Look who’s turning 50

It’s a big year for turning 50, in 2024: Kate Moss, Bear Grylls, Joaquin Phoenix, Leonardo DiCaprio, Victoria Beckham; and Playmobil, Rubik’s Cube, the Watergate scandal, The Six Million Dollar Man and Happy Days – to name a few.

The most important on the list, however, are those remaining Local Government Act 1972 councils in England that came into effect on 1 April 1974 and are consequently celebrating their 50th birthdays.

In creating many of today’s councils, the 1972 Act swept away two-thirds of those then existing, reducing 1,245 to 412. 

The Act’s aim was not universally accepted and was hotly contested across the country and in Parliament, giving rise to the campaign slogan ‘Don’t Vote for R.E.Mote!’ – a slogan designed to bring attention to how the Act consequently increased the size of councils.

Yet, the two-tier system introduced by the Act was a better outcome for keeping local government ‘local’ than the 58 unitary councils proposed by the Royal Commission on Local Government in England, chaired by Lord Redcliffe-Maud, which Harold Wilson’s government supported: its 58 unitary councils today would have each had an average population of more than 960,000. 

Edward Heath’s government, however, rejected the Redcliffe-Maud proposals and the 1972 Act created the two-tier structure and most of the councils we recognise today. 

Had Redcliffe-Maud looked further through the telescope to view the consequences of population growth on its proposed unitaries (it was responsible for introducing the term ‘unitary’ into the lexicon of local government), it might have reconsidered, particularly as its democratic considerations posed an upper limit on any council running all services and democratic control by councillors is made more difficult as councils increase in size. 

In a powerful admission, the report noted that local people should feel as though they were included in any ‘unit’ – note, ‘unit’, not ‘community’. 

While the report that led to the sweeping away of more than 800 councils in England was aware of limits to structural reorganisation, it also argued there were no firm limits on population size, suggesting 250,000 as a starting point. 

Local government managerial and professional organisations at the time wanted 250,000 populations; where that figure came from is, however, shrouded in mystery. Yet, Redcliffe-Maud and the 1972 Act did not end the debate about structure or size – even less the purpose – of local government. 

Indeed, they set many structural hares running that continue to chase local government. Especially, as every new local government minister – who may never have mentioned local government structure in their entire political careers – seems, within days of taking office, to suggest reorganisation might be a good idea. 

Is a copy of the Redcliffe-Maud report dusted off and presented to new ministers as a jolly good way of getting rid of all those pesky councils and councillors? 

The commission’s terms of reference asked it to consider: ‘the structure of local government in England… in relation to its existing functions; and to make recommendations for authorities and boundaries, and for functions and their division, having regard to the size and character of areas in which these can be most effectively exercised and the need to sustain a viable system of local democracy’.  

The councils created by the 1972 Act have shown that they are skilled and adept at striking the balance the commission saw as vital to sustainable local government. 

One could be forgiven for thinking the 1972 councils were set up to fail; as with most centrally inspired reorganisations, no new autonomy and freedoms were given. 

The report and Act simply ignored the purpose of local government, preferring to see structure as the solution. If only we could identify the problem! 

Rather than reach for the reorganisation revolver, it is time to explore exactly what freedoms, powers, autonomy and responsibilities cash-strapped councils need. 

The 1972 Act councils are the bedrock of the local government structure; those that remain have stood the test of time and what rough times they have been. 

They have shown resilience, fortitude and success in governing and serving communities. Those we have lost were no less able to do that but succumbed to the centralising and unitarising tendencies of the centre. 

So, hitting the big 5-0 should not be ignored. 

Let’s see mayors, council leaders, chief executives and councillors proudly celebrate their birthday with public recognition of all they do and have achieved for citizens and communities. 

Put out the banners, hoist the flags, inflate balloons and bouncy castles and celebrate our great traditions of civic pride, local patriotism and local government. 

If 50 is the new 30 then it’s time to overcome any reluctance to showcase the value local government adds to communities and the country’s governance. 

The occasion must not disappear: if we don’t celebrate the best of local government we will, over time, lose it. 

Over the past 50 years, 412 councils have become 317. So, while raising a glass of champagne, let’s not forget those that didn’t make it to their half-century. 

Central control of finances

After 50 years of increasing control over local councils and their finances, England is now one of the world’s most centralised countries. 

The 1976 Layfield Committee report into local government finance offered ministers a choice: a more centrally controlled system of local authority finance or one with greater local autonomy. 

The latter was anathema to Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, and there was a series of centralising measures in the 1980s. These included rate-capping controls, the abolition of the Greater London Council, and a whole tier of six metropolitan county councils. 

In 1990, we had the ‘community charge’ or poll tax, with control over business rates removed from local councils and shifted to the Treasury. 

For more than 40 of the 50 years I have been a councillor, central government has decided annually the maximum percentage increase in council tax. This, along with centralised business rates, remains the greatest act of central control ever exercised by governments over English local councils. 

Governments of all political colours have maintained the huge dominance of Whitehall, with directly elected mayors subject to the same restrictions as councils. 

Financial independence and revenue-raising powers must be the real test of genuine devolution.

Notwithstanding real-term cuts in government funding for local authorities of more than 40 per cent since 2010, I believe English local government remains the most efficient part of the public sector. 

In fact, during the COVID-19 pandemic, the ‘stars’ were local authorities. They responded swiftly and effectively as partners, and were crucial to the vaccination roll-out, and wider health and financial support.

I hope the next government will reinvigorate councils within a genuinely devolved structure, based on a framework of unitary local government and a regional tier (which could also nominate members to a streamlined and reformed upper house in Parliament). 

Financing needs to be made much fairer, recognising the need for continuing central grants to less well-off councils, while permitting new and diverse sources of revenue. 

There is no need for another Royal Commission. It just needs a re-reading of the Layfield report – and a bit of political will.

Search hashtag #LocalGov50 on social media or go to www.local.gov.uk/localgov50 for more ideas on how to celebrate the 50th anniversary of county and district councils


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