Local Government Reform – Now With Maps!

See the New Municipalism page for further detail

Scotland has just about the worst local government in Europe. It’s oversized and under-powered when compared with our neighbours. As a party, the Greens have consistently argued for wholesale reform of both the structure and powers of councils. With a population of just over 5.4 million spread across just 32 local councils, councils represent on average 169,500 people. That’s so far beyond pretty much every other European country, it’s unreal.

We can look at some comparably sized countries to see just how silly the situation is. In Denmark, around 5.8 million people fit into 98 municipalities, for an average population of around 59,000. Norway is 5.3 million in 422 municipalities, averaging 12,600. And Slovakia’s 5.4 million folk are divided into a whopping 2890 municipalities, an average of just 1884.

Of course simple comparisons like that come with caveats about the relative power of local government in those countries, different population distributions, and using a mean (average) rather than median figure, but the basic message is clear: Scotland does not have truly local government the way European nations do.

Since I’m a bit of a systems nerd, it’s been one of my pet projects to envision what reformed local government would look like. In 2015, I made a first pass at drawing new boundaries, just for fun. I didn’t always have the best data available and the maps were literally MS Paint jobs. Since then I’ve found more sources of data (hello) and sort of learned how to use the QGIS mapping software. I did a very basic run back through last year to do some hypothetical elections, but I figured it was due a proper refresh now.

To redraw Scotland’s local government boundaries, I started with a principle common to most countries and indeed formerly prevalent in Scotland – that you should have two levels of local government. Lots of things are best dealt with more locally than the national government, but issues such as transport require a wider view than rubbish collection, for example. So that means having a regional layer of government above the municipal level. As in most countries though, some areas do make sense to have as a single level (unitary authority), so there are exceptions.

The ideal minimum size for a municipality was taken to be 20,000. That happens to be roughly the number Denmark aimed for when it reformed (downwards) in the 00’s. That wasn’t taken as a hard red line though. If somewhere comes up 60 people short of that number, that’s not really a big deal. More rural areas also can justify smaller populations on the basis of needing to stay local. And some places just don’t fit with anywhere around them.

I also needed to come up with rules for how many elected representatives each unit would have. Unlike the current process which considers both population and deprivation, I just went for population as that’s much easier and transparent. As is the norm with this kind of thing, smaller areas have proportionally more representatives than larger ones.

  • Municipal Councillors
    • 13 councillors baseline
    • For every extra 5,000 population between 20,000 and 50,000, +2 councillors
    • For every extra 10,000 population between 50,000 and 100,000, +2 councillors
    • For every extra 20,000 population above 100,000, +2 councillors
    • For the island councils, at least as many councillors as they have now
    • For unitary municipalities, an additional 15% on their initially calculated number of seats rounded to the nearest odd number, to account for their combined municipal and regional responsibilities.
  • Regional Commissioners (note: “Commissioner” is a bit of a throwback title to Scotland’s governing past which I quite liked)
    • 4 commissioners baseline
    • For every extra 10,000 population above 20,000, +1 commissioner.

Based on those guiding principles, I ended up taking Scotland from 32 Councils to 138 local government units – 123 municipalities in 10 regions, plus 5 unitary municipalities not part of any region (spreadsheet). That’s 4.3x as many and would average out at 42,375 people per municipality, which is much more in line with European norms. Following the rules for how many elected representatives each should have gives 3024 – 2398 municipal councillors plus 626 regional commissioners. That’s only 2.5x as many as the 1227 councillors we currently elect.

  • 10 Regions
    • Clyde, 17 Municipalities
    • Highland, 14 Municipalities
    • Grampian, 14 Municipalities
    • Tayside, 11 Municipalities
    • Fife, 10 Municipalities
    • Lanarkshire, 15 Municipalities
    • Ayrshire, 12 Municipalities
    • Forth, 14 Municipalities
    • Lothian and Borders, 11 Municipalities
    • Dumfries and Galloway, 5 Municipalities
  • 5 Unitary Municipalities
    • Glasgow
    • Edinburgh
    • Orkney
    • Shetland
    • Na h-Eileanan Siar

Now that I had a bunch of shiny new municipalities, the obvious next step was to work out how the 2017 elections would have went on these new boundaries. Even more than drawing those boundaries this is “just for fun”, as had a local government structure like this been in place the candidates and results would have been very different.

The electoral system I used for municipalities was simple list Proportional Representation, with a 4% threshold for parties and no threshold for Independent candidates, using the whole municipality as one electoral ward. For the regional councils, each municipality was used as a ward. In a first phase of counting, all municipalities in a region elect one fewer than their total number of commissioners directly via the same simple list PR system. A second phase allocates the remaining seats to parties on the basis of their vote across the whole region. The final phase then allocates those seats back to each municipality.

There were varying levels of difficulty in translating 2017 results to new boundaries. When a new municipality was made up of whole wards and the same parties stood in all of them, it was easy as pie just to add them all up. If a ward was split across municipalities, I had to first use the votes by ballot box data to find out how each candidate’s vote was spread about the ward, then assumed a similar spread of the postal votes. And if any party was present in one part of a municipality but not another, I made a complete guess at a notional level of support by looking at their strength in nearby areas, what direction their transfers went in, and extrapolating from there.

The end result of all of this is this wonderful, shiny, interactive map! It may take a minute to load, but when it has, you’ll see the boundaries for all proposed municipalities overlain on a map of Scotland. Clicking on an area will give you the basic details for that municipality.

There’s a little tile in the top right corner as well, which when you hover over it allows you to toggle the layers…

If you turn off the “Proposed New Municipalities” layer and turn on the “New Municipalities – Political Breakdown” layer, you’ll get a different map. This time, instead of being coloured by region, wards are coloured by the party that won the most votes in the hypothetical election, and clicking on a ward shows the breakdown of councillors and commissioners elected.

Super cool, right?! For the moment, I’ve used this map to replace the outdated posts I had on here about my original boundaries and election calculations. I may, in future, refresh those to fit this new data.

All maps contain OS data © Crown copyright and database right (2018)

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