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Fewer councillors and elections every four years a possibility for Maidstone council in ward boundary review

There will be a whole-borough election for all the seats on Maidstone council together in 2024.

The move will be a break from the current arrangement where one third of the councillors are elected each year (with one year fallow, when the KCC elections occur).

There might be fewer councillors in Maidstone Town Hall after 2024
There might be fewer councillors in Maidstone Town Hall after 2024

The move will be an inevitable result of a decision by the council's democracy and general purposes committee to ask the Local Government Boundary Commission to carry out a review of ward boundaries.

What is not yet decided is whether after 2024 the borough will change to holding one election every four years or slip back to electing one third of the council at a time.

Councillors were told that a review of ward boundaries ought to be carried out if 30% of wards had a variance of greater than 10% in the ratio of electors per councillor from the average across the borough.

Maidstone met that threshold because eight of the 26 wards currently varied by more than 10% from the average.

In addition, in one ward - Park Wood - the variance was as much as 26%.

Ryan O'Connell, democratic services manager
Ryan O'Connell, democratic services manager

The commission would 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).

Members also heard that a review should be carried out at least every 14 years - and Maidstone hadn't had one for 20 years.

But there would be consequences, the council's democratic and electoral services manager Ryan O'Connell warned.

The commission now considered it unfair that with election by thirds, some wards got to vote each year and some didn't.

So if the council wanted to stay with election by thirds, it was likely the commission would want to rearrange all the wards into large units represented by three members, so that every ward would vote at each election for one of its three representatives.

Mark Green, the council's finance officer
Mark Green, the council's finance officer

That would inevitably lead to a change in the number of councillors as the total number would need to be divisible by three - the current number is 55.

The idea of such big wards will not be welcomed by everybody, especially where there exist natural community boundaries such as in the rural villages.

But if councillors want to keep the concept of one-member wards, that would lead to pressure to hold whole-borough elections every four years.

One election every four years would fit well with the council's ambition of making budget savings.

Mark Green, the council's director of finance, suggested it could save £40,000 on the cost of holding elections over a four-year cycle.

Cllr Ashleigh Kimmance: Bigger workload
Cllr Ashleigh Kimmance: Bigger workload

But what will worry councillors is that officers are also suggesting a review of the number of councillors.

With Mr Green saying, if the council opted for 40 councillors instead of 55, there would be another saving of around £80,000 a year just from the reduction in councillors' allowances alone.

The review is likely to lead to much debate as there is no consensus on which way to go.

Cllr Ashleigh Kimmance (Lib Dem) said: "There's been no review in 20 years, but the population of Maidstone has expanded considerably in that time, so the workload for each councillor is greater."

He suggested that if the number of councillors were cut, those left would likely demand a bigger allowance, offsetting any perceived budget saving.

Cllr Paul Wilby: A council of retired people
Cllr Paul Wilby: A council of retired people

Cllr Paul Wilby (Lib Dem) said that a reduction in the number of councillors and consequent increase in workload would discriminate against poorer people who wouldn't be able to fit council work into their time frame. He said: "We will end up with only older, retired members."

Cllr Wilby was also concerned that the review was just what he called "a backdoor exercise to get us back to the cabinet system."

Cllr Louise Brice (Con), who represents Staplehurst, was concerned that an expansion to three-councillor wards would create "artificial areas" and would lose the character of some of the distinct wards they currently represented.

Larger areas also meant covering multiple parishes, leading to a still greater workload.

She also queried whether a saving of £80,000 by reducing the number of councillors was significant in terms of the council's overall costs. She calculated it as saving of just 0.02%.

Cllr Louise Brice: Community character will be lost
Cllr Louise Brice: Community character will be lost

Cllr Brice asked Mr O'Connell what the saving would be as a proportion of the total staff bill for officers and members, but she didn't get an answer.

Cllr Karen Chapell-Tay (Con) said the council had a "democratic deficit" and owed it to residents "to ensure that their votes counted equally." She also said that the public would welcome four-yearly elections as they were currently "feeling overwhelmed" by having an election every year.

Cllr Diana Lewins (Lib Dem) said that with the projected increase in housing numbers for Maidstone, there was actually a case for having more councillors.

Cllr Jonathan Purle (Con) like Cllr Wilby was concerned that fewer councillors and greater workloads would make it impossible for members to balance making a living with being a councillor. He said: "Any savings cannot come by reducing the number of councillors."

Cllr Annabelle Blackmore (Con) felt that four-yearly whole elections could be beneficial. She said: "Every year there is a period of time around elections when no decisions are made (because councillors go into purdah). There is a cost to having these decision delayed."

Cllr Annabelle Blackmore. Every four years is best
Cllr Annabelle Blackmore. Every four years is best

She said: " I'd love four-yearly elections." A position she also adopted back in 2014, when a move to introduce them failed.

Mr O'Connell encouraged the committee to vote to ask the commission for a review. He said it was better to "really grasp it" so as to have as much influence as possible so that the council could help shape the way things turned out.

But under questioning from council leader Cllr Martin Cox (Lib Dem) he agreed that after a process of consultation ultimately the commission would have the power to make the changes it saw fit.

He said: "There will be no way of stopping their recommendation."

The committee voted unanimously to ask the commission to begin a review.

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