Town bloody hall!

Will the Government please take its filthy hands off Morley, which happens to be my home town? Morley, apart from producing Asquith, has never bothered the central Government, and I see no good reason why Whitehall should bother us.
Vincent Mulchrone, Daily Mail, 15 September 1971

On the ground floor of the office block in which I lodge there is a training centre for journalists. The cadet reporters are working, as I did more than 30 years ago, towards their ‘national cert’, the bit of paper issued by the National Council for the Training of Journalists that allows them to be unleashed, notebooks in hand, on an unsuspecting public.

A friend’s son has just completed the course, and from what I hear the various exams do not seem to have changed a great deal, including the part covering the machinery of local government. In terms of the exam torture inflicted on the would-be hacks, this paper (‘public admin 1’ in my day, if memory serves) was by no means the worst. The workings of the ‘rate support grant’ (now that dates it) was a major headache, but the rest was a doddle compared with, for example, the mandatory 100-word-a-minute minimum shorthand speed, or having to explain the difference between libel and malicious falsehood.

None of which is to say that mastering the details of municipal administration was not taken seriously. Once the course was over, we would all be heading back to local and regional newspapers where a fair chunk of our young lives would be (mis)spent sitting in the press box at council meetings. Our tutors took us to city and county council sessions and arranged for councillors to talk to us. We touched on such obscurities (even then) as the 1969 Skeffington Report on ‘participation’; its publication was only 11 years in the past but its worthy attempts to get the public involved in planning decisions seemed, in the first full year of Mrs Thatcher’s premiership, like something from a distant era.

To memorise the different functions of the various municipal bodies in England and Wales, we dreamed up mnemonics in which different initials stood for Housing, Education, Museums, Planning, Refuse Collection, Libraries and the rest: HELP MY SCOR, MR CHOP and HER RPM still stick in my mind which is, I suppose, the whole point of mnemonics.

They would be of a little use now, though – and not merely because today’s trainees would not have a clue as to why the letters RPM belong together. These days none of the letters (or rather the tasks they describe) necessarily belong together. A fairly comprehensible and uniform system back then is increasingly composed of many exceptions and few rules.

That English local government is a mess is a common assertion, but this assertion is usually justified by reference to the circumscription by Whitehall of the powers and discretion of the town and county hall and the linked decline in the amount of money local authorities raise from local taxation in relation to the increased proportion dished out by central government. My take on the subject is rather less complicated: local government is a mess and would be so regardless of its powers or its financing arrangements.

For a start, I do not believe one voter in a thousand has any idea of when their local councillors come up for election. Here is what the GOV.UK website has to say on the matter:

Depending on where you live, either all of the councillors are elected every four years, or half of the councillors are elected every two years or a third of the councillors are elected every year for three years, with no elections in the fourth year.

Well that’s perfectly clear then.

Then there is the question of which authority is responsible for which services and what powers are vested at which level. This is more apparent in some areas than others, but nowhere in England is there an instinctive understanding of the functions of municipal bodies.

Westminster has been fiddling with local administration since the late 1960s, a process justified at the start on the ground that the then current structure was a terrible hotchpotch and that the spirit of the decade demanded something very much more streamlined. More than 40 years of fiddling later and the hotchpotch is not only objectively worse than it was then but is about to get more muddled still.

In trying to understand how this has happened, it is important first of all to grasp that the original justification for ‘reform’ was always dubious. The first bout of fiddling was unleashed by Harold Wilson’s government, with the appointment in 1966 of former diplomat Baron (John) Redcliffe-Maud and fellow commissioners (including ‘Mr Newcastle’, T. Dan Smith) to inquire into the future of local government in England.

The rationale was that the existing system was a sprawling mess of counties, county boroughs, urban district councils (UDCs), rural district councils (RDCs) and municipal boroughs. But this was always misleading. UDCs, RDCs and municipal boroughs were essentially identical. RDCs covered larger areas and municipal boroughs were UDCs with a mayor instead of a chairman, but there were few other differences.

County boroughs were what we would now call unitary authorities, responsible for all services in their bailiwick, while the counties shared responsibilities with the above-mentioned district tier beneath them. In London, which was outside the scope of the Redcliffe-Maud commission, responsibilities were divided between a Greater London Council and 33 boroughs (including the City), an arrangement similar to that (with the addition of the Mayor) in force today.

The Baron’s report, with scant regard for historic boundaries, proposed the creation of 58 unitary authorities across England, plus three metropolitan areas (Birmingham, Merseyside and Greater Manchester), all grouped into eight ‘provinces’. Labour’s shock June 1970 election defeat spared the nation this imposition, but the fiddling continued under the new Conservative administration, which essentially split the difference between Redcliffe-Maud and the status quo.

There were to be no unitary authorities. The man who appointed the Baron takes up the tale:

Lord Redcliffe-Maud … aimed at streamlining rather than inflating local government bureaucracy. The Conservatives, however, set up an indefensible two-tier system based on counties and ‘district councils’, which simply led to double-staffing at each level. (Harold Wilson, Final Term: The Labour Government 1974–1976, 1979)

Not entirely fair, given that the counties and districts had different, albeit overlapping, responsibilities, but not completely wide of the mark either. For example, the above-mentioned long-ago editorial training centre at which the ‘Mr Chop’ family of mnemonics was ingested was situated in the City of Cardiff, a ‘district’ authority. Next door was another district, the Vale of Glamorgan, based in Barry. These two comprised the only constituent districts of a county authority, South Glamorgan, also sited in Cardiff. So within about eight miles there were three fully-fledged local councils complete with headquarters, computers, budgets and, of course, full-time officials.

artwork-manchester-town-hall1In the six metropolitan counties established by the Tories (West Midlands, Merseyside, Greater Manchester, South Yorkshire, West Yorkshire and Tyne and Wear) this duplication took a slightly different form, in that the greater responsibilities vested at the lower tier meant the metropolitan districts resembled the old county boroughs, raising the question of what the upper-tier metropolitan counties were actually for.

