average in the seat), Weaver Vale is a Tory marginal won in 2010 and the Halton wards are safely Labour. 

The result is a reasonably safe Labour seat.  My projection of the 2010 result based on the proposed boundaries:

  • Labour: 26,127 (49.1%)
  • Conservative: 17,154 (32.2%)
  • Liberal Democrat: 7,802 (14.7%)
  • UKIP: 1,137 (2.1%)
  • Other: 1,010 (1.9%)

Summary

The current state of play in Cheshire and Wirral is 9 Conservative seats and 6 Labour ones.  With Cheshire falling from 15 seats to 13, three marginal constituencies are effectively abolished: Labour-held Ellesmere Port & Neston and Wirral South and Conservative-held Weaver Vale.  A new Labour-held seat, Mersey Banks, has been created.

Finally, the changes turn Tory marginal Warrington South into a Labour one.

So, Labour stay on six seats whilst the Tories lose a net two.

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