Havering Council leader embroiled in gerrymandering investigation

The leader of Havering Council is facing calls to resign after he was secretly recorded appearing to suggest he had influenced proposed electoral boundary changes to make them “politically advantageous”.

An investigation has been launched into the claims of gerrymandering against Councillor Damian White after a recording made at a Tory party meeting was leaked.

An officer from another local authority has been appointed to investigate, Havering’s monitoring officer John Jones said in a letter to Dagenham and Rainham MP Jon Cruddas.

A complaint has been made with the Local Government Boundaries Commission for England (LGBCE), which is responsible for redrawing council wards.

Cllr White, who ran to be the Dagenham and Rainham MP at the 2019 general election, appeared to tell party members at the meeting in February that he had influenced council chief executive Andrew Blake-Herbert to put forward boundary suggestions which would help gain Tory councillors in the closely fought borough, a practice known as gerrymandering.

In the recording, an excerpt of which is below, he is heard saying: “Of the four options, if I’m honest, what they [council officers] were proposing some…were disastrous. If they would be included, we would never ever win again… Some of them we’d just lose but we’ve come up with a set of proposals that I think are really politically advantageous for us.”

He adds: “Opposition, all group leaders have been invited to meet Andrew [Blake-Herbert] to look at the four options we have come up with. For these four walls recently he has agreed for some reason to allow me to influence the proposals and I’ve been able to.”

The council has said it “utterly refutes any suggestion that the chief executive was influenced in any way”.

Cllr White was first elected in 2010 and was elected as council leader in 2018. Havering has 54 councillors elected from 18 wards, with 25 Conservative members, 23 Havering Residents Association members, five Labour and one independent councillor.

In the recording Cllr White apparently suggests he wants the number of councillors to increase to 56 with two added in wards where the party traditionally does well. Wards the Conservatives do not win, he appears to suggest, will be made smaller with fewer councillors, in order to “maximise our councillors in the areas we can win”.

In its first submissions to the LGBCE early this year, Havering council recommended keeping the number of councillors at 54, but by March it had revised its opinion and recommended increasing the number to 56.

In a statement, Cllr White said: “The Conservative group discussed proposals in the consultation and how to respond and agree our own approach. All political parties put forward proposals for the boundary changes as part of the established consultation process. It is for the LGBCE to determine the number of councillors and the boundaries of wards, and it is right that local political parties take part within the consultation.”

A Havering council spokesman said: “We can’t comment on any covert recordings of private conversations. What we can say is that we utterly refute any suggestion that the chief executive was influenced in any way when pulling together the options for the boundary review.”

Cllr Gillian Ford (Ind), chair of the Havering Residents Association, which leaked the recording, said: “The leader of the council should step down. He is gerrymandering.”

The drawing up of new ward boundaries is a politically independent process. New boundaries will be revealed on July 28, followed by a 10-week consultation.

An excerpt from the secret recording
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Victoria Munro

Local Democracy Reporter