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Chamber and committees

Meeting date: Tuesday, September 28, 2021

Local Government, Housing and Planning Committee 28 September 2021

Agenda: Decision on Taking Business in Private, Local Government, Housing and Planning, Subordinate Legislation (Electoral Boundaries)


Contents


Subordinate Legislation (Electoral Boundaries)

The third item on our agenda today is an evidence session on six sets of draft regulations on changes to local authority electoral boundaries in council areas containing inhabited islands. The council areas concerned are: Comhairle nan Eilean Siar, Orkney Islands Council, Shetland Islands Council, Highland Council, Argyll and Bute Council and North Ayrshire Council. Boundaries Scotland has reviewed the ward boundaries within those local authority areas and has published reports containing recommendations for alterations. The Scottish Government has, via the regulations that we are considering today, presented the recommendations for Parliamentary scrutiny.

I welcome to the meeting the Deputy First Minister and Cabinet Secretary for Covid Recovery, John Swinney. I also welcome from the Scottish Government Maria McCann, head of elections team; Kenny Pentland, senior policy officer, elections; and Craig McGuffie, who joins us virtually, and is a lawyer for the Scottish Government.

We will take evidence from the Deputy First Minister before moving to a formal debate on each of the six instruments in turn. I invite the cabinet secretary to make a short opening statement on the draft regulations.

Thank you very much, convener, and good morning. I am pleased to be here today to present the electoral arrangements regulations for the six council areas that contain inhabited islands.

The regulations give effect to the proposals submitted to me by Boundaries Scotland, and I have a legal duty to lay them before Parliament. The Scottish Elections (Reform) Act 2020 removed ministerial discretion to reject or modify the commission’s proposals. Instead, the decision to implement Boundaries Scotland’s proposals rests entirely with Parliament.

It is vital for local democracy and local service delivery that councils are as representative as possible of the communities that they serve, and regular reviews of council wards and councillor numbers are necessary to ensure that they reflect changes in population. Those reviews have been held under the Islands (Scotland) Act 2018, which offers additional flexibility to Boundaries Scotland to create wards that elect one or two councillors in areas that contain inhabited islands, as well as the two, three, four or five councillor wards permitted elsewhere in Scotland.

I am aware of the opposition of Highland Council and Argyll and Bute Council to some aspects of the proposals and that their representatives have asked the committee not to recommend approval of the instruments.

There will, of course, be differing opinions on the final recommendations, but I am pleased to hear that, in almost every case, the consultation process was meaningful and that elected members and communities, for the most part, felt that their voices had been heard. I am confident that Boundaries Scotland has discharged its duties competently and professionally, and there would need to be very strong reasons for rejecting its recommendations.

I hope that those comments were helpful. I am of course happy to answer any questions that members might have.

We do indeed have a few questions, and I will start with some on Boundaries Scotland’s recommendations. Do you think that reducing council representation in remote rural areas such as the north and west Highlands will be detrimental to repopulation efforts?

The issues are related, because one of the fundamental considerations that statute requires Boundaries Scotland to adhere to is the question of electoral parity between different localities. Of course, the other principal pillar of the framework required by statute is locality itself, which Boundaries Scotland has to take due account of. On the question of parity with regard to the population composition of wards, the more sparsely populated an area, the greater the amount of land and degree of rurality that will have to be considered as part of the settlements.

Frankly, there is no easy answer to this. I suspect that the challenges of representing a large geographical area are different nowadays; as someone who represents a large rural area, I have found that a different approach has had to be taken in light of the pandemic. In my 23 years of representing the communities that I represent, I had never had a single videoconference with a constituent. I am now doing that every week of the year, and it has suddenly dawned on me that it is more convenient for many of my constituents to have that conversation with me remotely instead of our having to travel endless distances to see each other. There are ways round that particular challenge.

On your very significant question about the repopulation of sparsely populated areas, that is a policy objective in its own right that carries merit, and it should be reflected in Parliament’s decisions about the composition of wards where the volume of population merits such an approach in applying the statutory principle of parity among wards.

When we lose representation in such areas, there is no one to advocate for public services and so on. In the case of Highland, for example, if we push everything towards Inverness, we lose not only those voices but the infrastructure of people, services, roads and so on that would encourage people to come back and live in those places.

10:45  

There are different ways of looking at the question. Fundamentally, it is the duty of the whole of Highland Council to think about those issues, as it is the duty of the Scottish Government to think about the issues and take policy decisions that support the repopulation of those areas.

