This book presents a history of local government in Britain from 1800 until the present day. It explains how local government in Britain has evolved from a structure that appeared to be relatively free from central government interference to, as John Prescott observes, ‘one of the most centralised systems of government in the Western world’. The book is an introduction to the development of local government in Britain but also balances values and political practice in relation to the evolving structures to provide a theory of the evolution of the system. It analyses local government prior to 1832 and its subsequent development into the uniform two-tier structures of the twentieth century. The book argues that the emergence of a ‘New Liberal’ national welfare state and, by the 1920s, the growth of the Labour Party, created pressures within central government to control local governments. This has led, post-1945, to the creation of larger, less-local units, and to further restraints on local autonomy, as electoral competition among National Parties to offer better public services and local economic growth ensures that national leaders cannot leave local authorities to administer to local needs as they see fit. The conclusion compares the development of British centralism with the pattern of central–local development, as well as the relative conservatism in re-structuring the systems in the United States and France.
This chapter looks at local government in Britain before 1832. There is little left of the Roman administrative legacy for the provinces of Britain. All that remains are some of the towns themselves, including London as the capital city. The break up of the pax romana by the fourth century ad, and invasions by Anglo Saxons and, later, Vikings ensured that, for most purposes, towns and villages in Britain were self-governing. Above the community level, the county and its divisions were the administrative units representing central government, and hence the monarch. In practice, the power of the monarch over a county or, in a few cases, larger towns acting effectively as counties in their own right could be delegated to one or a number of powerful landlords. The chapter also discusses the Civil War and its consequences, relations between central and local governments, local government and the franchise, the county, the parish, municipal government, London, Scotland, the service functions of local authorities and financing of local governments.
The political crisis which led up to the 1832 Electoral Reform Act in Britain is seen as a near-bloodless revolution that levered the landed elites from power in favour of urban merchants and industrialists, and, in the context of local government, led to the 1834 Poor Law Reform and the 1835 Municipal Corporations Acts, which began the modernisation of the system. While the Poor Law Amendment Act is depicted as the beginning of centralisation, the Municipal Corporations Act, along with the enfranchisement after 1832 of the urban conurbations, suggested the possibility of a more decentralised patronclient system. Industrialisation was at the root of the social forces that restructured the British political system and, as part of the process, the system of local governance in the nineteenth century. This chapter discusses the impact of industrialisation on local government in Britain, radical and liberal opinion on local government, the philosophical radicals and the centralised State, the conservative radicals and decentralisation, local government and the 1832 Electoral Reform Act, the Poor Law and the 1835 Municipal Corporations Act.
The ad hoc local governments of mid-Victorian Britain
J. A. Chandler
Pressures to restructure local government in Britain, it may be argued, arise from the concern of practically minded national and local politicians and administrators to adapt its many institutions to deal with the problems thrown up by the growth of cities, the need for a more mobile workforce, the social consequences of enclosures or the demand for improved systems of transport. The development of local government in the mid-nineteenth century to accommodate social change within the framework of ad hoc agencies, beginning with the Poor Law unions, reflected an unsatisfactory compromise between Whigs and Tories, who could both see the need for some measure of modernisation and were, with the exception of the philosophical radicals, opposed to centralisation, but were not willing to give powers to the opposing faction. This chapter focuses on the ad hoc local governments of mid-Victorian Britain and explores the failure of central control of the Poor Law, the Public Health Acts, roads and highways, education boards, police and prisons, the financing of local government and the formation of the Local Government Board.
The 1835 Municipal Corporations Act enabled but did not compel industrial towns in Britain to establish municipal corporations, let alone to develop the publicly owned infrastructure. The status and influence of the great industrial towns were signalled by the magnificence of the town halls built as clubs for the industrial and commercial elites who comprised the majority of councillors and aldermen. The development of complex bureaucratic municipal government began at a faltering pace, motivated in some cities by locally sponsored political initiatives, but in others by a belated response to central government demands. The pace of change, however, accelerated from the 1870s, with substantial municipal purchase of infra-structure and energy companies, stimulated in part by the backward city of Birmingham catching up with developments elsewhere. This chapter focuses on the golden age of municipal government in Britain, incorporation and improvement of towns, consolidation of the boroughs, municipalisation of utilities, the government of London, professionalism and bureaucracy, the franchise, party politics, local elites, and civic pride and commercial interest.
