In the latest proposals for changes to local government, major cities are to be given power over more of their own affairs such as transport, housing, planning and public health.
Changes to local government are nothing new and it has been reformed, amalgamated, broken up, given and lost powers at various times over the past two centuries.
Local government can be traced back to charters issued to towns and cities by various sovereigns in the Middle Ages. These charters gave the inhabitants rights and privileges not enjoyed by people in villages or in the countryside as well as some protection from feudal landowners and a degree of administrative autonomy. For example the power to hold a market which granted traders the right to sell their wares unhindered. Barnsley was granted a market charter in 1249 by King Henry III and that for Penistone dates from 1290.
Councils as we know them can be traced back to the Municipal Corporations Act of 1835 which swept away a bizarre collection of curious bodies run by self-perpetuating elites often so secretive that their business was conducted under an oath of silence. The new corporations were elected by ratepayers and the practice of election by thirds still used in Barnsley dates from this time.
The 1835 Act was replaced in 1882 by new legislation which granted more powers to local authorities, such as to enact by-laws, acquire land and buildings or borrow money. They were also enabled to do other things for the general good such as in the case of Barnsley, run the town’s gas supply, sewerage and police. The Local Government Act of 1974 changed the landscape once again and created the structure we see today, sweeping away the old County Borough along with the West Riding County Council and all the rural and urban districts. The late and unlamented South Yorkshire County Council survived a mere ten years before its abolition in 1984.
Although common in most other developed countries the concept of directly elected mayors and other public officials is relatively new in England where the experience has been successful in some places but where less so has attracted more publicity. The most recent proposed changes envisage more mayors as part of a process leading to further devolution which recognises that areas are different and a one size fits all approach unsuited to the challenges we face today. Let us hope, however, that this concentrates on outcomes rather than the sterile obsession with process which so often characterises local government decision making. Too much effort is spent concocting reasons why nothing can be done.
First published by the Barnsley Chronicle – Penistone Living July 2015