Page 1

Lent Term One

Rebalancing Britain

Tom Ardron Essay 1B


“The people of England deceive themselves when they fancy they are free; they are so, only during the election of members of parliament: for as soon as a new one is elected, they are again in chains, and are nothing.’ - Jean-Jacques Rousseau, The Social Contract (1762)


The Genesis of Local Government in England Industrialisation in Britain brought with it a plethora of socio-economic challenges. In the middle of the nineteenth century, as a result of the exigencies of the industrialisation process, a mass movement of workers from rural to urban areas occurred (Atkinson & Wilks-Heeg, 2000: 13). The Great Reform Act of 1832 was introduced as a result of a surge in population in key cities during the Industrial Revolution. Prior to the act being put in place, boroughs could send two representatives to the House of Commons, though it was primarily the land-owning class who contributed (nearly all men in possession of freehold property were given a vote; the complicit nature of the system granted some the ability to vote in all the constituencies in which they held property) (Phillips & Wetherell, 1995: 413). The Reform Act took into account the new movement of population around Britain and enabled fair representation in areas previously represented by local aristocracy; principally those with an increasing number of working class residents.

Devolution In Retrospect Foreword The desire for devolution in the North of England has become a matter of increased political salience throughout the past decade; notably since the Scottish Referendum of 2014. This essay traces the formation and evolution of local government in England and postulates a shift from local government, to local governance as the origin for an advocacy towards English devolution. This position is augmented by key policy changes from the 1979 Thatcher Government, to the establishment of the Conservative-Liberal Democrat Coalition in 2010. Through the case study of the North-East Assembly Referendum of 2004, I conclude that an ‘imitative model of democracy’ (Amin, 2004: 37) and lack of democratic autonomy, has resulted in the failed efforts of English regionalism to date. On this premise, I critique the emphasis of ‘economic renewal’ (Bailey, 2016) in the current devolution agenda for the North of England.

Wilks-Heeg, 2000: 13). By the 1880s, the piecemeal nature in which the municipal councils operated, failed to remain concomitant with the ways in which society was developing. As a result of this, the 1888 Local Government Act was established in an effort to create a standardised system. The framework of this system consisted of sixty-two ‘administrative counties’ which covered most rural areas, and sixty-one ‘county boroughs’ principally covering urban areas, including cities such as Manchester, Leeds, and Newcastle (Atkinson & Wilks-Heeg, 2000: 13-14). The outline of these counties was based on historic boundaries, yet redrawing occurred to ensure each settlement stayed within one county. Some towns were situated on old county borders. Todmorden in West Yorkshire was previously distinguished as belonging to the counties of Lancashire and Yorkshire West Riding, but was now a member of Yorkshire West Riding only (Morley, 2014: 92). Municipal Reform in the Twentieth Century

Subsequent to the 1832 Great Reform Minor changes materialised in the Act, the movement of industrial workers structure of local government in began to open the eyes of policythe sixty years following the 1888 makers as there was an evident need for Local Government Act. During the provision within education, housing, Second World War, ‘a government health, and sanitation (Atkinson & Wilks-Heeg, 2000: 13). commissioned report [The Barlow Report 1940] identified Initially introduced as an agglomeration of bodies working large shifts in population to major urban conurbations, which in an impromptu manner, services began to be provided had, to a large extent, overtaken the boundaries established across a wide range of sectors. It soon became apparent they at the end of the nineteenth century’ (Atkinson & Wilkscould not meet the needs of a new and rapidly populating, Heeg, 2000: 15). Pycroft (1995) states that rapid changes in urbanised society. The 1835 Municipal Corporations Act was the urban environment had shown ‘administrative reform initiated in an attempt to control the provision of services. suffering from inertia’. As a result of urban changes, one can It established ‘178 elected municipal councils in the largest understand that the institutional arrangements at the local towns and cities with a variety of level were no longer representative powers and introduced democratic Right: Fig.1 - The boundary stone of Todmorden of the economic and social realities showing the Town Hall sitting on the historic county procedures for the election of of day-to-day life. The 1972 Local boundary between Lancashire and Yorkshire borough councillors’ (Atkinson & Government Act introduced a two-


