Features: July 14th, 2006

Fifty Years In and Around Local Government

By Rodney Brooke

This article was first published in Public Management and Policy and is reproduced by permission of the Association. http://www.cipfa.org.uk/pmpa/index.cfm

Fifty years ago I joined the town hall in Morley, Yorkshire as the office boy. I stuck on the stamps for a wage of £13 per month. How did the scene then compare with the present? Then, the age of deference still existed: when the town clerk of Morley took a telephone call from the deputy clerk of the West Riding County Council, he would stand up to show respect.

As I clambered up the greasy pole of local government to become a chief executive, my appellation moved up from ‘Rodney’ to ‘Mr Brooke’ to ‘Sir’. And, with the end of the age of deference, back to ‘Rodney’ again.

Town and county clerks were always lawyers, a necessary qualification when the incumbents also administered Quarter Sessions. In the 1960s, there was outrage among lawyers when Coventry appointed a treasurer as chief executive.

Culture change

Councillors were kept at a distance. Informal contact between members and officers was deplored. They belonged to different castes. When the leader of the Morley Council entered the town hall, the town clerk would leave by the back door in order to avoid the unpleasantness of a meeting.

It was an age of trust, which crossed political boundaries. Everyone was part of the same club. It was possible for ministers of one party to have confidential discussions with local government politicians of another without fear of breach of confidence. For example, facing a major police crisis in the county of which I was chief executive, Willie Whitelaw, then home secretary, summoned me to his office and discussed it privately over a gin and tonic.

Local government retained enormous power and prestige. In his diaries, Richard Crossman records a good idea. He floated it to the chairmen of the local government associations. They pooh-poohed it. He was furious. But he regarded their disapproval as a veto. No government now would regard dissent by local government as constituting an obstat on its plans.

Small was beautiful

Back in the 1950s, tiny authorities still flourished. In Lancashire, Tintwistle Urban District Council had a population of 880 people and still managed to provide the basic local government services. It could never have coped with the current requirements of central government. But it was in direct contact with its electorate.

In 1962, when I qualified as a solicitor, my first job was in Rochdale, an all-purpose county borough with a population of 86,000. It ran its own police service, fire brigade, water undertaking, refuse and sewage disposal, transport undertaking and further education. Its medical officer of health supervised the health of the town. The solicitors in the town clerk’s department conducted police prosecutions. If anything went wrong, there could be no doubt in the minds of the townsfolk who was to blame. It was the council. The staple diet of the Rochdale Observer came from the town hall. In those days there was a confidence that the problems of society would be solved. All that was needed was more money and more time for it to take effect. Chief executives were appointed for their ability to spend money, not to save it. Only in 1974, with Tony Crosland’s the ‘party’s over’ speech, did the spending splurge end and austerity began to reassert itself.

Changing challenges

The major problems then faced by local government were the result of poverty. Conquering it was a crusade—a social mission. Of course there is still abject poverty: the poor are always with us, some in desperate straits like the homeless and asylum seekers. But, today, local government must also address the problems of affluence and their threats to the environment. It also has to tackle the envy or disillusionment with materialism caused by affluence.

Until 1979, national elections promised regular changes in government. Strangely, despite those changes, the pre-1979 era seems a haven of stability. The stability of governments since then has not resulted in the stability of institutions. Indeed, the reverse is the case. Driven by a 24-hour press, when faced with an intractable problem, the reaction of governments is to change the structure of the institution that deals with it. Famously, the abolition of the National Care Standards Council was announced 17 days after it started work. Its successor, the Commission for Social Care Inspection, lasted 10 months before it, too, bit the dust.

One thing never changes. It is now 30 years since the late Sir Frank Layfield reported on local government finance. His Commission was successful in two things:

• It accurately demonstrated the instability of the system.

• It brought together two great battlers for local government: Professors John Stewart and George Jones.

But it was extremely unsuccessful in persuading successive governments to adopt a remedy. The sore continues to fester, with the current government cancelling a revaluation. Twenty years ago, a similar decision led to the fiasco of the poll tax and accelerated the present problems. Sir Michael Lyons has inherited the mantle of Sir Frank. Can he be more successful in persuading government to grasp the nettle?

After my 50 years, I experience more and more groundhog days. Reorganization in the NHS goes round in circles. The Seebohm social services reforms, which I supervised in 1970, have been reversed. City regions (aka the metropolitan counties) are back in fashion. The GLC under Ken Livingstone has been revived, but with Mr Livingstone’s powers strengthened.

I look forward to one more groundhog day. Ministers are driven by the media to do something about everything that goes wrong. I believe that soon they will cotton onto the great strengths of local government:

• Ministers can blame it for mistakes.

• Local government makes smaller mistakes than national government.

• Local innovation can be copied more widely when—but not before—it is seen to work.

• People close to the ground are more likely to get it right than politicians and civil servants in Whitehall.

There is a chicken-and-egg dilemma about this issue. A council with its powers, influence and financial independence restored is more likely to engage with its electorate than a toothless body. A council which engages its electorate is more likely to regain powers than one distant from it.

Perhaps the government’s present push towards decentralization can break the loop. A revitalized democracy depends on local government. It would be very good to see a council as central to its residents as Rochdale County Borough was 50 years ago.

Rodney Brooke is the Chair of the General Social Care Council.