Thursday, 25 March 2010

Big local government: 100 years of history

There is an idea that local government in the past was small and local, responsive to ideas because of tightly drawn boundaries. The figures at first glance bear this out. In 1900 there were 152 local authorities in the area that is now Greater London. By 1950 there were 85 and now we have 32. The City of London itself, like the River Thames, has remained constant.

There was a mean average of 42,000 people per local government area in 1900, which increased to 94,000 in 1950 and now we have around 230,000 per London borough. So the figures suggest that there is a nice narrative about our local democracy getting more remote as the number of authorities reduced. That is until we look at the detail. In 1900 there were two authorities with populations of over 300,000 from a group of 23 that had populations of over 100,000. In 1950 there were six authorities with populations over 200,000 from a group of 31 over with populations over 100,000.

At the other end of the spectrum in 1900 there are 21 authorities with populations under 1,000. Imagine the ratio of population to councillors. This particular anomaly had been cleared up in the 1930s and the minimum had risen to 10,000. Still, a range of 10,000-300,000 indicates a significant lack of consistency in the experience of local democracy in London. Islington had a staggering population of 334,981 in 1900, followed by Lambeth with 301,895 and West Ham with 267,358. Shifts in population from inner to outer London caused Wandsworth to top the population leader board in 1950 with 330,493, followed by Croydon with 249,870 and Islington, with 235,632, was driven into third place.

This data tells me that the histories of the communities in London in terms of the relationship to ‘big’ or ‘small’ local government does not necessarily follow the linear narrative of increasing scale the total figures suggest. Some areas have no real tradition of truly local statutory democracy and I would like to know if less formal community leadership has stepped in to fill the void.

Saturday, 6 March 2010

The growing distance from local democracy

One of the things I am looking at right now is how, through the process of improving efficiency by making areas for local government bigger, people have become more and more distant from their local democratic representation.

Take the example of the London Borough of Croydon. In 1900 there were four local authorities covering the area, three parish councils and a borough council. I should make it clear they didn’t have parity of status, or provide the same services and there was a terrific imbalance between their populations. In fact the arrangement was more an accident of history than of any purposeful design. However, it meant that in 1900 Coulsdon (population 42,753) had its own governance separate from Sanderstead (20,940) and Croydon (190,684).


By 1935 there were only two local authorities covering the same area and in 1965 there is one. This change meant that the population of the smallest council area Coulsdon residents elected local representation to increased by 175% from 1900 to 1935 and 440% from 1935 to 1965. In this context it is perhaps easy to understand why these amalgamations were often opposed locally, and why community groups such as the Old Coulsdon Residents' Association (1936) were set up.

What I hope to find out is what the experience of being made more distant from local democracy was like and what other effects this had.