Not a lot, came the answer during Mrs Thatcher’s second term. In 1986, the metropolitan county councils (although not the metropolitan counties themselves) were abolished, along with the ‘original’ upon which they had been based, the GLC.

For some years thereafter the focus of Whitehall’s endless meddling with the municipal system moved to local government finance. But once the dust had settled on the Poll Tax debacle, the fiddling shifted back, under both John Major and Tony Blair, to structures and boundaries. In a sense, the reappearance of the GLC in 2000, re-born as the London Assembly, was the least radical of the changes, given it was largely the restoration of the status quo ante. Elsewhere, the new bout of municipal constitution-mongering threw up such exotica as elected mayors in some areas, but not others, and the abortive ‘great north vote’ that was to have established regional assemblies in England, starting with the North Country – until the first region to vote, the north-east, gave an emphatic No.

Elsewhere, the Baron’s unitary authorities finally made an appearance in some parts of the country (the post-1986 metropolitan districts were such de facto but not de jure), taking over entirely counties including Berkshire, Cornwall, Wiltshire and Herefordshire and biting chunks out of others, such as Kent, Somerset and Lincolnshire. So confusing had matters become that we needed the Lieutenancy Act 1997 to tell us what was and was not a county, the point being that if you had a Lord Lieutenant you were and if you didn’t you weren’t (by popular acclaim Middlesex remains a bit of an exception here).

After more than 40 years of fiddling in the cause of efficiency, what has happened to the local government payroll? On 17 June, the Office for National Statistics (ONS) published the latest figures. It declared that in the first quarter of 2015: ‘Employment in UK local government, at 2.283 million, was 23,000 lower than in the fourth quarter of 2014. This is the lowest level shown since the beginning of the series in 1999.’

It is perhaps a little suspicious that the series started only once the Millennial surge in public spending – and hiring – was gathering speed. True, 2.283 million looks modest indeed compared with the peak payroll of 2.940 million achieved in the third quarter of 2006, and again in the second quarter of 2007, but over the longer term?

Employment in local government service rose from 1.5 million in 1960 to 2.5 million in 1975, an increase of 67 per cent. (Harold Wilson ibid.)

Doubtless it will be said that the former prime minister’s figures are not comparable with those in use today. But Wilson’s point that the years of municipal meddling (for the start of which he himself was entirely responsible) coincided with a steady upward drift in local-government employment – a drift that has only been (partly) reversed under pressure of the most serious economic and fiscal crisis in decades – is well made.

Furthermore, only the brave or the foolhardy would bet on the downward trend in staff numbers being maintained. Having created the ‘strategic’ top tier of metropolitan county administration in 1974 before proceeding to ditch it 12 years later, the Conservatives, in power, are now recreating it with George Osborne’s ‘metro mayors’ and ‘combined authorities’. Greater Manchester is to have such a set-up; West Yorkshire may get one, as may the West Midlands. All will need staff. Doubtless we will be told these will be drawn from the existing payrolls in that area. Or that ‘business’ will chip in to cover the cost. Or that there will be savings elsewhere to offset any extra expense.


As to the motivation behind this latest bout of meddling, which will make the municipal waters even muddier than they are already, it springs from a long-running misunderstanding as to the roles of local authorities. Under the English – indeed, British – system, their three main tasks are, first, to deliver at a local level services mandated from the centre (such as schools, libraries and so forth); second, to make decisions that lie within their competence and their borders, chief among these being planning decisions; and, third, to deliver any additional services for which their local electorates have given them a mandate.

But since at least the time of Redcliffe-Maud, there has been a notion that local authorities ought also to promote economic growth and development and, moreover, that getting the ‘right’ structure for local government will facilitate this.

The link between now and then, and a possible partial explanation for the revival of the ‘growth’ doctrine, is Lord Heseltine, who served as a young minister in the Department of the Environment in the early 1970s, helping the Tory reform of local government on to the statute book, and has more recently been advising the 2010-2015 Coalition (under which the metro mayor proposal began) on growth strategy.

Here is what he wrote in a report for the Department for Business in October 2012, after a favourable mention of the Redcliffe-Maud proposals: ‘The boundaries of many English local authorities bear no relation to modern patterns of economic activity – they are not functional economic market areas (FEMAs). This adds to the difficulties local authorities have in understanding what decisions are needed for their economies and limits their ability to take the action needed for local growth.’

Leaving aside as to whether any of us wishes to inhabit and be defined by our FEMA, the experience of the last 40 or more years is that every attempt to turn municipal administration into a branch of the ‘growth industry’ has made it less accountable and more expensive. In place of the present mess, and of proposals that will only make it worse, we ought to insist instead on two reforms designed to bring some genuine accountability to the whole business

One, all council seats ought to be up for election on the same day, nationwide.

Two, those areas in which the local authority is delivering centrally-mandated services ought to be clearly labelled as such and centrally funded, while those the authority has itself elected to provide ought to be similarly labelled and locally funded.

As for metro mayors and combined authorities, send for Mr Chop.artwork-manchester-town-hall4


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