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Ratio Ga Ga

Betsan Powys | 14:19 UK time, Monday, 23 November 2009

_42805961_clay_hazel.jpgCutting the number of politicians is pretty fashionable these days. Just ask David Cameron who's proposing a ten per cent cut in the number of MPs at Westminster if the Tories win power. You'll have that down as the "Tory tear-up of the map of Wales" or a common sense plan based on "fairness, good economics and good politics" depending on your voting intention come election day.

Closer to home though another body, the Local Government Boundary Commission for Wales, is working away at a similar exercise for local councillors. It's undertaking a review of electoral boundaries. Why? The object of the exercise is to ensure that the ratio of electors per councillor is equalised across Wales. I'm not sure what the collective noun is for councillors - a chamber/cabal/cotierie/committee are the suggestions I can include - but whatever it is, the aim is that the number of councillors per chamber should reflect the number of electors they represent.

It's already published three reports, on Denbighshire, Neath Port Talbot, and Newport - the first of 22 reports in all. A spokesman for the Commission has told us that each report is likely to recommend a reduction in the number of councillors by seven to ten. On a Wales-wide basis then, that could mean up to a sixth of the 1,260 councillors are for the chop.

Popular with the public? Possibly. Popular with politicians? What do you think? I'll stick to probably not.

Now the Boundary Commission is a body that's entirely independent of politicians but it works to directions from the Local Government Minister. Read that sentence again and you'll spot the pinch point. It's an independent body but it prepares proposals for his consideration. Sounds like a recipe for trouble?

Well here it is.

The Commission's three initial reports have not gone down well in Cathays Park. In a letter to Edward Lewis, the Commission's Secretary, a very senior Assembly Government civil servant (no naming of names according to convention) says the three have given him "significant cause for concern" which he "understands is shared in the local authorities concerned and the local government community more widely". He and they find it difficult to understand the Commission's proposals in the context of the direction and primary legislation. He demands a "detailed explanation of the rationale behind these proposals".

In other words, boys, what do you think you're up to? You're skiing well off piste here.

But as the Assembly Government have found a number of times, independent bodies tend to think it's up to them to choose which slope they can ski down.

Here's the reply from Mr Lewis. "The Commissioners are most concerned that the contents of the letter coming from such a senior civil servant, could lead others to question the independence of the Commission."

He goes on to say, "In my view, the Commission has complied with the Direction ... and the figures in the draft proposals clearly demonstrate this." And just to make the point once more, Mr Lewis says that the Assembly Government's dressing-down letter "could also be construed as implying that the Commissioners are not competent for the task." They can "stoutly defend" all that has been and will be published in due course.

Yes, it's all couched in Sir Humphrey language but it's fair to say that Sir Humphrey and the Boundary Commission aren't exactly seeing eye to eye on this one.

So what of the local councillors themselves? No civil service pleasantries for them thank goodness. They've gone for a full frontal attack. If the Assembly Government are implying the Commissioners aren't competent to follow the Minister's direction, the councillors pretty much spell out that that the Commissioners aren't competent to use a calculator.

In a release titled "Mathematical error leads to blunder by Local Government Boundary Commission for Wales" the leader of Cardiff County Council, Rodney Berman, claims that the Commissioners are guilty of what I think I'm allowed to call a statistical cock-up. That is, they've worked on the basis that a ratio of 1:3000 is less than a ratio of 1:4000.

Now at this point, more than one of my old maths teachers will be smiling inwardly - if not laughing out loud - in the knowledge that some kind soul has had to patiently explain to me in words of one syllable why that is a cock-up at all, let alone a pretty big one. Maths was never my strong point but I can see how Councillor Berman is arguing that this means the Commission's proposals have gone in the opposite direction to the Minister's direction and could explain why the Assembly Government are so unhappy.

Maybe Councillor Berman's worried about his own grasp of maths, so he E-mailed Cardiff University to ask for their statistical opinion on the matter. This is what he got back from no less than a Professor of Medical Statistics:

"Oh dear. Yes, a ratio of 1:3000 is larger than 1:4000. If you had 12,000 electors then a ratio of 1:3000 would mean 4 councillors while one of 1:4000 would mean 3 councillors. It is a bit confusing as obviously 3000 is less than 4000 - but those are what you divide by. I suspect the confusion is common."

Indeed. So does Councillor Berman have a point?

The answer from the Commission is - wait for it - yes and no.

Yes, they have interpreted the direction differently from that originally issued by the Assembly Government but there's a simple reason for that which has nothing to do with cock-ups and misinterpreting ratios. Put simply if they'd followed the Minister's direction to the letter, they say, they would have ended up recommending that Cardiff, for example, should have 142 councillors. Given the Minister has put an upper limit of 75 councillors on any authority in Wales the Commissioners say - not unreasonably perhaps - they felt they were better off trying a different formula.

So Councillor Berman may be able to work a calculator but it sounds as though he and the Commission were punching in different figures - or not singing from the same spread sheet.

That's the maths. What about the politics of it all?

The Commissioners are meeting tomorrow to discuss the whole business and their next lot of reports are due out before Christmas. Is it me or don't Ministers, councillors and Commissioners have a bit of work to do to ensure public confidence in the review of electoral boundaries?


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