The Boundary Commissions are responsible for choosing constituency names when they review constituency boundaries.
There are four commissions, one for each part of the UK. Each are independent and impartial.
Current constituency boundaries and names date from 2010 (or 2005 in Scotland). In this Insight, we explain how and when names are chosen, and the role of the public.
Our information is based on the commission’s guidance from the 2018 Review. This review was completed but never implemented.
The role of the Boundary Commissions
The commissions must give each constituency a name and designate it as ‘borough’ or ‘county’ seat. In Scotland borough seats are called ‘burgh’ seats.
This status is important as candidates can spend a bit more money on election campaigning in county seats.
The commissions must follow the ‘Rules of Redistribution’. These include the number of people that should be in each seat. The rules don’t tell the commissions how they should name or designate the constituencies. Instead, the commissions have developed conventions over the years.
How do Boundary Commissions decide constituency names and status?
If a seat is in a mainly urban area, it is designated a borough seat. If it has more than just a small rural area, it is designated a county seat.
The commissions will usually leave a constituency name unchanged unless they have made boundary changes that mean the name no longer fits.
All the commissions are open to considering alternative names that have support locally, but will avoid long lists that attempt to describe every population centre in a seat.
If a new name is needed, the commissions have broadly similar approaches.
In England the constituency name should reflect the main population centre, like Southport or Watford. If there are two main towns both can be included, like Truro and Falmouth.
In larger towns and cities, compass points are used to name seats where there is no better alternative. These usually go after the town name, like Bristol South. Some towns and cities have locally-known names that can be used. Examples are Liverpool West Derby and Southampton Test.
In some urban seats where a new area has been added to the seat, the name will be changed to reflect that. For example, in 2010, the old seat of Lewisham West was altered to include Penge, which is in a different borough. The seat was renamed Lewisham West and Penge.
In more rural seats there may be no major centre of population. If no alternative name fits, the county name is used with a compass point. In these seats the compass point comes before the county name, like South West Norfolk.
Sometimes an alternative name is used. For example, High Peak is a constituency in the north of Derbyshire, which has existed since 1885. It has the same name as the district council. Both take their name form from the ancient ‘hundred’ of High Peak which used to cover a similar area (hundreds were old administrative areas within a county).
The Boundary Commission for Scotland avoids using compass points at the start of a constituency name. The exceptions are places like East Kilbride, where it’s part of the place name. The Commission won’t normally use a council name for a constituency, unless they cover the same area. An example is the Inverclyde seat, which has the same boundaries as the Inverclyde council.
UK Parliamentary seats and constituency seats in the Scottish Parliament usually have different boundaries. The Commission tries to use names that avoid confusion between the two. In eastern Edinburgh, for example, the Westminster constituency is Edinburgh East. The Scottish Parliament constituency is Edinburgh Eastern.
When the existing Welsh constituency names were created, the Commission could only assign one name.
Now the Commission can designate alternative names in Welsh and English. Some names are acceptable in both languages and don’t need an alternative, like Llanelli. But in mainly Welsh-speaking areas the constituency will use its Welsh name. In the 2018 Review one of the names was Ceredigion a Gogledd Sir Benfor. Its English alternative was Ceredigion and North Pembrokeshire.
In Northern Ireland, all the seats outside Belfast are currently designated as county constituencies. The Commission’s convention is to name these seats using the county name and compass points, for example East Antrim. Sometimes alternatives are used. In constituencies that cross historical county boundaries other names are used, like Mid Ulster or Lagan Valley.
Can I influence the name of a constituency?
Yes! The public can comment on names and boundaries during the consultation stages of a review.
People can comment on the name of the constituency, even if the boundaries haven’t changed. For example, during the 1990s the Boundary Commission for Wales wanted to rename the Brecon and Radnor seat. It wasn’t altering the boundaries.
The Commission recommended a new name, Brecknock and Radnorshire. The public consultation “found little support” for the change, so Brecon and Radnorshire was chosen instead.
When is the next boundary review?
A new boundary review is due to start in 2021 and be completed by July 2023.
Each of the Boundary Commissions will publicise the reviews on their websites next year and publish updated guidance on naming conventions in due course.
Constituency boundary reviews and the number of MPs, House of Commons Library.
About the author: Neil Johnston is a researcher at the House of Commons Library, specialising in elections.