I am not certain that the composition of the council and the policy decisions that are taken necessarily lead to questions being asked about the availability of public services in particular localities. Given the strategic importance of the repopulation issue, it is for Highland Council, NHS Highland, the Government and various other public bodies to take those decisions in a way that advances such questions, rather than seeing repopulation as being driven by the nature of or the arrangements for electoral representation in a locality. It would reflect pretty badly on any public authority if it was not taking the steps that could be taken to support repopulation, if that was a policy objective.

What has come to light through our taking evidence has been interesting. It seems as though there is a common factor between Highland Council and Argyll and Bute Council. North Ayrshire Council said that it was very happy with the outcome, but both Highland Council and Argyll and Bute Council have a large mainland area and islands, and given that remote rural areas on the mainland are facing the same challenges that face island communities, the question that has arisen is whether remote mainland areas should be treated in the same way as islands are treated when changes in democratic representation are being decided.

That an interesting question. I am struck by the fact that there are mainland areas that, in many respects, have some of the same characteristics that islands have. The Rannoch area in highland Perthshire, which I represent, is essentially an island on the mainland. There is one route into the Rannoch area, and one route out. At the other end, there is obviously a way out, but it is a long walk that is not for the faint hearted. The route in is not dissimilar to one that would be used to access an island. There are similarities that perhaps need to be reflected on, and it is within the Parliament’s scope to ensure that the statute reflects that important point.

With regard to the nature of the statutory framework in which Boundaries Scotland operates, I come back to the point that I made in my first answer. There are two pillars to the analysis that Boundaries Scotland undertakes: the question of parity and the question of locality. I know that Boundaries Scotland attaches significant importance to maintaining the cohesion that one would ordinarily think should be in place when it comes to the nature of localities.

I will expand on the issue of the Islands (Scotland) Act 2018, which has been mentioned. The intention of the act was to empower island communities. Some of the feedback that we got from Highland Council was about the reduction of representation on islands such as Bute and Skye. What are your views on that issue?

As I think the committee has heard from Boundaries Scotland, the questions with which Boundaries Scotland has to wrestle are driven by internationally strong practices around the nature and configuration of electoral wards. Boundaries Scotland needs to apply those considerations principally around the question of electoral parity with an understanding of the geographical entity and community that they are addressing and considering.

It is important that, as Boundaries Scotland undertakes that work, it engages substantively with local communities. I am satisfied that Boundaries Scotland has done that to good effect. Its ability to do that with regard to the Highland Council provisions might have been enhanced, had there been greater co-operation with Highland Council. However, in the other local authority areas, as the committee has heard for itself, there has been feedback from communities about the value of the dialogue that was facilitated by the approaches that were taken. It is important that Boundaries Scotland listens carefully to the feedback from island communities and recognises their distinctive characteristics. In the case of a number of proposals, communities are very satisfied with the arrangements that have been proposed.

Thanks for that. My next question is more specific. Arran will be the only one-member ward in Scotland. Arran takes up 46 per cent of North Ayrshire Council’s land mass. What is your view on that specific issue?

I think that that is a pragmatic proposal by Boundaries Scotland. Since we formed the Government in 2007, I have chaired the convention of the Highlands and Islands, which includes North Ayrshire Council as Arran and Cumbrae are part of the territory covered by Highlands and Islands Enterprise. The importance of viewing Arran as a distinctive entity was a point successfully advanced by North Ayrshire Council within the convention of the Highlands and Islands and a variety of other policy fora.

That approach acknowledges that that community is affected by a very specific set of issues around the delivery of public services—I refer back to the valid questions that the convener raised with me. Fundamentally, those are about the delivery on Arran, the maximisation of the connections between public services and the important connections between that community and access to public services on the mainland.

The approach proposed by Boundaries Scotland reflects, I think, the nature of that island community. It recognises its distinctiveness and the fact that so much of life is interlinked on that island and, frankly, has very little to do with what is happening on the mainland. Crucially, it provides a role for a representative of that island to advocate for the connections between the island of Arran and the mainland. That is an example of where Boundaries Scotland has looked carefully at the distinctive circumstances and come up with what is—as Mr McLennan fairly puts to me—a unique proposition.

Elena Whitham will introduce a new theme.

Good morning, Deputy First Minister.

I want to explore how Boundaries Scotland calculates total and ward councillor allocations. What are the benefits of having similar voter to councillor ratios across all wards in a council area? Would variations in the voter to councillor ratio have an impact on effective and convenient local government?

