40 years ago local government was more local than it is now

March 27, 2014 1:03 PM

Colchester MP Sir Bob Russell has a Diary published each Saturday in the "East Anglian Daily Times" (usually Page 41 or thereabouts). It is always illustrated with a photograph. You are invited to purchase the EADT to read it in a newspaper format. The following is what appeared last Saturday:

Forty years ago, on 1st April 1974 the biggest upheaval of local government in England since the 19th Century took place. Hundreds of local councils were abolished, and merged into larger districts.

For Colchester, where local government has been administered since Norman times from the same site where today's Town Hall stands, it dramatically changed the whole character of local democratic accountability with the historic boundary which had existed for upwards of 800 years being swept aside as the town merged with much of its rural hinterland.

But the new boundaries were not logical. Ardleigh, whose parish includes the top end of Colchester's Ipswich Road, was left in Tendring as was Elmstead Market. Yet both are on Colchester's doorstep whereas Tiptree is several miles away and has less affinity with Colchester than these two villages.

Joining the town of Colchester were three other local councils - villages in the confusingly named Lexden and Winstree Rural District, and the small Urban District Councils of West Mersea and Wivenhoe.

Lexden and Winstree comprised villages in the former Saxon Hundreds bearing these two names, except that Lexden itself was in Colchester town and not the Rural District Council area which had Lexden in its title. Confusing it was, particularly since the Council offices were at Lexden Grange, Lexden Road!

Elsewhere, five local councils merged to form Tendring District Council; five to form Braintree District Council; and three to form Maldon District Council.

Similar merges of local councils also took place in Suffolk, plus the merger of East and West Suffolk County Councils. Ipswich, a County Borough Council responsible for all aspects of local government, lost many powers to the new Suffolk County Council but unlike Colchester it retained its historic boundary and did not merge with nearby villages.

For the new Colchester Council - it was known for its first few weeks as Colchester District Council before the relevant authorisation came through to become Colchester Borough Council, with the short-lived Chairman then being appointed Mayor - it is my belief that this was a black day for the town and its residents.

Too often the rural tail has wagged the head.

The marriage of town and country was also not welcomed by many people from the rural areas either. It was a forced marriage.

In 1974 the population of the new Colchester Borough was 130,000 - today it is approaching 180,000.

The four Councils which merged had a total of more than 90 Councillors - the new Council has 60 Councillors, a cut of at least a third......and in the past 40 years the population has increased by around 50,000.

Colchester Town Council had 36 members; Lexden and Winstree Rural District Council around 40 (I cannot remember the precise number), while the two Urban Districts of West Mersea and Wivenhoe each had nine councillors.

The new Colchester District Council had been elected on 7th June the previous year, and ran as a "shadow" Council alongside the four existing local authorities.

The composition of the new Council was: Conservative 28, Labour 27, Liberals 1, Tiptree Residents' Association 3, and Independent 1. There was a joint Tory-Labour administration.

Over the years the number of Conservative Councillors has fallen, Labour now has only about a quarter it once had, while the Liberal Democrats (successors to the merged Liberals and Social Democratic Party) have been the dominant party in Colchester for nearly 30 years.

Prior to local government re-organisation, Councillors did not receive any allowances. Indeed, Councillors personally funded what they did in terms of phone calls, postage and stationery.

From April 1974 allowances were paid, albeit relatively small sums initially.

In 1974, Councils were run on a committee system with every Councillor involved in the decision making process - in the case of the new Colchester Council we had committees with a total of 120 places, with every Councillor having two committees. All Councillors were thus equal.

Each committee met once in a six-weekly cycle, with full meetings of the Council every six weeks.

Today, because of a system imposed by the last Labour Government, a cabinet system of local government is now in place which means most Councillors are not involved in most of the decisions. And a huge amount of decisions are delegated to officers.

A return to a committee system - for which the Coalition Government has allowed local councils to choose to do if they wish - would once again involve all 60 Councillors in more democratically representing the residents who have voted them into office.

On 1st April 1974 Colchester lost running education and libraries to Essex County Council; water and sewerage to a new public body called Anglian Water, later privatised by the Thatcher government; and elements of public health to the NHS. In more recent years the County Council has taken over highways maintenance from Colchester.

Sadly, as I said in the House of Commons earlier this month, local government re-organisation 40 years ago diluted the word "local".

If we are serious about localism, of local councils making local decisions, then local councils should have the powers they once had.

Sir Bob Russell is the only non-Conservative MP in Essex and Suffolk.