Pre - 1974

Post - 1974

Fig.2 - The change in county structure initiated by the 1972 Local Government Act, showing the newly created metropolitan county councils such as Tyne & Wear and Greater Manchester


Fig. 3 - The Times Monday 1 April, 1974 - Article on the initiation of the 1972 Local Government Act


tier system, which conceived thirtynine English and eight Welsh county councils along with six metropolitan county councils modelled on the London system put in place in the 1960s (Atkinson & Wilks-Heeg, 2000: 19). The introduction of metropolitan county councils was paramount in this change; the new urban areas created by industrialisation were now beginning to receive resources in line with their increasing population. It is important, at this stage, to place emphasis on the function of local government to this date. The rapid growth of local government from the mid-nineteenth into the twentieth century was a result of the need for local authorities to provide key services such as healthcare, housing, and education; all under the remit of the welfare state. Councils of differing political leanings in every part of the country bought out gas, water, and electricity companies on practical rather than ideological grounds (Crewe, 2016). The creation of the National Health Service, under health minister Nye Bevan in 1948, manifests the consensus for service provision. Bailey and Elliot (2009) contend that despite the obvious benefits of service provision, the introduction of elected councilors in the creation of local government was the beginning of a problematic relationship between central and local government. This position can be founded on the understanding that once a new level of administration is created for powers to be conferred upon, these powers can equally be withdrawn. By the middle

of the 1970s, the consensus for local service delivery began to show cracks it is here a shift from local government to local governance is established.

any significant attempt to reduce public expenditure would have to involve local government bearing its share of the burden’ (Atkinson & Wilks-Heeg, 2000: 64).

From Local Government to Governance

The financial autonomy of local authorities was significantly reduced during Thatcher’s years in government; key moves began to be made after her success in the general election of 1987. Four acts of parliament were passed in the following year; most notably the 1988 Local Government Act. Amongst a series of changes, this act made it compulsory for local authorities to submit a range of services for competitive tender (Radford, 1988: 747). Radford (1998:47) expresses that the creation of a market was a ‘significant step in two of the Government’s major objectives – introducing greater competition and securing greater value for money’. This resulted in private companies now carrying out services for a significantly lower fee. It is in the marketization of services that a key change in the role of local authorities can be understood; they were no longer interventionists, but becoming directors of a complex network of service delivery – an attribute still evident in today’s government (Campbell, 2016).

The Conservative government of 1979 entered office following the world oil crisis of 1973 and amid growing concern over structural economic problems in Britain. At this time, there was a question mark over old orthodoxies

and a ‘spotlight on the role of the public sector, and in particular, local government.’ (Atkinson & Wilks-Heeg, 2000: 29). In response to the economic climate, the new administration fronted by Margaret Thatcher placed significant emphasis on public finance. As ‘local authorities accounted for approximately one-third of total public expenditure,

Above: Fig.4 - Anti-Poll Tax March, Scotland 1990

Moreover, the introduction of the poll tax (a uniform tax for all adults in contrast to one based on property value) and removal of local business rates and revenue support grants under this act, restricted the income of local authorities on an unprecedented level. Cochrane (1993: 42) notes that from


