Progress | Centre-left Labour politics

London’s boroughs at 50

Appalling housing conditions, population declining and unemployment threatening as industries closed. This is not a description of some northern city, but London 50 years ago. A strange municipal structure came into being to handle this situation.

Berlin, Paris, New York and Tokyo all have strong city governments and little or no local government.

London is different. The 32 boroughs, created in 1965, have more than twice the budget of the mayor of London, and more than twice the functions. For many in London, they are ‘the council’ which provides their housing, their social care, their education, their housing and council tax benefits as well as clearing the rubbish, cleaning the streets and 100 other municipal functions.

The boroughs, particularly the Labour-controlled boroughs, launched themselves into solving the housing problems of the 1960s on a scale difficult to believe today. Great swaths of housing were demolished or municipalised and huge new estates built.

The results were mixed. Government grants favoured demolition, and many architects were enthused by Le Corbusier’s concept of ‘streets in the sky’. Some of the resulting slab and tower blocks lasted less than 30 years. Tenants entered the blocks with high hopes; a generation later they were cheering as the blocks were demolished.

By 1981, London’s population had fallen by 1.4million in 20 years. The combination of falling population and ambitious programmes led to some sharp increases in rates. The new Thatcher government was determined to clip the wings of local government. The Greater London Council had made itself unpopular with outer London boroughs, Bromley in particular, by building new estates to house people overcrowded in inner London. Margaret Thatcher abolished the GLC, capped the rates for the boroughs, brought council house-building to a halt and introduced ‘right to buy’.

Some 12 boroughs, mostly in inner London, reacted strongly. Some organised ingenious financial arrangements, or tried not to set a rate. Idealistic boroughs wanted to lead the charge to end inequality on the grounds of gender, race or disability. Although these goals seem uncontentious now, some of the methods were naïve, and they were subject to vitriolic attack by the press. In some cases, concentration on these issues led councillors to ignore deficiencies in management which affected the quality of basic services.

Labour groups of councillors experienced bitter infighting between left and right on these issues. An alarmed Labour leadership, starting with Neil Kinnock, became concerned that local government, in the grip of the so-called ‘loony left’, would undercut their efforts to defeat the Tory government.

Subsequent decades have seen boroughs focusing on the quality of their services, while taking on new responsibilities for community care, community safety and many of the old GLC activities, including inner London education, and a considerable stock of housing. The tables have turned, and now the borough leadership looks at the national leadership as damaging to their hopes of electoral success.

They are dealing with a London changed yet again, with a population increased by over two million since 1981. The white British population has shrunk from 85 per cent in 1971 to 45 per cent. Housing is again the major question facing the city, with house prices and rent levels prohibitive for much of the population.

Tony Travers, the leading expert on London, provides a dispassionate account of each borough as well as an overall analysis. Although some people have called for much bigger boroughs, and others for smaller neighbourhood councils, Travers believes that the diffusion of power has served London well, avoiding overconcentration in the centre and dehumanising road schemes. London has prospered, and the boroughs have shown they can deal with anything thrown at them, from terrorist attack to the Olympic Games. ‘Bottom-heavy’ government is strange, but it works.

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Richard Arthur is a former leader of the London borough of Camden

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London’s Boroughs at 50

Tony Travers

BiteBack Publishing | 400pp | £25

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Richard Arthur

is former leader of the London borough of Camden

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