The total and utter history of local government

I took part in the Pecha Kucha night as part of the notWestminster event. I’ve never done Pecha Kucha before and I really enjoyed it.

My subject was “The total and utter history of local government”. It was always intended to be a partial and partisan telling. Also it’s really only about local government in England.

Here I give you a version, not of what I said but instead of what I meant to say.


In 1994 I bought, in Hay on Wye: Town of Books, a racy number entitled The Responsive Local Authority. It had been published in 1974.

It fascinated me. Because it proved that for at least 20 years people had been trying, like me, to make councils work better.

Without success.

So I started to think:

Maybe this feature is by design.

Which invites the question…

How was local government designed?

Designing the middle age way

A nice date to peg the beginnings of local government is 780 Common Era.

The Anglo Saxons divided the country into Shires administered by an Earldoman.

Communities took collective responsibility for administration in their local areas.

It was all nicely Nordic.

By the way, Law and order was managed by the Shire Reeve.

That’s right.

The Anglo Saxons invented the sherif.

It’s all the fault of the Normans

Then the French moved in.

Well really they were vikings which is why we called them the north men or the Normans.

The Normans ruined everything.

They build massive castles to impose themselves upon the population.

They devastated the North of England so completely that single intervention may explain today’s north-south divide.

They built a massive database of the land and the people they controlled and stored it all in a huge data warehouse.

Which they called “the Domesday Book”

Anglo Saxon local administration was replaced by feudal lordship.

Incidentally you can draw a line from the Norman invasion to the Highland Clearances.

I’d like to tell you about this because it is interesting.

Interesting. But not relevant to our story.

Back to England

Over the middle ages the counties were divided into parishes largely for the convenience of organising and taxing the populace.

Urban areas sometimes managed to get borough status.

This was essentially a deal made with the King to free the administration of local areas from lordships.

Boroughs were administered by aldermen (remember the Anglo Saxon Earldoman), elected by local people.

Oh wait. No. Totally NOT elected. They were self-selected.

They mostly dealt with things like

  • running markets to make money
  • organising guilds to make money
  • and, er, making money.

In the messy and random way so typical of our constitution over centuries boroughs and parishes were handed responsibility for stuff like roads, bridges, prisons and the Poor Laws.

The first Poor Law was passed in 1600 (possibly 1601, certainly early 1600’s)

The Poor Laws were not, as you might imagine, named for their incoherent drafting but because they covered the duties local areas had to the poor including looking after orphans.

The upkeep of poor people was paid for by local taxes.

So essentially the aldermen and their mates paid taxes to support their poor neighbours.

A recurring theme of the history of English local government is that people don’t like paying tax.

You could make a strong argument that the history of England is basically defined by taxation.

Certainly the history of parliament is essentially arguing and at times going to war with the King over taxes.

And religion.


Anyway. Surprise surprise, in general local rate payers resented paying for the upkeep of orphans, the old and the sick.

They didn’t think this was a fair deal.

They did what councils always do: they hassled their MPs about it.

They were, in effect, complaining about benefit scroungers.

In 1834 parliament responded by introducing workhouses.

These were still funded by local taxes but they were horrid and unpleasant places.

The local middle classes didn’t feel so bad about paying taxes if the poor had brutish and unhappy lives.

In 1835 ratepayers began to elect people to serve on their local town council.

Very little changes

Aldermen continued to serve on councils (appointed not elected). They tended to hold the big jobs, committee chairs, that sorts of thing.

In fact aldermen proved to be a very persistent feature of local government

They managed to hang around until 1974 (1978 in London).

In the 19th century housing was often, probably mostly poor.

Cholera, Typhus and other contagious diseases were rarely checked.

The rate-payers and their councillors responded to the public health crises in their communities by complaining about how much they were spending on the rates and the fact that they didn’t get anything for it.

Councils to the rescue

Councils worked hard to slash spending and cut public services.

No-one asked the poor what they thought about this.

Then John Snow worked out that cholera was caused by drinking water infected by sewage.

Famously he tracked cholera to a particular fountain and chained it up.

No-one thanked him for it.

Local councils leaped into inaction as a result.

Jon Snow turned to parliament to sort it all out.

Parliament demanded that local administrations start implementing things like running water and sewage pipes.


These had only been available for a couple of thousand years so, really, it was pretty responsive of local authorities to introduce them to England at this time.

Local government typically takes credit for the transformation in public health through the 19th century.

But really they were just doing what they were told.

Parliament also came up with the novel idea that councils should remove nuisances and waste.

In some, rare, and famous places councils innovated. They cleared slums and introduced municipal energy supply companies.

Universal education was introduced by parliament in the 1880s and education became a local authority responsibility at the start of the 20th century.

Don’t be smug about this English folk.

Hooray for Scotland

Scotland had had universal education for over a century by this point.

Though the history of local government in Scotland has similarities to England, it is not the same. We could probably learn more from each other’s history.

Through the twentieth century local authorities were handed more and more responsibility for looking after children.

And in the 1970s the government reorganised things again and created Social Services Departments.

Democracy leaks in

This was also the point that local authorities became run entirely by elected councillors. There were still aldermen but it became a totally honorary position.

That’s right. Local councils became democratic institutions in 1974. Some of you are young and think that the 70’s is a long time ago. I am old and the 70’s seems very recent to me.

When my mum was elected to a district council in the 1980s committee chairs still wore aldermen’s robes. Women wore tri-corned hats. I have no idea why. My mum refused. The practice fairly rapidly ceased.

With the occasional exception (Birmingham under Chamberlain for example), local administrations have had to be bullied, coaxed and eventually forced to implement almost all social reforms.

This hasn’t stopped local government being a force for good.

I have loved local government since I got a part time job at South Herefordshire District Council (since reorganised out of existence, obviously).

Local government protects vulnerable children, takes away your waste and deals with nuisances. Which is a delightful term for an unpleasant phenomenon.

New castles

The Normans built Mottes to demonstrate their power to the surrounding communities.

Local Authorities build council headquarters to do the exact same thing.

It’s not surprising that 40 years on we are still wondering how to make local authorities responsive.

We often labour under the misapprehension that local government is a democratic institution. Representative of and accountable to the local community.

Government of the people…

But local government isn’t a project of the people. It isn’t a popular movement. It is a pact between local elites and national politicians and it has been since the Normans turned up.

I want the history of local government to be better.

I want to hear how councils provided local leadership and transformed people’s lives.

I really don’t want it to be the case that local rate payers have fought tooth and nail almost every social reform.

But you can’t always get what you want.

Local government is a dialogue between people with power locally and people with power nationally.

As citizens we have wrested some limited control over them.

We should keep trying.

But we should stop, metaphorically pushing buttons and asking “why isn’t this thing responding to me”

It just wasn’t built that way.