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History of Local Government

There are probably two critical points in the development of local government in the UK. First, it has progressed incrementally with little strategic direction except in so far as the central government has been forced at various points in time to address the byzantine local structures and processes that have embodied the consequences of this reactive incrementalism – the ‘Saxon heritage’: as long as ‘the locals’ kept their house in order then London was content to ignore them. Only when disease, squalor or riot infringed upon the metropolis did Whitehall decide to ‘do something’ about the ‘locals’. The longevity of this approach is displayed in Michael Heseltine’s frequently repeated story that the only time when he was in government that a meeting was about ‘a place’ rather than ‘a service’ such as ‘education or health or housing’ was when the riots occurred in Liverpool in 1981. Second, the state has often attempted to realise, but seldom achieved, its aim of centralising control and its own authority for almost a thousand years – since the Norman invasion of 1066. The history of local government in the UK, then, can be described as one rooted in these two dichotomous traditions: the centralising fetish of the state – the veritable ‘Norman Yoke’ – bolted on to the decentralised chaos of the Anglo-Saxon heritage.

In some ways the possibility of elected mayors marks a return to an older system of local government in England. Originally, in Anglo-Saxon times (roughly 700-1066), local government was administered through the King’s Ealdorman who was responsible for a Shire, while law and order operated through

the Shire-Reeve, or Sheriff as it became known. Below the Shire the land was subdivided into Hundreds (ten groups of ten households [Tithings]) who individually survived off a piece of land considered large enough to support a single family (a Hide). Members of Tithings and Hundreds were held responsible for their members’ behaviour thus creating a very decentralised administrative system.

Despite the romanticised notions of Saxon freedom that the Victorians often wallowed in (typically to mark Britain out from the centralised authoritarianism that they perceived to have held France in its deathlike grip), there was always a grain of truth in this historical lineage and it can also be traced through the predominance of collective forms of national political leadership in the UK compared to the USA (Churchill, Thatcher and Blair are the exceptions that prove the rule according to Greenstein {2004}). The Norman Conquest effectively dispossessed the Anglo-Saxons of almost all the land, centralised ownership under the Norman monarchs, called the shires ‘counties’ and then rewarded the Norman nobility with ‘fiefs’ which were parcels of land large enough to act as a unit of loyalty to the monarch but small enough to prevent the development of rival power centres to that same monarch. Ironically the Victorians frequently referred to the decentralised ‘Saxon’ origins of Britain as the explanation for its apparent disinterest in centralisation – and argued that the Norman Conquest was a mere historical blip that had little long term effect; the ‘truth’ of this could allegedly be seen the centralising frenzy of the French under Napoleon compared to the decentralised nature of Britain (Hunt, 2004: 259-312).

The problem for the Saxon romantics was that decentralisation seemed to be both a cover for the self-interest of the local elite and an excuse for doing nothing about the terrible inequalities of wealth and health that so plagued mid-nineteenth century Britain. Thus all attempts by the central government to impose the requirement for improvements at the local level were met with extraordinary hostility by the local establishment, and indeed by the national media.

The limitations of the central state can also been seen through the inhibitions against a national police force. Before Peel’s Metropolitan Police took control of the streets of London, for example, (consciously clothed in blue uniforms not military red) the local establishment lobbied very effectively to prevent anything approaching a national force. How else could they stop an organisation that would be ‘expensive, tyrannical and foreign’, especially when most people (that is the landed establishment) ‘would rather be robb’d... by wretches of desperate fortune than by ministers’ (quoted in Flanders, 2011: 76).

A similar distrust of the effects – and costs – of a standing army on the landed local establishment (in contrast to several monarchs who were desperate to have a standing army to launch wars all over the world) also prevented the development of such a force after the civil war when the New Model Army, and the Rule of the Generals, had shown just how effective – and expensive – such an organisation could be (Hoppitt, 2002: 156-8). This is most obvious in considering the origins of the Bank of England – initiated in 1694 to cover the government’s debt accumulated from foreign wars. In fact the majority of central state expenditure until the late nineteenth century was on war and the Empire (Mann, 1986; 1993). This is important not just in considering why the central state was so disinterested in the periphery, the local area, but also why the local area was so resistant to the centre – because it believed itself to be just a milch cow for the state to finance its wars and empires.

Moreover, the resistance to a central authority also mirrored the strength of local, rather than national, identities, especially amongst the English whose nationalist fervour has so often been noted as radically diluted compared to their Irish, Scottish and Welsh cousins (Paxman, 1999).