Few across Britain's political spectrum were satisfied with the evolution of the local government system following the 1832 Electoral Reform Act. While municipal government could lead the way to reform, the system could not evolve in rural areas because of the lack of any workable consensus in Parliament that could establish multi-purpose local government structures. The legislative compromises and resultant ad hoc developments were creating as complex a pattern of local government in rural areas and small towns as existed in the eighteenth century. During the last third of the nineteenth century, the political factors standing in the way of a consensus to remodel local government declined in their potency. The engine driving change was the growing consensus between Conservatives, Liberals and radicals. This chapter examines the restructuring of local government in Britain, focusing on the creation of county councils, the London County Council and the London boroughs, reconstruction of parishes and districts, education, and relations between local and central government and the new structures.
In 1900, local government in Britain appeared to have a clear purpose within the Constitution, along with resources and prestige much greater than had been the case fifty years previously. The Acts of 1888, 1894 and 1899 for England and Wales, and parallel legislation for Scotland, provided a platform to vest responsibility for delivering a wide range of public services in multi-purpose local authorities. The new liberal values that influenced reform-minded politicians of all parties, and the fears of Conservatives and Liberals over the growth of what they saw as a potentially socialist party in their midst, ensured that central government could not trust local authorities to pursue the policies which were now expected of them. This chapter discusses the growth and decline of local government in Britain. It examines social reform, liberal values and the role of local government, as well as the Local Government Board and the Ministry of Health, housing and town planning, the emergence of the Labour Party and poplarism.
In Britain, the inter-war years were dominated by a resurgent Conservative Party, many of whose members' sympathies still lay, as regards local governance, on the Salisbury plain of a dual polity. However, fears that urban government might be captured by socialists and used to further ownership of the means of production compelled Conservatives to reluctantly interfere in local politics. Even Conservatives, such as Neville Chamberlain, who sympathised with new liberal values of equality of opportunity tempered their support for the larger enterprising local authorities once poplarism suggested to them the dangers of the cat being in charge of the jug of cream. This chapter looks at the British local government's slow road to ‘modernisation’, the growth and rivalry between authorities, the decline of municipalisation, the ending of the local Poor Law, local finance and the decline of the dual state, the inclusive professional authorities and local government's relations with the central government in the 1930s.
Undermining the dual-polity ethos of the nineteenth century opened the door to an insidious encroachment of central controls, and manipulation of local government services and structure by central government. During the 1930s, a general mood of modernisation and streamlining attached to economies of scale pervaded radical thinking in relation to service provision. The major utilities – gas, electricity and water – along with transport such as the rail services, were viewed as national rather than local concerns that needed to be supplied under central rather than local guidance. Modernisers during World War II began preparing for a major restructuring of service provision and the organisation to supply those services. This chapter focuses on World War II and social democracy in Britain, along with the impact of the war on local government, local government reform, the government under Clement Attlee, the nationalisation of industries, the national health service, housing and town planning, and financing of local government.
The incoming Conservative Government of 1951 had no developed plans for reforming local government. The Butskillist common ground between the Conservative Party and the Labour Party encompassed a tacit consensus on the structure and functions of the system, as it had developed into a more service-orientated approach since 1945. During the first years of Winston Churchill's government, local government became in effect a ministry for housing. Churchill allocated the Ministry of Local Government and Planning to Harold Macmillan in order to fulfil the latter's ambitious pledge made at the 1950 Conservative Party Conference to build 300,000 new houses a year. This chapter examines the ‘modernisation’ of the local government in Britain from 1951 to 1979. It discusses financial reforms, the restructuring of local government, the restructuring of London, the Labour Government during 1964–1970, local government finance, the 1972 Local Government Act, and nationalism and regional devolution.