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1949 Oct 31 Mo
Margaret Thatcher

Article on local government

Document type: speeches
Document kind: Article
Venue: -
Source: Conservative Oxford , October 1949
Journalist: -
Editorial comments: Item listed by month of Bodleian accession. The Daily Record , 16 February 1950, wrote of the latest edition having become available.
Importance ranking: Major
Word count: 2080
Themes: Local elections, Privatized & state industries, Local government, Local government finance, Voluntary sector & charity

Local Government

Born 1925. Kesteven and Grantham Girls' School

Somerville College Oxford 1943–47, President O.U.C.A. Michaelmas 1946

Now working as a Research Chemist

Conservative Candidate for the Dartford Division of Kent

Local government has been one of the most valuable features of our national life: it has enabled town and country to be administered by men on the spot, in daily contact with local conditions. A community spirit has grown up amongst the people, and there has developed a fine tradition of voluntary service, which has played a great part in shaping the individual character of the British nation.

There have been many changes recently. Local authorities now have very different powers and responsibilities, and as a result of increased taxation, it is becoming difficult to find suitable men and women willing to give up their spare time to serve on local councils.

To assess the present situation, we must first view the historical background, which will give us a true perspective of the structure and the functions of local government. The Industrial Revolution of the nineteenth century raised many local problems. Growing cities brought dirt and disease, problems of law and order, and difficulties with fresh water supplies: street paving and lighting and transport were needed. Separate Commissions and Trusts had grown up in many cities to deal with such matters. In 1835, under the Municipal Corporations Act, elected councils were formed, whose functions amalgamated many of those previously carried out by the Trusts. The councils, whose meetings had to be held in public, were to provide police, to see that the streets were paved and lit, and were to make bye-laws for the good government of the locality. They were allowed to levy rates, and their accounts were subject to audit.

The present structural pattern of local government is based on the Conservative Local Government Act of 1888. Elected County Councils were created, including the London County Council, thus establishing the upper tier of what has to-day become the three-tier system of local government. Boroughs with a population of over 50,000 were given the status of ‘County Boroughs’, which exercised the functions of both County and Borough Councils. Parish Councils were formed in the rural parishes; and in rural areas the Parish Rural District and County Councils formed an inter-related structure of authority. The new regional authorities might be considered to-day to add a fourth, but not elected, tier. But from 1888 every community, from [end p1] the smallest village to the largest town, was provided with some form of elected local government.

There is no sharp dividing line between the functions of County Councils and those of Borough and Urban District Councils. Since the war there has been a considerable redistribution of functions, not only between the tiers of local government but also between central and local government, mostly to the detriment of the latter. Before 1939, although there were considerable local variations on the general pattern, the duties were broadly as follows: County Councils were principally concerned with (i) secondary and elementary education; (ii) certain public health services including some hospitals; (iii) public assistance; (iv) maintenance of main roads; and (v) (in some cases) police forces. Borough Councils looked after: (i) certain public health services including hospitals, maternity and child welfare, ambulances, &c.; (ii) housing and town planning, including parks and open spaces; (iii) highways, other than main roads, and street lighting; (iv) municipal electricity, gas and water undertakings; (v) corporation transport; (vi) fire services; (vii) police forces; (viii) all sanitary arrangements—refuse collection, sewerage, &c.; and (ix) provision of libraries, museums, &c.

Local authorities therefore had many diverse responsibilities the sum total of which demanded men of high calibre to carry them out. Conditions varied from area to area, but the men on the spot knew the needs of the locality and did their best to meet them. And above all, a part of the electorate took a very real interest in the council's activities—from road maintenance to the provision of hospitals. The latter in particular benefited greatly from the devoted service of voluntary workers.

Acts passed through Parliament during the lifetime of the present Government have effected considerable alterations in the powers of local councils. Control of all hospitals, for instance, has been vested in the Ministry of Health. The Minister, instead of delegating powers to local authorities, has appointed Regional Boards; and hospitals have consequently been removed completely from the sphere of local government. Similarly, electricity and gas services, since they were nationalised, have been under the jurisdiction of Regional Boards.

Responsibility for the police forces and fire services has been transferred from Borough Councils to County Councils, as have ambulances and maternity and child welfare services.

The local planning authority, under the Town and Country Planning Act, has likewise been put at County Council level whereas previously it was at Borough Council level. But it should be noted that authority, while charged with producing a plan for the development of its own area, zoning it for industrial and other uses, sends no official representative to the panels dealing with the distribution of industry. These panels, also, consist of appointed, not elected, representatives.

In all the above cases, powers have been taken away from the smaller authorities and transferred to the larger authority. Often the larger authority is the central government itself, which, not being designed for day-to-day administration of public services, has to delegate its powers to non-elected bodies. As one spokesman has said, it is government by selection, not election.