As the Middle Ages emerged, the centralising impetus of the Normans continued apace with the Hundreds losing their judicial and regularity powers to parishes, manors and towns; many of the latter became ‘boroughs’ – that is, relatively self-regulating urban centres with similarities to the autonomous privileges that had always marked London out from the rest of the country. Boroughs were run by corporations of self-selected Aldermen and the council was temporarily chaired by a Mayor. Both counties and boroughs ‘elected’ two members of Parliament, though the representative nature of both the electorate and the geographical region became increasingly dubious over time. Some of the larger cities (York and Chester for example) were also granted larger administrative roles and responsibilities for their domains while the local justices of the peace took on more and more responsibilities (including local tax raising – ‘the county rate’) for county-wide activities such as road repair (Parishes were responsible for local roads and the Poor Law from the 17th Century), licensing, bridge and prison building through ‘the quarter sessions’.

The Great Reform Act of 1832 addressed the corrupt practices of elected members of Parliament and ‘rotten boroughs’ and enfranchised both a larger proportion of the (male) population and some of the towns, but local government was not radically changed until the Municipal Corporations Act of 1835 which oversaw the election of ‘town’ (including the larger industrial centres) councillors by rate payers. Yet local administration remained poor, especially regarding the state of health and housing, and the sequential outbreaks of cholera, typhoid, typhus and just about every other medical malady, eventually persuaded the central state to ‘do something’ (Hunt, 2004: 13-44). There then followed a series of public welfare and health reforms at the local level to cope with the consequences of industrialisation and urbanisation, in particular the 1848

Public Health Act which established local health boards to oversee a co-ordinated water, sewerage and drainage scheme to overcome the persistence of cholera, followed by the 1858 Local Government Act which extended the powers of these boards.

But, as Hunt (2004: 311) suggests, ‘by the 1860s there was a festering impatience with the classic, Victorian way of doing things: of voluntarism, civic association and muddling through’. Indeed the hostility of the Birmingham conservatives was so great that four years after the city was incorporated a petition was issued to revoke it and thereby reduce the rates. And as late as the mid-1850s Birmingham council was cutting road expenditure by half to cut costs. In contrast, a group of radically Nonconformist minsters had other ideas and set about canvassing for a ‘new Jerusalem’ in Birmingham; they found their own prophet in Joseph Chamberlain and the appropriate context in the Second Reform Bill of 1867 which doubled the size of the general electorate but quadrupled the number of working class male voters in Birmingham. The 1869 Municipal Franchise and Assessed Rate Act also helped by effectively undermining the monopoly grip of the anti-expenditure ‘shopocracy’ group.

Much of this was achieved through Chamberlain’s Machiavellian transformation of the position of Mayor from ceremonial chain wearer to political leader, though he did this as leader of the council not as a directly elected mayor. However, we should note that at the time Chamberlain led Birmingham, Whitehall was relatively uninterested in local government – except in so far as they had to ‘do something’ about the locals.

Chamberlain achieved his successes mainly through his ability to align radically different interests. For example, the political desires of his own supporters to own utilities like gas and water so as to ensure significant health benefits, with the demands of local businesses to acquire regular, and cheap, energy.

It is also worth pointing out that oftentimes it was the central state that adopted the ideas developed at the local level rather than vice versa. For instance, the 1866 City of Glasgow Improvement Act, which cleared 88 acres of slums in the centre of the city, formed the basis of Octavia Hill’s support for the 1875 Artizans’ and Labourers’ Dwellings Bill that Disraeli oversaw and which transformed many urban areas (Hunt, 2004: 322/347).

However, by 1888 it had become clear that the disparate array of parishes, boroughs, towns and counties could no longer cope with the demands of massively expanding local economies, and the Local Government Act of that year radically reorganised the system. At this point the reconstructed counties became the focus for county councils while those areas deemed too large because of their urban populations (50,000+) became separate county boroughs. The metropolitan county of London was also established at the same time and it remained in place until 1965 when the new county of Greater London was established from what had been Middlesex and London, and this Greater London was then divided into 32 metropolitan boroughs. Outside London the 1894 Local Government Act introduced a second level of urban or rural districts into the county councils or borough councils and also a layer of civil parishes.

This system prevailed until the 1966 Royal Commission established by the then Labour Government which followed the majority report and imposed a unitary structure on all 58 non-London authorities (which favoured the pro-Labour urban areas) but this was subsequently overturned in 1972 by the

Conservative Government which attempted to restart local government de novo, reconstructing the status quo into a two-tier system of county borders (which favoured pro-Conservative rural areas) with lower level districts (40,000+ people for each district council), and established six new metropolitan counties for the largest urban conglomerations with their own associated lower level boroughs (250,000+ people for each district or borough council) (Copus, 2001). In 1986 the Greater London

Council and the metropolitan Councils were abolished and some of the previous county boundaries were restored.