How the Royal Commission on Local Government 1969 could have left Cambridgeshire looking very different

Edward Heath’s Conservatives however had other ideas – leading to the county council structure (with the addition of Peterborough, which became a unitary council in the 1990s) that we are familiar with today.

I’m not quite sure how I stumbled across this document – The Royal Commission on Local Government for England, 1969 – summary report. I’ve digitised it here.

You can now also read Vol. 1 of the full report here. (Vol.2 is a minority report from Derek Senior, one of the Commissioners, and Vol.3 is a research appendix – a significant amount of work went into this).

…but it has left me with more questions than answers. I think part of it stemmed from previous conversations about local government reform, but with the older academic text books being…well ‘too academic’ and dry. So in order to get a feel for what future reforms might involve, I did what most historians do: look back to see if there was historical precedent. This is one of the most recent ones – one that was done in depth and over an extended period of time. i.e. not like the creation of the metro mayors.

The full version is in 3 volumes and is very hard to find. I’ve spent nearly £100 with funds I don’t really have to get a copy of them so if anyone is feeling generous today, please help soften the blow.

“Why is this so important?”

This is why:

Above – a detail of the proposed (and unexecuted) new boundaries for local government in England.

The existing boundaries show the borders of the upper tier Shire level county councils and ‘county boroughs’ (i.e. unitary councils) in black, but not the much smaller district councils. They also show new enlarged unitary councils along with what later became known as regions, but are referred to as provinces in the report. So East Anglia Province would have been made of Greater Cambridge County, Greater Peterborough County, Norfolk and Suffolk. The image below, from Senior’s minority report would have split Norfolk into slightly smaller unitary councils).

Above – from the full report. You can see the very significant changes made to what was Cambridgeshire and the Isle of Ely County Council, along with Huntingdon & Peterborough County Council. Instead of the two councils split vertically, the Commissioners proposed a horizontal split.

They took a very hard, realistic economic view on which counties a number of historic towns and villages should be in. Cambridgeshire is one of many examples, clearly showing that the towns of Huntingdon, Royston, Saffron Walden, Haverhill, Newmarket, and the city of Ely would all end up in this new Greater Cambridge County – or just a revamped Cambridgeshire.

This approach is consistent with Prof John Parry Lewis’s study of the Cambridge Sub-region that commenced in 1971.

Above – from P7 of vol.1 of John Parry Lewis’s report from 1973. He included in his study area all of the towns I mentioned earlier

Principles and problem-solving

Reforming local government is not something that should be taken lightly – not least for the effort involved. It’s a bit like the local planning process but more expensive and covering more subjects. That’s not to say that ministers should avoid it at all costs. When there is a very strong case for it, they should at least explore the merits seriously before making a decision rather than ruling it out on principle.

The contents of the pamphlet – impressively short even as a summary document for a study so wide-ranging – illustrates the framework the commissioners worked within.

Above – the contents

On explaining the problem, the first question to respond to is “Why local government?”. How did we get to a place where we have all of these local councils dotted about the place? The historical answers can be found in the Century of Municipal Progress 1835-1935 – digitised here.

The commissioners identify four core functions of local government:

  • To perform efficiently a wide range of profoundly important tasks concerned with the safety, health, and wellbeing of people in different localities
  • To attract and hold the interest of its citizens
  • To develop enough inherent strength to deal with national government in a valid partnership
  • To adapt itself continuously to the unprecedented changes that are going on in the way people live, work, move, shop, and enjoy themselves.” (p2 RCLocalGov)

The commissioners identify some recent changes to the country and how we lived our lives:

  • England’s population had risen by 12% – around 5million people, since 1950. It was expected to grow by another 14 million by the year 2000 (i.e. from 1969-2000).
  • Car ownership had taken off in a very big way. In 1950 there was one car for every five families, by 1969 it was 1:2, and by 1980 they predicted it would be one car per family. A huge shift.
  • People’s expectations were much higher than in previous ages – including on the standards of public services they demanded
  • The call for replacing old buildings and infrastructure with more modern designs for a car-driving age
  • Increased centralisation and the power of Whitehall vs town hall – the commissioners identified a need for a strong counterbalancing force

