London's Boroughs

By Harvey, A. D. | History Today, July 1999 | Go to article overview

London's Boroughs


Harvey, A. D., History Today


A.D. Harvey looks back a hundred years to the birth of modern local government in London -- the launch pad for many national political careers.

THE ACT OF PARLIAMENT establishing borough councils to provide local government for the vast conurbation that had grown up outside the ancient boundaries of the City of London received its Royal Assent a hundred years ago this month.

Previously, in accordance with the Metropolis Management Act of 1855 and its subsequent modifications, London's local affairs had been managed by the vestries of the twenty nine largest parishes and by twelve district boards nominated by the vestries of forty six smaller parishes. (Woolwich had a local board established by a separate Act of Parliament in 1854). Responsible for local drainage, paving, lighting, street repairs, the removal of nuisances etc., the vestries and district boards had also nominated a central authority, the Metropolitan Board of Works, which had dealt with main drainage and the administration of building regulations, but this body had been replaced by the directly-elected London County Council in 1888.

The twenty eight new Metropolitan Boroughs established by the 1899 Act were characterised in the House of Commons as simply, `a description of old things by new names'. According to The Times, `The measure overturns nothing'. In Islington, the largest of the old parish authorities, and one of fifteen which were simply upgraded to borough status without change of boundaries, the Vestry Clerk told the Vestry's Parliamentary and General Purposes Committee that, `as far as Islington is concerned, little imprOvement in local government can be looked for as a result of the Act'.

Despite the apparent ineffectualness of the changes, the new arrangements were bitterly opposed by the Progressive Party which had controlled the London County Council since 1889. The Progressives associated themselves with the Liberal opposition in Parliament, and when the establishment of new boroughs was first proposed Sir Henry Campbell-Bannerman, the Liberal leader, told the House of Commons, `If it is intended ... and designed to undermine the London County Council, or to supersede the London County Council, then we will give it our most strenuous opposition'. Later he claimed that the measure, `materially invalidates the position of the London County Council', but his `strenuous opposition' turned out to be much less than the Progressives would have liked.

Herbert Morrison, Labour Chairman of the London County Council in the 1930s, stated that the intention of the Tory government in 1889 had been, `to create jealousies between the London local authorities, on the principle of divide and conquer'. In fact these jealousies already existed, and since it had been one Tory government that had created the London County Council in the first place, and other Tory governments that gave it control of education (1903) and acquiesced in its takeover of London's tramways (1899 onwards) it seems unlikely that the Tories' main motive in 1899 was a desire to make difficulties for the County Council. In fact the London County Council leadership in this period seems to have invested a great deal of energy in claiming rights that it had never been granted, and in misrepresenting the achievement of bodies that had carried out work they thought they themselves could have done better.

The Earl of Rosebery, the London County Council's first Chairman, talked of a `municipal Renaissance' that dated from the County Council's establishment. In the view of people like Sidney Webb, a London County Councillor on the Progressive ticket (1892-1910), the whole point was that it was essentially an administrative unit. Webb even claimed, in 1895, that `London got its municipal body in the guise of a County Council, almost without anyone knowing or intending the the guise of a County change'.

What London had actually got in 1888 was a platform for people like Sidney Webb who thought there should be a single municipal body for the whole metropolitan area. …

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