Above: Fig.5 - Margaret Thatcher Resigns Evening Standard, 22 November 1990


here on ‘many councils were setting out more modestly to explore what was possible within the limits they faced’. Defined as ‘creative autonomy’ by Atkinson and Wilks-Heeg (2000: 79), the strictures put in place enthused some local authorities to find loopholes in which to work around the policy agendas. One area in which authorities were expected to increase income was in the sale of assets. Through the use of a leaseback agreement, Camden Council managed to sell its own town hall to show a conscious effort to create income, with full intentions of buying it back at a later date (Atkinson & WilksHeeg,2000: 96). The fallout from the implementation of the poll tax led to the demise of Thatcher’s government in 1990, yet strict financial constraints remained throughout the government of John Major until 1997. The concerted effort to reduce the autonomy of local government during the Thatcher and Major governments, through a centreenabled, corporate focus, resulted in the redefinition of local government to ‘a body which merely awards and supervises contracts’ (Radford, 1988: 766). Due to a surge in the number of governance networks, Atkinson and Wilks-Heeg (2000) unfold that ‘concerns were expressed that local government was becoming too big, overly bureaucratic and distanced from the people it was designed to serve’. It is possible to comprehend that the historic understanding of local government existing within a geographic boundary was increasingly less tenable from here out. The new system of governance, containing many actors within a dispersed national network, is difficult to locate and has since been examined by numerous academics (Massey, 1994; Amin, 2004; McCann, 2016; Bailey & Wood, 2017).

The increased distance created between local government and the general public is where I pose the desire for devolution originated. Granting that local government set the levels of poll tax in each authority, ‘an opinion poll in 1990 showed that 56 per cent of people blamed central government for the problems arising out of poll tax’ (Bailey & Elliot, 2009). The electorate no longer believed that local government had the powers in which to initiate any significant change. As a result, a democratic deficit was created at the local level. Bailey and Elliot (2009) assert that ‘the weak state of local democracy acts as [an] incentive: so long as the democratic relationship between individuals and councils remains weak, it is in the political interests of central government to ensure the local authorities deliver key public services to a high standard.’ The cycle of central government intervention weakening local democracy, therefore forcing further intervention, can be applied to an understanding of the English devolution agenda under New Labour.

Desire for Devolution The New Labour Campaign for the general election of 1997, fronted by Tony Blair, placed significant emphasis on returning power from the centre back to localities in Britain. This was perceived as an antithesis to the centralisation policies of Thatcher and Major (Kenny, 2016; Atkinson & Wilks-Heeg, 2000: 169). A key promise embedded in the campaign was for devolution referendums in both Scotland and Wales. The outcome of these referendums resulted in the Fig.6 - Nigel Smith, Alex Salmond, Donald Dewar and Menzies Campbell at the launch of the pro-devolution campaign, 1997

creation of the Scottish Parliament and Welsh Assembly in 1998. During the process of bringing varying degrees of self-government to Scotland and Wales, ‘the question of why the principles underpinning devolution did not apply to the largest and most heavily populated territory of the United Kingdom hung in the political air, especially among its Northern constituency parties where scepticism about devolution had been most pronounced.’ (Kenny, 2016: 184). In due course, New Labour focused its attention on the English regions. Although ‘widely presented as the basis for an equivalent devolution to what was offered in Scotland and Wales’ (Kenny, 2016: 185) England ‘… was given only regional structures of government such as Regional Development Agencies … with no political clout’ (Willet & Giovannini, 2013: 346). The remit of the newly founded Regional Development Agencies (RDAs) solely covered economic development. Their establishment was perceived as an attempt to solve the ‘economic deficit’ in the regions, as opposed to any form of ‘democratic deficit’ (Atkinson & WilksHeeg, 2000: 246). The perception that a ‘change towards democratic and accountable territorial government was within reach’ under New Labour was now in question (Willet & Giovannini, 2013: 351). It was not until 2001, during their second term in office, that a plan to establish eight regional assemblies was introduced to further push their devolution agenda (Kenny, 2016: 186). The proposed assemblies were intended to be formed from a mix of elected councilors nominated by local authorities, business interests, trade unions, voluntary organisations, and other relevant bodies in the region.’ (Atkinson & Wilks-Heeg, 2000: 246). The first (and last) region chosen to hold a referendum for a regional assembly


