Summary of responses to Boundaries Scotland’s proposals
The Committee asked residents of Orkney, Shetland, Highland, Western Isles, Argyll and Bute and North Ayrshire for their views on the recent Boundaries Scotland reviews and recommendations on electoral arrangements in their areas.
The online questionnaire was made available for only two weeks due to the tight legislative programme relating to the SSIs which must be approved by Parliament in order for the new arrangements to be in place before next year’s local elections.
Despite the short window, the Committee received over 150 responses from individuals and community councils from across all six local authority areas. The Committee received 5 Gaelic responses.
The Committee is keen to stress that this was not a survey; rather, the use of an online questionnaire was meant to ensure the Committee heard the views of as many interested people as possible.
The following summary is structured by local authority area, with most attention given to views from the Highland Council and Argyll and Bute Council areas where the majority of responses originated.
1. Highland Council area
The largest number of responses to the Committee’s online questionnaire – 75 completed responses - came from people living in the Highland Council area. This included responses from 15 community councils.
From the numbers received, the range of views expressed and the strength of feeling on display, this issue is clearly very important to many people across the Highland Council area.
A great number of respondents wrote about proposed changes to wards in the Wester Ross and Sutherland areas. However, the Committee also received views from people in Skye, Culloden and Loch Ness.
Views on the Boundaries Scotland recommendations
Almost all respondents – certainly over 90% - disagreed with Boundaries Scotland’s recommendations regarding ward changes in the Highland Council area. Of course, this was not a survey, and it is likely that residents who were either happy with the proposals or generally apathetic, may not have felt the need to respond to the Committee.
Wester Ross and Sutherland
There was a strong and consistent view expressed by many respondents that Highland Council is already “Inverness-centric”. The proposals – to reduce the current numbers of councillors in North West Sutherland and Wester Ross whilst increasing councillor numbers in the Inverness area – is seen as moving representation away from rural areas and increasing it in urban areas. For some, including one resident of Golspie there is a need for “proper representation for our areas and not being dictated to by Inverness”.
Transport challenges for rural councillors were highlighted by many respondents as being an important if unconsidered factor, with one long-term resident of Lochcarron describing how councillors serve their constituents in remote rural areas:
“Frequently to go from one west coast village to the next along the coast necessitates a trip to the east then back to the west on a different road, there are few direct routes. Given the area they serve I doubt if it could be covered adequately if the number of councillors is reduced.”
A number of respondents argued that a councillor representing an urban ward - “that can be walked across in 10 minutes” - is able to spend much more time representing their ward than a councillor who would struggle to drive across their ward in 2 hours. According to one respondent, “this creates a democratic deficit for the people living in rural and remote rural areas”.
As such, respondents felt that Boundaries Scotland’s recommendations did not take into account the unique geographical situation of Wester Ross as it “will be impossible for 2 councillors to cover our area”.
Interestingly, many respondents living in rural mainland areas, have picked-up on the policy intentions behind the 2018 Islands Act to argue that many of the challenges facing island communities are also experienced by residents of Wester Ross and Sutherland. As such, factors beyond parity which impact decisions on island wards should also apply to these mainland areas.
The Loch Ness area
A number of respondents, including some community councils, expressed concerns about the proposal to create a new boundary down the centre of Loch Ness, thus placing “the rural communities south of Loch Ness into a ward that is predominately suburban, with different interests, challenges and opportunities”. These neighbouring rural communities around the Loch – currently within the same Aird and Loch Ness ward - share many similar issues and challenges.
Staffin Community Council highlighted a number of concerns about proposed changes to how Skye is represented. They believe that the reduction in councillor numbers on the island – a reduction of one - goes against the aims of the Islands Act. This reduction could lead to a significant “democratic deficit” especially as the three councillors would have a significant “travel burden to and from Inverness” whilst also needing to “travel extensively throughout the area to attend meetings and other events”.
Impact of COVID-19 and possible population increases
A few respondents stated that much of the data used to calculate the current and future electorate numbers were made pre-COVID. They do not take into account the growing number of people attracted to rural areas since the pandemic changed working patterns. One resident of the Wick and East Caithness ward observed that:
“Over the Covid period it appears we have had more families moving in rather than leaving. In fact, it would seem that one result of the Covid pandemic was how it brought to the fore the feasibility of home/remote working and a consequent increase in demand for rural housing”.
Reducing councillor numbers in these areas is, according to some, “not sensible if trying to tackle depopulation”.
Views on the consultation process
Approximately three quarters of respondents in the Highland Council area were not happy with the consultation process.
Some felt that communities were not adequately consulted due to restrictions relating to the COVID-19 pandemic. It was felt there were very few public meetings, for example, and a number of respondents say they were not even aware that a consultation was underway: “it passed under many people's radar”. According to one respondent, poor internet coverage “means that the issue is not well known”.
Others said that the consultation period was too short and there should have been a more in-depth consultation with councillors on Highland Council. On this last point, one respondent observed that “the dialogue between the Commission and the Highland Council was confrontational”.
