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FEATURES - PARADISE LOST

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From a position of strength over the centre, Rodney Brooke continues our four-page special as he charts the tarnish...
From a position of strength over the centre, Rodney Brooke continues our four-page special as he charts the tarnishing of local government's golden age

LGC's centenary year, 1955, climaxed with one vitally important event - vitally important for me, at least. I joined local government. Thereafter began its slow decline. Could there be

a link?

By contrast, 1855 - LGC's founding year - was a great time for local government as no single central body was in control. Those were the glory days. There was a general belief that local self-government was better than central diktat.

The great improvements in public health came through local government. In the cities, the wealthy manufacturers joined the council - often to extend its powers rather than curtail its spending. Leaders believed it was right that Birmingham Council should have the monopoly on the supply of gas and electricity, as well as water and trams.

Central government did not much interfere with local government until after the Second World War. Within the legislative framework, councils were left to get on with the job.

However, there were battles. In 1921, Poplar, a poor metropolitan borough in London's East End, rebelled against the local government financial system. The council argued the demands on its resources were so much greater than other metropolitan boroughs. The council refused to pay the London County Council precept and its councillors went to prison - where they continued to hold council meetings.

As leader of London County Council in 1937, Herbert Morrison battled with the government over the building of Waterloo Bridge. Exploiting public opinion, he successfully ignored government opposition and commissioned the new bridge.

It was during Morrison's time in government that local government experienced its first cataclysmic loss of functions. This came in the nationalisation period immediately after the Second World War. Main highways, gas, electricity and what remained of public assistance all disappeared into the maw of quangos. Worst of all, councils lost control of the hospitals and the NHS was created.

But within their sphere of influence, councils still proceeded in a relatively consensual partnership with central government. In his diaries, local government and housing secretary Richard Crossman describes one brush with the council associations. He jettisoned what he thought was a bright idea when the associations opposed it. When did the outrage of the Local Government Association last stop central government in its tracks?

The gradual loss of local government functions continued. The Police Act 1964 ended the rule of the local watch committees and the borough police forces. In 1968 municipal transport in the metropolitan areas was removed from local control and vested in the passenger transport authorities.

Reorganisation of local government in 1974 delivered other blows, ending local government's responsibility for public health. Water and sewage disposal disappeared into quangoland until they were privatised during the Thatcher administration.

In the 1970s the ideological battleground between local and central government was staked out. There were battles over comprehensive education. The Conservative government laid down its policy on council housing rents. The advent of Margaret Thatcher's government in 1979 intensified the enmity. Councils declined to implement the government's policy on the sale of council housing. Government decisions were challenged in a series of judicial reviews.

The greatest conflict took place over local government finance, as the government tried to rein in spending. Militant-controlled Liverpool City Council refused to set a rate unless the city received more government aid. In a government climbdown, environment secretary Patrick Jenkin sent more cash. In 1984, a humiliated government took powers under the Rates Act to cap the rates. Outraged, the Labour-controlled rate-capped authorities began to meet. Lambeth and Islington LBCs refused to set a rate and councillors were surcharged.

The government's attack moved on to local government officers. The Tories' annoyance prompted them to set up the Widdicombe Committee on the conduct of council business. Announcing its creation, Mr Jenkin told the 1984 Conservative Party conference: 'There is a cancer in some local councils. In some of our cities, local democracy itself is under attack. Conventional checks and balances are scorned. Councils squander millions on virulent political campaigns. Officers are selected for their political views; the rights of minorities are suppressed; standing orders are manipulated to stifle debates.'

Spearheading the revolt against government was Ken Livingstone's Greater London Council. Mr Livingstone captured the public imagination and infuriated Mrs Thatcher. I once walked with him from my office to County Hall. He was greeted as a hero with cries of 'Keep it up, Ken'. In retaliation to Mr Livingstone, Mrs Thatcher used the ultimate sanction - abolition.

Meanwhile local government's financial troubles rumbled on. To mollify business, the commercial rates were nationalised in 1988. Then the policy that ultimately brought Mrs Thatcher down was introduced.

The ramifications of the poll tax were huge. The Daily Mirror devoted its front page to 'Sex and the Poll Tax'. The legislation prescribed joint liability for people who co-habited. Tribunals pondered on the meaning of co-habitation. Did it involve sexual relations? If so, how often did they have to take place?

The poll tax was later replaced by council tax and local government ceased to be the delivery mechanism of choice. The message was clear: the monolithic power of local government was to be ended whenever possible. Schools opted out of local government control. Housing associations or arm's-length management organisations were encouraged to take over council housing.

Compared with the battles of the previous two decades, the last10 years have been relatively uneventful. But local government is still seen by central government as a commissioner, not a deliverer, of services.

To illustrate how local government has lost its influence, let me tell you about my first council, Rochdale. It had its own water and sewage operation, police force, fire brigade, housing, medical officer of health, buses and waste disposal. Pretty well everything in the town was the council's responsibility.

The Rochdale Observer had two reporters devoted to council business. At that time all the national papers had a dedicated local government reporter. Name me one newspaper nowadays with such a reporter.

This might be bad for local government but it is much worse for democracy. If the roots of democracy wither, what hope is there for the tree itself?

Rodney Brooke, chair, General Social Care Council and secretary, London Boroughs Association 1984-90; Association of Metropolitan Authorities 1990-97

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