The Decline and Fall of Local Government
It is commonly observed that the most consequential politicians are not always prime ministers, but most people would perhaps be surprised to learn that arguably the most influential and famous politician in the UK during the mid-1870s was the mayor of Birmingham. During his tenure as mayor from 1873 to 1876, Joseph Chamberlain forcibly purchased the city’s competing gas and water companies, while also undertaking an extensive slum clearance program and constructing the neo-classical and neo-gothic libraries, schools, law courts and art galleries that can still be seen in the city. Long after Chamberlain had moved on to national politics, his reforms led The Atlantic to describe Birmingham as “the best-governed city in the world.”
Chamberlain was a remarkable politician but he was by no means unique in his time. Local government across England at this time was home to elected officials – often guided by nonconformist religion (Chamberlain himself was a Unitarian) – explicitly and implicitly promoting a doctrine of ‘municipal socialism.’ Local and municipal councils of varying political stripes bought out private gas, electricity and transport companies, providing services to their residents at affordable prices and reinvesting the profits in improvements. Before the Second World War, the average citizen would likely have had little contact with the central government in London but may well have lived in municipal housing, bathed in municipal water, rode municipal trams on municipal roads, read a local newspaper from a municipal library, exercised on municipal sports grounds, been nursed in municipal hospitals and, finally, been buried in a municipal grave.
The power of councils declined steeply after the Second World War. This was in part for a good reason – with the Attlee government’s creation of a national welfare state, many of the functions which had been carried out by local councils were now within the province of the central state. The fact that the healthcare provision in Bermondsey actually deteriorated after 1948 is a remarkable testament both to the quality of some municipal care but also the patchwork provision that this approach had entailed: a welfare version of the postcode lottery that was in dire need of rationalisation. Still, the legacy of municipal government lived on in the nationalised industries, which largely copied their initial structures from the municipal companies they replaced.
Nevertheless, local government continued to play a significant role in British public life. By 1979 over 250,000 council houses had been built in England alone. Under Margaret Thatcher, however, the UK entered a period of rapid centralisation. This was partly by her government’s small-government ideology, manifested for example by the ‘right to buy’ scheme, which compelled local authorities to give tenants the power to buy their council homes and put legal restrictions on the ability of councils to replace sold housing stock. But there was another, more prosaic reason for her desire to curb the power of local government: too many councils would not do as they were told. The fate of the Greater London Council can be seen through this lens. Despite its devolution agenda in Scotland and Wales, New Labour made no serious attempt to reverse these changes and, by the year 2000, almost 90% of local government spending was determined by Westminster.
Before 2010, the consequences of these changes could, perhaps, be ignored. After all, the money taps were still turned on. However, under the Conservative-led coalition, these taps were turned off conclusively as George Osborne, in a typically canny and amoral piece of politics, devolved responsibility for much of his cuts to local government (a playbook also followed, to some extent, by Labour in Wales and the SNP in Scotland). The effect was to splinter the debate about cuts into a dozen different campaigns. Perhaps the most notorious were the cuts to public libraries, which have closed at an astonishing rate since 2010. But there have also been similar cuts to public transport, the arts and social care.
Because these are cuts handed down by Westminster, there is a complete lack of accountability at local level: it doesn’t matter whether you vote for Labour to take over from your Tory-run council, your local library is still going to be closed. This was literally the story of Walsall council in 2016. In response to this case, Philip Hensher tweeted derisively that intelligent people should leave Walsall but this missed the point that the council acted because they had no choice: they were not given sufficient money and were denied means to raise their own. So gutted, councils have become either nests of unaccountable and largely unnoticed cronyism and corruption, or mere stepping stones to ‘proper’ politics in Westminster (or both).
The UK is the most radically centralised country in Europe, its political structure more suited to an autocratic planned economy than a vibrant modern democracy. The revitalisation of our crippled local politics cannot be accomplished simply by tweaking things such as a council’s right to borrow. Instead, we must think about how people see their local identities and develop a more radical federal structure to suit the multiple political cultures of the UK.