The first point is to recognise that the idea of parity of electorates is not uniquely Scottish. Boundaries Scotland made that point to the committee. It is a well-established international principle in design of electoral areas. Given its international standing, I am not surprised that that principle has been a consistent part of the statutory framework that has supported Boundaries Scotland since its conception in 1973 as the Local Government Boundary Commission for Scotland. In essence, the arrangements flow from application of that principle.

However, of course, that principle is not applied in an absolute sense; provision is nowhere near identical in individual wards. There is an attempt to get as close as possible to parity, as I would describe it, but in some circumstances that cannot be achieved, because of geographical factors—for example, population sparsity—or factors that might prevail when we take into account the essential element of connections between communities, which is the other principle under which Boundaries Scotland operates.

Parity is an understandable characteristic of our electoral arrangements, but I do not think that it can be deployed on an absolute basis, because of variation in communities.

In looking at the matter from another angle, the Electoral Reform Society has said that more emphasis needs to be placed on local community needs than on electoral parity among diverse wards in a local authority area. What are your views on that?

That is quite a difficult matter to resolve, because of the decisions that have been taken. The statute on the composition of Scottish Parliament constituencies has put in place particular arrangements for Na h’ Eileanan an Iar, Orkney and Shetland because of their distinctive island characteristics. That does not apply to any other constituency in the country. There is a place for specific measures of that nature—indeed, the point that Paul McLennan put to me about Arran is an example of how that has been deployed by Boundaries Scotland.

There will be a requirement for electorates to vary in size, because of the locality factor. However, if we were to do that in all circumstances, we would create very varied parliamentary constituencies and local authority wards, which would be unsustainable, given the necessity to ensure that Parliament and local authorities are representative of the areas that they are designed to represent.

Thank you for that. We will move to a new theme, which I invite Miles Briggs to bring in.

Good morning, Deputy First Minister and other panel members. I have a few questions on the consultation process—specifically, on how it has been conducted, given the Covid-19 pandemic. It has not been possible to hold in-person public meetings and, as the committee has found, in many communities internet access is not wonderful. What are your views on the consultation process?

Boundaries Scotland will have explained to the committee the specifics of its consultation process. The committee has also heard testimony from a range of representatives from local authorities and communities, who have expressed their satisfaction at the nature of the engagement process. I am therefore confident that Boundaries Scotland has, notwithstanding the challenges of Covid, been able to undertake effective consultation.

I have been quite struck by my experience over the past 18 months. Until the election, I had the great privilege of policy responsibility for nurturing the Gaelic language. I held a number of extensive stakeholder discussions about the Gaelic language, which included representatives from, in the main, the remote and rural areas of Scotland. I have two observations about that.

First, connectivity was actually pretty good. I was very pleased with it, and we had good conversations. Secondly, through engaging in digital dialogue I encountered more people and was able to interact more conveniently with them than would have been the case had I gone on the road. Nothing would have brought me more joy than to go and sit in community halls in the Western Isles or north-west Sutherland to conduct face-to-face public meetings, but I would probably have interacted with fewer people if I had done that. Instead, while I sat at home in Perthshire I had on the line countless representatives who were able to interact directly with me, and for longer because I did not have to think about travel time and all the rest of it.

11:00  

It is swings and roundabouts, but I am certainly satisfied that Boundaries Scotland has done nothing but undertake an effective consultation process.

Island community impact assessments have been highlighted to the committee. What advice did the Scottish Government give Boundaries Scotland on undertaking those assessments? Is the Scottish Government satisfied that no separate impact assessments were required?

Island impact assessments are part of the statutory framework, so an organisation must consider whether, in its judgment, the nature of the approach that it takes satisfies the statutory requirement. It is therefore for Boundaries Scotland to come to a conclusion on that question.

The work that Boundaries Scotland undertook on the issue inevitably required it to wrestle with the question of islands impact assessments, as we have heard. In all its undertakings it considered the implications for representation and for engaging and involving members of the community. I am satisfied that Boundaries Scotland was able to pursue that framework in its work. Of course, advice that it would seek from the Government on the question would be given within the context of the statutory framework.

On the part of the Islands (Scotland) Act 2018 that has led to the review, are you content that different boundaries will be used for island councils than would be used on the mainland? In respect of the principles behind a review that will come forward post council elections, there will, if the regulations are approved by Parliament, be variations in council wards for the elections.

Yes. If Parliament approves the propositions we will, essentially, be giving effect to processes that originated in the 2018 act. That was envisaged by the act, which expressly acknowledges, as is right, that we might have different arrangements for different communities. Boundaries Scotland has considered the point; if Parliament approves the propositions to take those steps, it is perfectly within the statutory framework for such arrangements to be put in place for the local authority elections.