Some respondents suggested that the public consultation was a “token gesture”: “the decision had already been made and nothing could change it”. Whilst others noted there was no evidence to indicate how public views were incorporated into decision making. A common view was that the public were only consulted after decisions and proposals were finalised “with no option to amend or provide input and feedback. One community council, having responded in detail to the consultation, “heard nothing in response to any of the issues raised”.
Criteria used by Boundaries Scotland
Although many respondents felt Boundaries Scotland had adequately explained the criteria used in their decision-making, hardly anyone who responded to the questionnaire felt that it was the correct criteria.
Many respondents felt that the population to councillor ratio, and parity with other wards in the Highland Council area, should not be given priority when deciding on councillor numbers in large, remote-rural areas such as Sutherland. One Sutherland resident stated “population demographic is a blunt tool by which to judge the number of councillors we require” and the geography and connectivity of settlements is “a vital consideration that has been ignored”’. Community requirements and the issues of depopulation, scarcity of amenities, job opportunities and other social indicators should be considered before deciding to reduce councillor numbers.
Possible impacts of Boundaries Scotland’s recommendations
Respondents were asked about the possible impacts on their local areas should Boundaries Scotland’s recommendations be accepted and implemented.
One of the most common comments was that people and communities will be even more removed from political decision-making than before and will therefore disengage from politics. One respondent argued there will be less choice at election times, making voters more apathetic. Ardgay & District Community Council believe the “relevance of council elections could be compromised as folks feel 'there's no point'”.
With less being attention paid to issues unique to the rural areas of Wester Ross, Skye and Sutherland, one respondent stated, “people in the rural areas will think they have been abandoned and all the power is moving to Inverness”. And one life-long resident of Portree in Skye added:
“Any loss of representation means a smaller voice at Highland wide meetings where the bulk of decisions are taken and budgets are allocated.”
On a more personal level, it could become more difficult for individual constituents to speak to their councillor when seeking help with their problems. Many respondents therefore feel that the timing of these changes is unfortunate, as representation and a strong voice for remote, and sometimes “fragile” areas, is needed more than ever.
There could also be impacts on community councils as they may find it increasingly difficult to “channel queries and ideas upwards”, with community councils less likely to see a councillor at their meetings and “little chance of a councillor being anywhere near most of the villages in this vast area”. Coigach Community Council develop this point in further:
“We think under-representation would lead to a decline in investment by HC and our communities would become less sustainable. If councillors are not able to represent communities adequately we will become disempowered which is contrary to Scottish government aspirations. It is a real asset for community councils to be able to have direct links and conversations with councillors. A reduction in numbers is bound to impact on the time they have available for contact with community councils. Without the support of a councillor to flag up what is needed for a particular area funding will go to the hub, Inverness.”
2. Argyll and Bute Council
For the Argyll and Bute area, the Committee received 42 responses to the questionnaire, including one from Argyll and Bute Council itself. Like the Council, the vast majority of respondents were not happy with aspects of Boundaries Scotland’s recommendations.
Views on the Boundaries Scotland recommendations
Most of those expressing their concerns to the Committee were island residents.
For example, many respondents from Bute were concerned about the impact of the island becoming a two-member ward – it currently has three councillors. Respondents highlighted some of the challenges faced by the island in terms of an aging demographic, and also high levels of deprivation in its main town, Rothesay:
“This reduction in local councillors further reduces representation for Bute and for that representation to reflect the differing needs within our community.”
Boundaries Scotland’s recommendation for Coll is that it become part of a new, all-island ward with two councillors representing Mull-Iona-Coll-Tiree. This would replace the current 4 member ward in which three of its councillors are based in Oban and one in Mull. Coll Community Council believes that the likelihood is that in future both members will be elected from Mull, and it is more difficult for a councillor from Mull to travel to Coll and Tiree, than it is from Oban to Coll.
A number of respondents from Islay expressed concerns about their island becoming part of the new, island-only, Islay, Jura and Colonsay ward. For example, Islay Community Council stated:
“We believe that the recommendation to reduce our Councillors to two and to restrict boundaries to island only would narrow our horizons, risk exclusion from important issues that affect us all and reduce the collective strength of our voice within Argyll & Bute Council.”
Questions were raised about the appropriateness of making changes to wards and councillor numbers at this moment in time:
“Now is not the time to put more stress on to members trying to serve their community.”
“I don't see why the applecart needs to be upset. We are very content with the current arrangement, which we feel meets our needs as a community.”
There were also concerns about two-member wards being too small: “in the past the multi councillor ward arrangement was introduced to give people fairer, more proportional representation and to stop Councillors being elected unopposed”.
Boundaries Scotland consultation process
Again, the majority of Argyll and Bute respondents expressed some concerns about the consultation process, with the most common complaint being that few people were aware of it. Or if they were aware, it was not until “the last minute”. Furthermore, many respondents questioned the wisdom of holding a consultation during a pandemic, for example with no public meetings being permitted.
