A couple of years ago I was talking to West Berkshire and Greenham Parish Councillor Tony Vickers who told me that there was what might be called a rotten borough in West Berkshire.
This surprised me. These were common before the 1832 Reform Act and resulted in many constituencies having perhaps only a small handful; of electors, so making it very easy for local big-wigs to control the outcome. I thought this was all in the past: but no, it appeared we had one of our own here. This was only at parish level, but even so. Tony Vickers explained how this had come about (an extra ward was created in expectation of the Sandleford development populating it which, of course, hasn’t quite happened yet) and has persisted since. In fact, it’s possibly the only legacy that the ill-fated development has yet produced.
I was fascinated by this anomaly and ended up writing a short story, A Rotten Borough, about it. This is set in a moderately parallel universe in a parish called Greendale near a town called Thatchbury in a county called East Brockshire where a similar muddle had happened, with dramatic consequences for its sole resident come local election day. You can read that here.
Moving back to the universe in which we actually live, Tony Vickers contacted me this week and told me that a solution to this oddity may be in sight. I’m happy to reproduce his text in full below.
“The ridiculous situation of an electorate of only four voters being able to elect one third of the members of one of the largest parishes (over 4,000 voters and growing) in West Berkshire looks like finally being corrected. A special meeting of the District Council will be held on 10 May to agree Terms of Reference for the process to change this. It will create a new parish ward for fast growing Newbury Racecourse residential development.
“It was eight years ago when it became clear that a huge increase in Newbury’s population would fall largely in Greenham parish on the proposed Sandleford Park development. Local councillor Tony Vickers tried to get the District Council to address the several anomalies in parish boundaries that had arisen over many years but was told there first had to be a review of the District’s own wards. This happened in 2018, in time for all-out local elections in May 2019 on new boundaries.
“At the time the Boundary Commission for England (BCE) carried out the review, the council planners were telling them that Sandleford would commence in 2016 and that 2000 of the new homes would be occupied by 2027. So BCE created the new Wash Common District ward to include that part of Greenham parish, west of A339, which is part of the proposed new Sandelford Park development. A few weeks later, the planners realised their forecast was much too optimistic, but it was too late. BCE had fixed the District ward boundaries. It now requires their approval to the process of trying to change the mistake and has taken 18 months for the District Council to realise this.
“Councillor Vickers said: “This farce shows that Whitehall and Westminster don’t really believe in local democracy. So much for ‘localism’ when such a minor change has to be approved by central government.” The Extraordinary Council Meeting to start the process has now been formally requested by the Opposition councillors on West Berkshire Council. It will follow immediately on from the Annual Council Meeting on 10 May.
“Meanwhile the decision on whether or not – and how – the Sandleford development that created the situation will go ahead happens to be due on or before 9 May. That too is being taken not locally but by the Secretary of State for ‘Levelling Up’ (whatever that is!) Michael Gove.”