Legality and Locality: The Role of Law in Central-Local Government Relations

By Martin I. Loughlin | Go to book overview

INTRODUCTION

This book seeks to trace the main dimensions of recent conflicts between central departments and local authorities and to reveal something of their significance. It does so by focusing on the role of law in shaping the central-local relationship. This is an aspect of central-local government relations which is neglected in many contemporary studies and yet is of vital importance in identifying the character of that relationship. Precisely why this should be so is not self-evident. The main objective of this introduction is therefore to highlight the importance of this legal dimension to the study of central-local relations and then to explain the way in which the key themes of the study are to be addressed.

Most contemporary studies of central-local government relations adopt a politico-economic approach. Since the recent conflicts between central departments and local authorities have provided the main institutional forum through which many of the ideological struggles of late twentieth century British politics have been fought out, this is readily understandable. In retrospect, it seems clear that the election of a Conservative government in 1979, after a period of Labour dominance during the 1960s and 1970s, marked a decisive shift in both politics and policy. Since then, the Conservatives have been granted four consecutive terms in office and have pursued a radical social and economic programme which has had a major impact on virtually all aspects of government. For various reasons, however, the institution of local government has been a key target for fundamental reform. Since most of these reforms have been vigorously opposed by many local authorities, this has generated a serious crisis in centrallocal government relations, not least because the Conservatives, during this period, have seen their power base in local government almost entirely destroyed.1

These recent conflicts in central-local government relations provide the main subject of this book. However, while the various economic, social and political changes are undoubtedly of the first importance in understanding the dynamic of central-local government relations, the legal dimension comprises an indispensable aspect of any attempt to assess the impact which these developments have had on our system of government. Law certainly has been a critical factor

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1
This process of decline has been occurring ever since the early 1980s. It is not without significance, e.g., that none of the metropolitan authorities abolished by the Local Government Act 1985 was Conservative-controlled. The cumulative effect of this progressive deterioration may be gauged by the fact that, after May 1995, the Conservatives controlled not one council in either Scotland or Wales and no councils in the metropolitan areas of England. Of around 500 local councils in Great Britain, there was in mid-1995 a Conservative administration in only 13 English authorities: 8 district councils, 1 county council and 4 London borough councils.

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