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My Speech to the Boundary Commission Consultation

Below you can see my contribution to the Boundary Commission public consultation in Birmingham last week. You can have your say too here.

 

I am grateful for the opportunity to provide some observations on the Boundary Commission’s provisional recommendations for the West Midlands and specifically for Birmingham.

Introduction – Legislative Framework

By way of introduction, I know that I will not be the first to say that I think that the framework in which the Commission has been required to draw up its recommendations this time is both unreasonable and unfair.

The first thing to say is that using December 2015 as the reference point for assessing the size of the electorate is perhaps the worst of all possible dates. It comes after the disappearance of many thousands of voters following the introduction of individual registration and before the increase in voter registrations that we saw in the run up to the June 2016 referendum on the European Union.

Therefore, not only are the figures doubly out of date but they also dramatically underestimate the size of the electorate – not in the future, but now. Across the country, the numbers of electors missing from the Boundary Commission’s calculations as a result of using a December 2015 reference date runs into millions.

The second reason why the rules under which the Boundary Commission are operating are unfair is this. While I know Parliament did approve a cut in the number of MPs by 50, the fact is that the legislation which specified this was passed before the EU referendum. After Brexit, however, Parliament will be required to handle legislation and issues hitherto covered at European level as well as national level, so it is an odd time to be cutting the number of MPs.

The third reason why the whole framework for this review is wrong is that by curtailing the flexibility that the commission has hitherto had in determining the size of parliamentary constituencies to just 5% above or below the predetermined quota, arithmetic comes first. I know the Commission has and will try to continue to reflect communities’ ties and common sense in its proposals but through no fault of the Commission, at the end of the day arithmetic will trump that.

Al these things are to be regretted and it is why I and I know many of my colleagues will be seeking every parliamentary opportunity we can to get this whole process stopped. In the meantime, however, we are, to put it bluntly, stuck with it and I recognise that in relation to Birmingham the Commission has done its best to produce a configuration of boundaries that could work. I recognise that because of the primacy of arithmetic, it has had to look at a very different way of configuring constituencies.

The Commission’s Proposals for Birmingham

Up until now, constituencies in Birmingham have mainly been configured as blocs in and around Birmingham. Some of these have principally been inner city blocs, some principally outer city ones. Some, like Hodge Hill, have been a blend of the two.

Under the proposals the Boundary Commission recommends we move to a new model of longer and thinner constituencies, stretching from outer city areas to those closer to the centre. That is a different way of doing it and, in the case of my Birmingham Northfield constituency, my immediate thought was disappointment at potentially losing Weoley Ward (which has been part of Northfield for the 24 years in which I have been MP), and Kings Norton which has been part of the Northfield seat for the past 6 years.

But then I started to think about the proposals. One of the things that has been apparent to me throughout my time as an MP is that there is a quite a divide between inner and outer city which undermines community cohesion across Birmingham as a whole. It is something I raised in my main speech back in 1992 and sometimes it seems like it has got worse, not better, since then:

  • Using BCC figures 51.1% of Northfield’s population fall within the most deprived 20% of areas in England.
  • Life expectancy is below the English average.
  • According to figures published by the Birmingham Health and Wellbeing Board, only 14 % of Northfield’s population were made up of BME Groups. Across Birmingham it is 42%

By way of contrast, contrast, however, look also at the current Hall Green Constituency which the Boundary Commission suggests abolishing in this Review. 59.4% of its population also live within the most deprived 20% of areas in England. However, 64% of people living in the current Hall Green constituency are from Black and other Minority Ethnic groups.  Remember that the figure for Northfield constituency is 14%. In some wards in my constituency it is a lot lower than that.

The conclusion I draw from this is that real needs of people living in the inner city and in outer areas are often similar. What worries me for community cohesion is that often people who live in one area know about their own needs and the issues facing their communities, but little about those of other areas. They often simply do not know that people living in those other areas may face similar problems to those they face, and that they have similar hopes and fears to their own.