The consequences of these changes are more far-reaching than is generally realised. Firstly, local interest and voluntary work are severely reduced. Efficient services have been built up by people who chose to spend their leisure hours in the service of their fellow-men. Voluntary work of this kind has been a great feature of British life and it has not received sufficient recognition and thanks from our political opponents, who have replaced it with the apathetic ‘I thought the State provided that’, the unspoken implication being, ‘therefore, I'm not going [end p2] to bother to do anything about it’. This attitude, which loss of local responsibility does so much to encourage, is surely contrary to the best British standards, and is having a very damaging effect on the whole country.

Secondly, loss of public utility services frequently means serious loss of revenue. For instance, Erith in North Kent had a very flourishing electricity undertaking which contributed a total of £27,011 to the local exchequer. Since Nationalisation this contribution has ceased and the compensation here, as elsewhere, is notoriously inadequate. The loss to Erith equals a 1s. 8¾d. rate, and the rates have now gone up by this amount plus 3¼d. But for electricity nationalisation, the rate need only have increased by 3¼d. It is interesting to note the reaction of the local Socialist Party towards the matter. In a pamphlet headed Realism they said:

‘In other words, responsibility for the position in which Erith finds itself rests not with the Erith Labour Party, nor with the Kent County Council, but with Parliament.’

Thirdly, there arises the problem of finding suitable candidates for local government. If local councils are left only with control over such things as street lighting, cemeteries, allotments and museums, they will not attract councillors of the present calibre. Councils will no longer consist of men and women to whom the electorate can look for local leadership. Civic pride, already on the wane, will disappear, and the authority and respect for local government, one of the pillars of democracy, will begin to crumble away.

During the last municipal elections, the issue of whether or not party politics are detrimental to local government, once again came to the fore, and it has many important implications. The Acts which have been rushed through Parliament by our opponents, affect, as we have seen above, every level of government. As many of them contain proposals quite contrary to the principles of Conservatism, it is vital that Conservatives everywhere should fight to improve and modify them on every occasion and at every level of government.

There are a number of people who claim that party politics are divorced from local affairs. Such a contention I believe to be false. Politics touch every sphere of personal life. Consider the case of a family searching for a house and unable to find one. If the two major parties hold different views, as they do, on the quickest way of supplying the demand for houses, then party politics affect that family through housing. Since housing problems are dealt with at local government level, it follows that party politics concern local government too. To instance a second example: suppose a returned ex-service man who has built up a successful business wants to extend his premises. He has to apply to the Town and Country Planning authority for permission, and is liable to have to pay a development charge. The latter point is the cause of great controversy between the parties, so here, too, party politics, this time at County Council level, affect the ordinary man.

The question may be asked, ‘If Parliament has made a decision, what can local councils do about it, even if they disagree?’ The rules and regulations may be decreed, but the way in which they are carried out makes a great difference to the person they affect, and can help to lighten local burdens imposed by the policy of the central government.

Let us now consider the case from the candidate's point of view. Many arguments against party candidates in local government are based on the fallacy that a party-political candidate cannot serve his fellow-citizens as well as a non-party candidate. More than one correspondent in The Times has argued along these lines. It is suggested that since councillors owe a duty to the entire electorate, those sponsored by one party are unsuitable. Mr. Neville Hobson in a letter to The Times published on 23rd April 1949, goes on to say that nothing could be more [end p3] anomalous than ‘complete subjugation of personal views to party opinions prescribed by a majority vote within a party group’.

In the first place, councillors certainly do owe a duty to the entire electorate in exactly the same way as do Members of Parliament. It is a strong Conservative principle that elected members should realise this and carry out their duties accordingly. Secondly, the arguments imply that the principles and policies of party political organisations are not planned for the whole electorate, but only for particular sections. This may be true of the left-wing parties, but those of the right believe implicitly in the unity of the British people, and their policies are calculated to benefit the entire nation. There can be no objection to Conservative candidates on these grounds.

Thirdly, join to a political party is not to ‘subjugate’ one's own personal views to any ‘party dogma’. A person joins a party when his views are broadly in agreement with those principles for which the party stands. He does not renounce his views in any way; he merely joins an association of like-minded people. Disagreement may arise on certain points, but then the person will vote according to his own conscience and there is nothing in the Conservative Party to dissuade him from doing so. It is only when disagreement arises over a basic principle of the party that the Whips take action.

It is further suggested that if local elections become more party political, only those prepared to fight on such a basis will have any prospect of success. But if a person wants to fight an election, there is nothing to prevent him from standing as an Independent and opposing the political candidates. The electorate will decide between them. And in local, if not in parliamentary elections, the Conservatives have not yet adopted the practice of putting up an official candidate to oppose a right-wing Independent.

The character of local government has changed vastly in the last four years. Local authorities have been denuded of many powers, some of which have been transferred to nominated boards under the control of Ministers. This conflicts directly with the Conservative principle that power should be as widely diffused and as directly responsible to the electorate as possible. Conservatives have, therefore, decided to extend their own fight to local government level, believing that a Conservative candidate can serve his electorate as well, if not better, than an Independent. Finally, that fight will be fought with ever-increasing vigour so long as local democratic government is endangered.