They identified four major faults:

  • The geographical boundaries of local council areas did not match the working lives of people – as reflected by the economic links between Cambridge and its nearest towns which happened to be over the county border
  • The inconsistent fragmentation of town and country made town and transport planning impossible – as rural areas were separated from urban areas by council boundaries and there were no duties to co-operate, something that was written into subsequent legislation in the 2000s
  • Single service areas are fragmented into different local government tiers – something we still see today
  • Many councils are too small in size and revenue, and also too short of the necessary qualified personnel to ensure that councils function effectively. In Cambridgeshire this is most prominent with qualified town planners.

And finally….

Even in the 1960s the commissioners identified a broken relationship between central government and local councils. Local government they say seems impotent at dealing with the problems that people face in their communities – hence a sense that councils cannot help them. Again we see this today over half a century later. Look at the water stress with our chalk streams, and the distrust in the town planning system.

The system in the 1960s was described as a straight-jacket by commissioners. The same could be said today – in particular with revenue-raising powers. Finally the huge variety of council types and varying sizes and competencies made it harder for the sector to speak with a united voice to ministers and civil servants all too often hostile to the concept of local government. As a minister if you got blamed for things going wrong, you wanted to make sure that you were in a position to do something about it. Hence why all too often local councils are bypassed by ministers who set up their own pet projects of grant-funding schemes – most recently the Town Centre Fund.

“What were their solutions?”

The most interesting of these are ones that would still apply today, so lets have a look:

Local council areas must be so defined that they enable citizens and their elected representatives to have a sense of common purpose.

Cambridgeshire County Council as is utterly fails on this. The local elections of 2021 told us this.

Above – does this electoral map of Cambridgeshire reflect a population that has a sense of common purpose? Furthermore, consider Fenland – the wards at the top of the map in North Cambridgeshire, voted 75% Leave at the 2016 EU Referendum. Meanwhile Cambridge City (the small patch of red plus the three small yellow wards) voted 74% Remain.

The areas must be based upon interdependence of town and country.” Again the poor transport infrastructure between northern Fenland and Cambridge breaks that link.

“All services concerned with the physical environment must be in the hands of one authority” This clearly does not happen today: Town planning and building control is in the hands of district councils, while highways is in the hands of county councils and transport planning is in the hands of the combined authorities and the Mayor. The Commissioners say that these should be in the hands of an upper tier authority

“All personal services should be in the hands of one authority” This would cover things like education, health, social services, and council housing. But again provision for all of these is completely fragmented – education effectively being taken out of the hands of county councils – having originally been in the hands of district and borough councils.

“How did they propose paying for it?”

Good question – something that always needs asking with any new policy proposals. Along with “what are the risks and how do you propose to handle/mitigate for them?”

Local rates – the local property tax, today the council tax, is described by the Commissioners as the only independent source of income for councils. Thatcher brought in an official system of ‘rate-capping’ to stop councils from raising local taxation too high. This was kept by Labour in the early 2000s and then ‘delegated’ to local taxpayers in a deft move by the Coalition, stating that if local councils wanted to set council tax rates higher than a threshold set by ministers, there had to be a local referendum. The problem is that council tax is a highly-regressive system of taxation, with rises resulting in people on lower incomes paying proportionally more of their income in tax bills than a wealthy person. Hence the Liberal Democrats tried to make the case for a mansion tax – even though such a policy left the existing unfair system in place.

While the Commissioners made no specific recommendation on an alternative funding model, they stated they examined a host of alternative sources of taxation revenue, including:

  • A local income tax
  • A local sales tax
  • A local petrol tax
  • Motor licence fees

The point they make is that local government in principle should be as financially independent as possible from central government, so therefore the range of taxes that councils should be able to levy should be much wider than at present.

They also acknowledge that with such freedoms come responsibilities – and that includes keeping residents and taxpayers informed of what their tax money is being spent on and why. With the decline of local newspapers, communicating with local residents consistently is going to become a greater problem.

Finally, they end on a high note:

Encouraging more people to get involved in local democracy – an issue that is well over a century old. Some things never change!

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