For completeness, I should say that I cannot conceive, in the circumstance that Parliament does not approve the regulations, of how alternative propositions could be put in place in advance of the 2022 local authority elections. There is not sufficient time.

I invite colleagues who are joining us virtually to come in. Mark Griffin has questions.

The Deputy First Minister’s previous answer has led to my question, which is about what will happen next. He has set out this morning, and previously in writing, the Government’s obligation to lay the regulations. What is the Government’s position on the proposals? Is it satisfied with all of them? What would its proposed course of action be if the Parliament chose to reject some, or all, of the Scottish statutory instruments? What would be the potential timetable for revised proposals, and would it align with a wider review of mainland local authorities?

There are two aspects to Mr Griffin’s questions. The first is my view of the individual proposals. Mr Griffin will know that I am not a minister who avoids questions, but I will avoid that question because statute expressly takes ministers out of a review role in the process. Parliament has decided that, so it is important that I do not express a view on whether a proposal is right or wrong. Parliament has decided that ministers should be removed from a review role; I should respect that.

The second question was about what would happen if Parliament was to reject any of the statutory instruments. Let me get the sequence correct. If the committee did not recommend approval, I would, obviously, in the light of the committee not being prepared to support an instrument, look at the decision and would likely seek Parliament’s leave to withdraw it. That would be the appropriate step for the Government to take. I would then refer the matter back to Boundaries Scotland.

It is unlikely that Boundaries Scotland could undertake and complete the process, and that Parliament could consider revised proposals from Boundaries Scotland, before the 2022 local authority elections. The Gould principles, which came into force after the challenges that we faced in the 2007 Scottish parliamentary and local authority elections, recommended that there be no change to arrangements within six months of an electoral contest. For elections in early May, that brings us back to November. I hate to remind colleagues how close that is, although they might feel that it is getting closer, given the temperature this morning. There is no way that the work could be done by Boundaries Scotland and completed by Parliament before November, so changes that Parliament did not support would have to be left until after the elections.

On the impact of that on wider boundaries activities, I would have to consider what other issues we are putting to Boundaries Scotland. My recollection is that there is some upcoming work that it is required to do. I ask Maria McCann to give me some assistance on that.

Local authority reviews are now in a rolling programme. Boundaries Scotland plans to carry out reviews in batches of about six, because that seems to have worked well. One of the real benefits that has emerged from the rolling programme, which has been mentioned by Boundaries Scotland and some local authorities, is the ability to have better consultation and interactions. That has been positive.

Boundaries Scotland also has responsibility for the Scottish Parliament boundary reviews; that work will commence in 2022. It is considering the programme and how to take forward both responsibilities. Work on any of the boundary reviews that are before the committee would have to be programmed in, as well.

We have had a significant number of responses to our call for views. I want to explore a couple of views that have come in in relation to Highland and Argyll and Bute. In her submission to us, Margaret Davidson, who is the leader of Highland Council stated:

“we are strongly of the view that the changes proposed by Boundaries Scotland fails to recognise the specific Highland context, particularly in relation to parity, sparsity, rurality and deprivation and, if implemented, would result in a significant democratic deficit for the Highlands.”

A number of respondents from Islay expressed concerns about their island becoming part of the new, islands-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.”

Will you respond to those comments, Deputy First Minister?

I recognise the importance of the issues that Elena Whitham raises, but I come back to the point that I made to Mark Griffin. Ministers have been taken out of the statutory process, so it is important that I act in a fashion that accepts that decision.

There is no easy answer to any of those questions. To highlight the challenge in such issues, I go back to the question that Paul McLennan put to me on the situation in Arran. Arran seems to be quite pleased about having an island-only representative who can fight the corner for Arran locally, within North Ayrshire Council and with other public bodies, whereas the community in Islay takes a different view. I can sit here and argue the merits of both cases. There can be different approaches and perspectives.

On the situation in Highland Council, I go back to my exchange with the convener at the outset about some of the issues in relation to Highland. There is a duty on local authorities, as there is on the Government, to make necessary and appropriate policy interventions that meet the needs of localities. It should never come down just to what is said on a locality’s behalf by a local elected member for that locality. It is a question of how Highland Council can reach all of Highland and do the right thing by all of Highland, rather than only doing the right thing by a particular locality because its voice is strong enough. That is not representative democracy and that is not how we listen to communities or respond to the agendas about which they are concerned.