was the North East; covering the key cities of Newcastle upon Tyne, Durham, Middlesbrough, and Sunderland. Support ‘for the idea of devolved government was relatively high, and a strong sense of regional identity appeared to be established’. Despite the appearance of a regional identity, the “Yes for North East” (YES4NE) campaign (formed from a local elite of businessmen and intellectuals) pushed the narrative of ‘long-term economic and social benefits’ with very little mention of, or connection to, democratic renewal or public interest (Willet & Giovannini, 2013: 353). The opposing No campaign placed a spotlight on the limited nature of powers that would be delegated. Through the imagery of a white elephant, they claimed that the regional assembly would only add an additional layer of administration to an already complex system of governance (Kenny, 2016:187). On 4th November 2004, 78% of the electorate voted against the establishment of a NorthEast Assembly (Mulholland, 2004). Willet & Giovannini (2013: 352) claim that the ‘government [had] put forward a proposal for regional assemblies which doomed them to be weak and modest bodies, with very limited resources’ and delegation of power. It is evident in this result, despite the rhetoric of devolution, New Labour’s agenda for England was one of ‘top-down regionalisation’ (Willet & Giovannini, 2013); an extension of central control over the regions. The resounding No vote in the NorthEast referendum showed a disconnection between the desire of the electorate to regain local democratic autonomy and the economic interests expressed by the pro-campaigners – an echo of central government’s interests at the time. The argument for not delegating more democratic autonomy to the regions is one I find to be fuelled by political

ideology and mistrust, as opposed to a lack of interest on the ground. Amin (2004:37) suggests that in the election of a ‘regional elite’, the proposed regional assemblies were creating an ‘imitative model of democracy’ too similar to that of central government. I believe this familiar image of central government along with a focus on economic renewal only impugned the rhetoric of ‘returning power to local communities’ (Bailey & Elliot, 2009). This premise is where I base my critique on the current agendas for devolution in the North of England.

Conclusion Following the failed implementation of a regional assembly in the NorthEast, the discourse of democratic renewal faded quickly. Despite this, a focus on ‘economic policy objectives’ for the North (Kenny, 2016:187) remained, fuelled significantly by the financial crisis of 2008. The discourse of devolution to the regions in the agenda of the Conservative-Liberal Democrat Coalition of 2010 to 2015, shows a sustained focus of economic, over democratic renewal. Interestingly, it is not the Cabinet Office or Department for Communities and Local Government, but The Treasury which is the lead department for the devolution agenda within Whitehall (Berry & Hunt, 2016). During the coalition years, the devolution agenda was spearheaded by George Osborne. In his speech, We Need a Northern Powerhouse (Osborne, 2014) delivered in Manchester in the summer of 2014, he proposed joining the northern cities together would give them the ‘local Fig.7 - Ian Dormer, Phillip Cummings and John Elliott of the Vote No Campaign with their ‘White Elephant’

power and control that a powerhouse economy needs’. The word economic appears 12 times in this speech, yet democratic appears only once. Integral to the proposal for a ‘Northern Powerhouse’ was the announcement of city deals, in which the allocation of metro-mayors would play a significant role. George Osborne claimed that ‘with these new powers for cities must come new city-wide elected mayors who work with local councils … I will not impose this model on anyone. But nor will I settle for less.’ (Osborne, 2015) The forced imposition of a ‘Boris in every town’ (Bailey & Wood, 2017: 974) is an initiative based on the “brand ambassador” success of the Mayor of London – another imitative model imposed on the North through central control, yet this time there is little choice in the matter. The city deal agreement for Manchester contains a caveat which reads ‘the next five-year tranche of funding will be unlocked if HM Treasury is satisfied that the independent assessment shows the investment to have met the objectives and contributed to national growth’ (HM Treasury, 2015:5) Once again, the devolution agenda of central government for the North of England pivots on the control it has within the regions. Despite the rhetoric, devolution does not equate to decentralisation. I postulate that until a form of democratic autonomy is returned to the Northern regions in order to focus investment locally, central government will continue to interfere in the benefit of national growth. The form in which this renewed democracy takes is one I wish to explore in the further progression of this study.


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Essay 1B: Devolution In Retrospect  
Essay 1B: Devolution In Retrospect  
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