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Local government in Britain since 1800

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.

5 Restructuring local government Few across the British political spectrum were satisfied with the evolution of the local government system following the 1832 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

in Explaining local government

1 Local government before 1832 There is little left of the Roman administrative legacy for the provinces of Britain. Towns were established under Roman practice as coloniae and municipium for retired soldiers who were granted citizenship of the Empire.1 Other townships, civitates, established by Britons were recognised as following local tribal laws:2 ‘A large measure of local government was conducted by the British themselves with official supervision and encouragement.’3 All that remains of the Roman legacy are some of the towns themselves, including London

in Explaining local government

13 Accounting for the evolution of local government in Britain There is no single factor that accounts for the distancing of the British system of local government from that of France or the USA. The evolution of the British system can be explained as an accretion of changes that have accumulated over the last 200 years and most significantly between 1900 and 1920. In 1832 the structure of sub-national government in Britain, although by no means a replica of the system in France or the USA was, nevertheless, far more comparable than is the case 175 years later

in Explaining local government

9 ‘Modernising’ the system 1951–79 The incoming Conservative Government of 1951 had no developed plans for reforming local government. The Butskillist common ground between the Conservative 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. Underlying this common outlook also ran an undercurrent of modernising zeal that had propelled Jowitt, Willink and, later, Bevan to consider the restructuring of the system into larger units. During the 1950s

in Explaining local government
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towards the enabling authority and the formation of ad hoc local trusts and agencies begun under the preceding Conservative administrations. The hollowing out of local government begun by Thatcher and Major has continued, but with a rather different emphasis as the implementation of many core local authority services are distributed to ad hoc agencies in the form of trusts and community-based local strategic partnerships (LSPs). Understanding local government under New Labour also requires an appreciation that its agenda does not emerge from a unified ideology and that

in Explaining local government

8 War and social democracy 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

in Explaining local government
The ad hoc local governments of mid-Victorian Britain

3 Compromise and confusion: the ad hoc local governments of mid-Victorian Britain Pressures to restructure local government, it may be argued, derive 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. Smellie argues that Behind the reform bills themselves were revolutions in industry and transport, in medical

in Explaining local government

neighbouring districts.1 Between 1889 and 1923 the procedure had led to the creation of 23 new county boroughs to add to the 61 created in 1888,2 and 109 requests for re-classification as county boroughs, 55 per cent of which involved areas in excess of 1,000 acres.3 There were also numerous requests for the creation of urban district authorities and boroughs. Under the Municipal Corporations Act of 1882 and the 1888 County Councils Act, a borough could be created through a petition to the Privy Council. An applicant 142 Explaining local government town had to have a

in Explaining local government
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Growth with decline

6 The turning point: growth with decline In 1900 local government 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. During the first decades of the twentieth century local governments gained many new services as both Liberals and Conservatives

in Explaining local government