Local Government Since 1945.
This book, which forms part of the Institute of Contemporary British History's series on Making Contemporary Britain, is a serious and workmanlike description and analysis of the changes in a major force in English life (England only - the authors leave Scotland and Wales alone), the Town Hall. It is thematic, taking structure, functions and finance as its main topics. It is also sombre, tracing what the authors see as, in general, a story of decline, from respected institutions embracing 'the community' and all its aspirations - a kind of Burkean partnership - to a branch office of central government, delivering a limited range of services under strict control in a cantankerous political atmosphere.
It is hard to know what else they could have expected. England has changed beyond recognition in the last fifty years, and it is a weakness of the book that it does not set local government in a social and economic context. For one thing, the country has shrunk in terms of travel times and cost. The great post-war Town Clerk of Manchester, Sir Philip Dingle (only the fourth holder of that post) would point to a portrait of his bewhiskered first predecessor and say 'When he took office, it took him two full days to get to London. He didn't go very often.' His contemporary at Liverpool, when asked to come to London, replied that the Corporation had not increased the travel and subsistence rates for members and officers since the 1880s, so they travelled as little as might be. Present-day practice, in which even councils reckoned economical send delegations to their twin towns in other Continents, is far different. In the entrance to a district council office in Yorkshire in the 1960s, where other councils might have a war memorial plaque, there was laid out for public view the book in which councillors claimed expenses; the latest entry was three years old. There seems to be a general law that, the less councils have to do, the more they cosset themselves in the doing of it.
The authors look back to the first two post-war decades, not as exactly a kind of golden age, but as a period of consensus, reflecting the 'Butskellism' of national politics, and their chapter titles, The Spirit of Reconstruction and Building Jerusalem, fairly represent this. The vast programmes of house and school-building were necessary and popular at the time, although in a longer view they may be thought to have cluttered the country with a good deal of badly-built, low-standard and poorly looked-after property with a limited life. They did, however, give common purpose to central and local government, which were facing the same direction for most of this period.
When the authors turn to structure - i.e., boundaries, powers and organisation the story becomes sad. England is not a small country, and there is much local variation; Yorkshire and Cornwall do not have the same priorities. It is necessary to have a layer of government which recognises this. On the other hand, local councils which are politically strong - and there is little use having them unless they are - are rivals to central government and stir atavistic feelings at Westminster. Labour was generally happier with local government than the Conservatives; most Labour MPs and Ministers had some background as councillors, compared to few Tories.
For the Tories, local government was a kind of Shirt of Nessus; they could neither get it 'right' nor leave it alone. They created the Greater London Council - and abolished it; they created metropolitan councils - and abolished them; they introduced a two-tier system, and were in the process of abolishing that when the electorate abolished them.
No single policy step was ever more carefully researched and consulted upon than the Heath Government's great reorganisation, and none was more thoroughly hated than the introduction of new shire counties. Avon, Clevedon and Humberside completely failed, in their twenty years' life, to win any measure of public acceptance. In 'Avon', north Somerset saw no reason to be brigaded with Bristol, which it regards as a rough city with some expensive left-wing notions and Bristol returned the compliment. Just before its abolition as a county in its own right, Bristol ringed the city with notices announcing 'The City and County of Bristol.' These were eventually taken down, put into storage, and proudly re-erected at the end of Avon.
The Tories, moreover, had no clear idea of what local government was for - or, to be accurate, they had too many contradictory notions. The theme which eventually triumphed was a minimalist one, well expressed by that steely logician, Nicholas Ridley. The ideal council should, he thought, have a yearly meeting at which it should let the contracts for all its services to the lowest respectable tenderer. That would take them a morning, after which he would allow them a good lunch before dispersing for a twelvemonth. The council should keep a small staff mainly to monitor that the contracts were being performed. It would also, of course, collect the rates to pay the contractors. Ah, the rates! Another Shirt of Nessus.
The spectre that haunted the Tories was the widow of small means still hanging on alone in the family home, making little call on the public services yet paying much more than the large disorderly family down the road whose calls on the services were enormous. Hence the Poll Tax - another thoroughly unsaleable idea - on which the authors are clear and crisp. It is not their remit to answer the question who was to blame, and they are wise not to try; there are few episodes in recent British history more confused, and deliberately obscured, than this. The Tories ignored a good rule of public administration: when a problem is insoluble, leave it alone.
This book is a solid work of reference, and many people will read it from the index backwards, so it is pertinent to say that though the index is good it might perhaps have been fuller with advantage. Simply to follow the entry 'Margaret Thatcher' with twenty-three page references is less helpful than it might be. The bibliography is notably full, and I think they must have read the whole of the nine entries beginning 'Report of . . .', plus the six listed under 'Ministry of Housing and Local Government'. If so, they are heroes.
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|Article Type:||Book Review|
|Date:||Aug 1, 1998|
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