Often people also feel they are not listened to by policy makers. That kind of distrust and alienation from politics is bad for democracy. Worse than that, though, sometimes people tell me how they are convinced that people in other areas get more attention in policy terms than they do. Figures for ethnicity differences underline to you how that kind of feeling can damage community cohesion across the city.

So thinking about it, I am not sure that reinforcing those divisions in configuration of constituencies is necessarily a good thing. Maybe we should look to MPs having a balanced sense of communities across the city and of the hopes and fears of those different communities across, socio-economic groups. across religions and across ethnicities.

The Boundary Commission’s proposals have merit in configuring constituencies in a way that would promote that.  If you look at it that way, it isn’t necessarily a bad thing that:

  • The MP for Quinton ward should also represent Sparkbrook,
  • The MP for Longbridge ward (with a 10.8% BME population) should also represent Moseley and Kings Heath ward with its 38. % BME population.
  • Or that MP for Kings Norton ward should also represent people in Springfield ward.

If constituencies were indeed to be configured in this way, all MPs in Birmingham would be able to show from the experience of our own casework, of our own surgeries, that the hopes and fears that people have for their families are not necessarily that different across different communities and that all communities deserve to be listened to.

Of course, I am sure we all argue those things now, but maybe ensuring that each MP also personally represents people from different communities in different parts the city, gives those arguments grater force and more grounding.

So in conclusion

I would be sorry to lose Weoley and Kings Norton wards from Northfield constituency. However, I also know that the reason for this is arithmetic, not the choice of the Boundary Commission. I want to see this process scrapped altogether for the reasons I said at the start of my submission.

If we are to have a new format for constituencies, however, I can see community identities which the Boundary Commission is trying to reflect in wards they are being put together with in the new configuration of constituencies. As you have already heard, it’s the way the buses go and the new format does indeed resemble spokes on a wheel going into town.

In that context, linking Kings Heath to Brandwood, Billesely and onward into Springfield wards makes sense. Similarly linking Longbridge and Northfield to closer to centre of town via Bournville and Moseley and Kings Heath could make sense too.

The Conservatives have proposed as an alternative, that wards should be split. However, I see no compelling or exceptional reasons to split wards the Boundary Commission have made clear they would require if they were going to do so.

The current configuration of constituencies configured as blocks around the city has a logic to it, but it does not seem arithmetically possible to retain this with the new rules under which the Boundary Commission are required to operate. Under those circumstances, a “spokes on a wheel” configuration of constituencies does have merit for the reasons that I and others have argued. What certainly would not make sense is to have an overall configuration of long, thinner and balanced constituencies in Birmingham as the Boundary Commission suggest but then to adopt a different approach to the new Northfield constituency by cutting off the closer-to-city element of that new Northfield constituency constituency. It would make no sense to uniquely leave the new constituency with an entirely outer-city and predominantly monocultural character when other constituencies across the rest of Birmingham would be much more balanced in their ethnic and socio-economic make up.

 

Questions.

At the hearing, I was asked if I would be in favour of adding any areas to the new Birmingham Northfield Constituency proposed by the Boundary Commission. In reply I said that while there was no compelling reason to split wards to add areas of Birmingham to the new constituency, I was aware that the Labour Party nationally has suggested the addition of the Rubery ward from Bromsgrove to the new Northfield constituency for Parliamentary purposes. I said that if it made sense to the configuration of constituencies in Worcestershire and further afield to include Rubery in Northfield, and provided this kept the new seat within the size limit of constituencies, I would not object to this. The current Birmingham/Bromsgrove boundary at Rubery is quite arbitrary and there are already good community links between the Rubery Rednal area of Northfield constituency and Rubery village which is in Bromsgrove Constituency. Including Rubery village into Northfield would mean that the MP for Northfield would also represent some residents living in in the Bromsgrove Borough Council area as well as Birmingham residents. I said I did not think this would present a major problem as I already have to deal with Bromsgrove council, particularly on cross-border issues affecting the Frankley area of my constituency which sits on the Birmingham/Bromsgrove border.