Tory council leader planned “politically advantageous” boundary changes

A recording of a Conservative local council leader has been leaked, appearing to reveal the councillor planning boundary changes that would be “politically advantageous” to the Tory Party.

Caught on a recording of a private Conservative Party meeting earlier this year, Havering Council leader Damian White has been accused of having “manipulated” the council’s submission to the Local Government Boundary Commission (LGBC).

Local Labour MP Jon Cruddas told LabourList that it was “blatant corruption”. He said it undermined the process of redrawing ward boundaries to make them more equal, and argued that the Tory councillors should be “subject to a full investigation”.

The council made its submission to the LGBC in March, which is currently conducting a three-year programme of reviews of all London boroughs to ensure that each local councillor represents approximately the same number of voters.

White was heard saying that “we’ve come up with a set of proposals that I think are really politically advantageous for us” and that the local authority’s most senior officer had allowed him to “influence the proposals”.

As reported in the Romford Recorder, the recording was leaked to the Havering Residents’ Association and captured the Tory group of councillors planning to:

  • Use council procedure to throw out council officers’ proposals and replace them with new ones masterminded by the Conservatives;
  • Group non-Conservative voters together in wards with more than the ideal number of residents, while spreading Tory voters across a greater number of wards with smaller populations;
  • Ensure Conservative majority wards are the ones picked to have three council representatives, while wards less likely to vote Tory are only given two; and
  • Use the changes to split unpopular developments in Romford between different wards, to minimise their impact on the Tory vote.

The HRA said it showed that the Tories had “manipulated” the proposal “to control wards and resident numbers to their own political advantage… through the restriction and prevention of debate on other options”.

White is heard telling the group “for these four walls” that chief executive Andrew Blake-Herbert had “agreed for some reason to allow me to influence the proposals and, erm, I’ve been able to”.

It also reveals the Conservative council group discussing how civil servants had drawn up options, but that the Tory-controlled governance committee could “filter” them before they would be considered by all councillors at full council.

White is heard saying that he will allow the Conservative councillors to “pick the one we like”, make the adjustments that they want and then put it forward for consideration at a full council meeting.

Commenting on the recording and the actions of the council leader, Cruddas said: “These revelations reveal an abuse of power we always suspected and I raised at the last election.

“The content of the leaked recording undermines the entire boundary change process leaving the existing proposals null and void – the process must be started again.

“Impartiality of the commission has been completely compromised by the council leader, and if his quotes are accurate, Andrew Rosindell MP and the chief executive of Havering Council have also had a hand in gerrymandering.

“This blatant corruption must be taken further as it subverts the democratic process. The Havering Conservatives should be subject to a full investigation and I will be writing to the boundary commission and raising with the government to ensure there are no cover-ups.”

Shadow Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government Steve Reed tweeted that the Conservatives had been “caught out in a secret bid to rig election boundaries” and added that an “urgent investigation” was needed.

In the submission made earlier this year, the council has recommended that the number of councillors be increased to 56 and create four new wards, with some wards to be represented by two councillors and some by three.

The commission has a legal duty to carry out electoral reviews of each council, and Havering has not been reviewed since 1999. It had therefore decided to complete this review before the next elections in the authority in 2022.

The LGBC has said that it cannot act on the recording. A spokesperson said: “The allegations are about the motives behind a submission. This is not something the commission takes into account when analysing submissions.”

Independent Havering councillor Bob Perry described the actions and comments by council leader White as “morally wrong”. Perry was formerly a Conservative councillor in the borough.

He told LabourList that the boundary commission had said the matter should be dealt with by the standards committee within the council, but Perry said that this had been abolished in 2015.

The draft boundary changes for the local authority are due to be published later this month, after which point local residents in the borough will have ten weeks to respond to the proposals.

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