Some also stated that there was not enough information available on why the consultation was taking place.
A sitting councillor for Islay stated his belief that: “local Community Councils were ignored….In ward two, six Community Councils are vocally against these proposed changes yet Boundaries Scotland pressed on with these changes regardless.”
This was also raised by a number of respondents, who felt that their views were received but then basically ignored.
Possible impacts of Boundaries Scotland’s recommendations
Respondents were asked what they thought the impact of Boundaries Scotland’s recommendations could be.
As with other local authority areas, many respondents felt that having fewer councillors in rural areas would lead to more strain on existing councillors; more work, more travel, making it more difficult for them to do their jobs. Furthermore, with fewer opportunities to engage, there will be fewer opportunities for islands and other rural communities to make their cases:
“The changes will be very negative as we on the Islands will have fewer people shouting for us and we will be more isolated from the mainland.”
Three respondents reminded the Committee that the aim of the Islands Act was to strengthen the voice of islands. However, in their view, Boundaries Scotland has:
“miss-interpreted the islands act. The islands should have more power but this will give us less power with less councillors.”
Those living on the Isle of Coll fear their representation will be “dominated by the Isle of Mull, which is very different from Coll, and we will therefore have less representation than we currently have”.
As mentioned before, concerns were raised about what changes could mean for the Isle of Bute, especially with Rothesay categorised as an area of economic deprivation.
Islay Community Council reported that it discussed the recommendations at an open meeting and had unanimously agreed that the Boundaries Scotland proposals would not be in the best interests of the community:
“Instead, we would like to retain 'status quo'. We also have written support for this view from Jura Community Council and from Tarbert & Skipness Community Council, as well as that of our current three Argyll & Bute Councillors.”
3. Na h-Eileanan an Iar Council
The Committee received 25 responses from people living in Na h-Eileanan an Iar / Western Isles, including one from the Council itself. As the Committee heard in evidence from senior official, Derek Mackay, the Council is generally content with both the recommendations and the consultation process.
Views on the Boundaries Scotland recommendations
Although the Council itself was generally satisfied with the recommendations, around two thirds of respondents to the Committee’s questionnaire were less convinced. People living in Eriskay, South Uist & Benbecula were particularly concerned. Many believe that the changes would lead to a reduction in representation for South Uist and Benbecula. Others asked why Barra and North Uist were to get their own wards, but not South Uist and Benbecula
Boundaries Scotland consultation process
Approximately two thirds of respondents had concerns about the consultation process. Some highlighted the lack of community meetings (due to COVID-related restrictions). Others highlighted a perceived lack of communication and awareness, with many feeling that the public consultation was not sufficiently advertised.
Possible impacts of Boundary Scotland’s recommendations
Some respondents believed that the proposals will lead to a weakened voice for the southern islands: “we will become under-represented and the focus of change in our area will be to the north of the ward”.
Particular concerns were expressed about Benbecula, as the focus of the council could be on Lewis and Harris, leading to “more bad decisions being made that negatively affect services in our [southern] islands”.
One respondent highlighted the danger of increased friction between communities:
“…you're basically taking a councillor from South Uist and giving the job to someone from Barra and taking one from Benbecula and giving it to North Uist leaving the area of the largest community buyout with less representation than before.”
4. Shetland Council area
The Committee received only three responses from people living in the Shetland Council area. One was happy with the proposals and two were not.
One of those expressing concerns felt that Shetland West – which currently has 3 councillors - could be at a disadvantage as it would be challenging for 2 councillors to share out Ward representation at all the Council's various committees. With 3 Member Wards this was more achievable and realistic:
“This change may result in Shetland West ward having no presentation on some Council committees in future, and therefore potentially may not be able to help with decision making on key decisions affecting the area.”
5. Orkney Council area
The Committee received only five responses from people living in the Orkney Council area. Three were happy with the proposals and two were not. Of those expressing concerns, one felt the changes produce an “obvious urban bias”, whilst the other felt there are too many councillors in Orkney Council.
6. North Ayrshire area – relating to Arran
The Committee received five responses from the North Ayrshire area including one from the Council itself. As the Committee read in recent correspondence, the Council is generally satisfied with Boundaries Scotland’s recommendations and the way the consultation was conducted
The four members of the public who responded to the Committee argued that Arran should not be a one-member ward: “Arran needs more representatives not fewer”. There were concerns that Arran residents will be unique in Scotland in that they will not have the benefits of a multi-member ward:
“Arran should fairly be represented by two councillors as the provision of a single councillor fails to provide Arran's citizens with their right to choice.”
When asked about the possible impact of these proposals, people were concerned that a single councillor could not possibly represent the views of the entire island, which, as one respondent pointed out is 46% of the total North Ayrshire Council landmass. Respondents fear that the proposals will mean Arran is underrepresented and “vulnerable to one individual’s views and preferences”.