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Maidstone council will stick with elections by one thirds after Boundary Commission Review

Maidstone Borough Council is to continue with its system of electing its councillors one third at the time, despite a recurring suggestions that it should follow Tonbridge and Malling's example and elect the full council in one go every four years.

There are, however, changes on the way.

Councillor Annabelle Blackmore
Councillor Annabelle Blackmore

In November last year, Maidstone council invited the Local Government Boundary Commission to examine the borough's current division of wards.

Councillors were concerned that ward boundaries had not been reviewed since the year 2000 and that with housing growth in some areas, differences were opening up in the number of electors being represented by each councillor.

Eight wards currently vary from the average by more than 10% - and one ward, Park Wood, by as much as 26%.

The commission will seek to rearrange ward boundaries so as to equate as near as possible the number of electors represented by each councillor (the average is currently around 3,500).

Any re-alignment of ward boundaries, which is likely to come into effect in 2024, will mean that a new full-council election will need to be held that year.

Cllr Clive English
Cllr Clive English

But after that, councillors intend to return to electing one third at the time each year for three years.

The decision will pose a problem, because the boundary commission takes the view that the current system is unfair.

Maidstone has a mix of one, two and three member wards.

That means voters in three-member wards such as Fant and High Street get to cast their ballot three times every four years, whereas voters in one-member wards such as Downswood and Loose can only do so once every four years.

The Boundary Commission will automatically recast all wards as three-member seats, and will have to be persuaded there is a good argument for doing otherwise.

Cllr John Perry
Cllr John Perry

The issue was last debated by the council's democracy and general purposes committee, and members' views divided on party lines.

Tory councillors thought a change to a four-yearly cycle would be preferable. Lib Dem, Labour and Independent members thought the opposite.

Cllr Annabellle Blackmore (Con) pointed to their officer's report that suggested that full council elections could save an average of £33,000 a year over four years, in the cost of holding the polls.

She said that with a need for the council to save every penny, it was "quite upsetting" that some members wanted "to hold on to their sacred cows."

But Cllr Clive English (Lib Dem) said that the analysis did not include the full costs. He warned that full council elections, with the potential for bringing in many more new faces could result in costs to the council as a result of decisions made by inexperienced councillors - particularly in the planning and licensing functions.

Cllr Martin Cox
Cllr Martin Cox

Cllr John Perry (Con) was opposed to continuing with elections by thirds, because after the review, his two-member ward of Staplehurst with its historic boundaries, could find itself "artificially extended" to accommodate there councillors.

Cllr English warned that full council elections were not necessarily more democratic - because all parties would find it difficult to secure "acceptable candidates" for all 55 seats.

He said that the last time there had been a full council election (in 2002 after the previous boundary review), he and his two fellow Liberal Democrat members for the High Street ward had been returned unopposed because none of the other parties could field a candidate.

Cllr Martin Cox (Lib Dem) said that election by thirds in three member wards would increase democracy, because each year, voters would have the chance to comment on how they thought their council was doing, while still maintaining a level of stability and experience.

He said: "We can see the chops and changes that occur with full-body elections in our National Government."

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