I will not give a specific view on the merits of individual proposals, but those are the general sentiments of which public authorities need to be mindful when they are coming to their conclusions.

Willie Coffey would like to ask a question and is joining us virtually.

Willie has had connectivity issues all morning; we seem to have lost him. We will have to move on. That is a converse example of what you talked about earlier, Deputy First Minister. Thank you for responding to our questions.


Na h-Eileanan an Iar (Electoral Arrangements) Regulations 2021 [Draft]

We move on to the fourth item on our agenda. I invite the Deputy First Minister to move motion S6M-00961.

Motion moved,

That the Local Government, Housing and Planning Committee recommends that the Na h-Eileanan an Iar (Electoral Arrangements) Regulations 2021 [draft] be approved.—[John Swinney]

Motion agreed to.

11:15  


Orkney Islands (Electoral Arrangements) Regulations 2021 [Draft]

Agenda item 5 is consideration of motion S6M-00960.

Motion moved,

That the Local Government, Housing and Planning Committee recommends that the Orkney Islands (Electoral Arrangements) Regulations 2021 [draft] be approved.—[John Swinney]

Motion agreed to.


Shetland Islands (Electoral Arrangements) Regulations 2021 [Draft]

Agenda item 6 is consideration of motion S6M-00959.

Motion moved,

That the Local Government, Housing and Planning Committee recommends that the Shetland Islands (Electoral Arrangements) Regulations 2021 [draft] be approved.—[John Swinney]

Motion agreed to.


Highland (Electoral Arrangements) Regulations 2021 [Draft]

Agenda item 7 is consideration of motion S6M-00974.

Motion moved,

That the Local Government, Housing and Planning Committee recommends that the Highland (Electoral Arrangements) Regulations 2021 [draft] be approved.—[John Swinney]

The question is, that the motion be agreed to. Are we all agreed?

Members: No.

There will be a division.

Against

Miles Briggs (Lothian) (Con)
Ariane Burgess (Highlands and Islands) (Green)
Willie Coffey (Kilmarnock and Irvine Valley) (SNP)
Meghan Gallacher (Central Scotland) (Con)
Mark Griffin (Central Scotland) (Lab)
Paul McLennan (East Lothian) (SNP)
Elena Whitham (Carrick, Cumnock and Doon Valley) (SNP)

The result of the division is: For 0, Against 7, Abstentions 0.

Motion disagreed to.


Argyll and Bute (Electoral Arrangements) Regulations 2021 [Draft]

Agenda item 8 is consideration of motion S6M-00973.

Motion moved,

That the Local Government, Housing and Planning Committee recommends that the Argyll and Bute (Electoral Arrangements) Regulations 2021 [draft] be approved.—[John Swinney]

Do members have any comments?

First, I want to record our thanks to Boundaries Scotland. It is important that we recognise the substantial work that it has undertaken.

However, from the correspondence that I and, I know, all committee members have received, I am aware that there are still real concerns about the proposals for Argyll and Bute and Highland. With that in mind, I suggest that we reject this set of boundary changes.

The question is, that the motion be agreed to. Are we all agreed?

Members: No.

There will be a division.

Against

Miles Briggs (Lothian) (Con)
Ariane Burgess (Highlands and Islands) (Green)
Willie Coffey (Kilmarnock and Irvine Valley) (SNP)
Meghan Gallacher (Central Scotland) (Con)
Mark Griffin (Central Scotland) (Lab)
Paul McLennan (East Lothian) (SNP)
Elena Whitham (Carrick, Cumnock and Doon Valley) (SNP)

The result of the division is: For 0, Against 7, Abstentions 0.

Motion disagreed to.


North Ayrshire (Electoral Arrangements) Regulations 2021 [Draft]

Agenda item 9 is consideration of motion S6M-00975.

Motion moved,

That the Local Government, Housing and Planning Committee recommends that the North Ayrshire (Electoral Arrangements) Regulations 2021 [draft] be approved.—[John Swinney]

Motion agreed to.

Are members content to delegate to me signing off of the report?

Members indicated agreement.

I thank the cabinet secretary and his officials for joining us in person for this evidence-taking session.

11:20 Meeting suspended.  

11:21 On resuming—  


Town and Country Planning (Cairnryan Border Control Posts) (EU Exit) (Scotland) Special Development Amendment Order 2021 (SSI 2021/293)

Agenda item 10 is consideration of two Scottish statutory instruments. Members have no comments; do we agree that we wish to make no recommendations in relation to them?

Members indicated agreement.

We move into private session.

11:22 Meeting continued in private until 11:53.