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

By Martin I. Loughlin | Go to book overview

2
CONTEMPORARY TRENDS

On 1 April 1974 a new structure of local government came into existence, bringing to a resolution an intense period of inquiry and review which had taken place over much of the previous decade. This new system was designed to restore the status of local government which was in danger of being severely eroded owing to the fact that local government structures no longer 'fit[ted] the pattern of life and work in modern England'.1 In promoting these reforms, the then Conservative government stated that it was 'determined to return power to those people who should exercise decisions locally, and to ensure that local government is given every opportunity to take that initiative effectively, speedily and with vigour'.2 In the following twenty years, local government has been subject to a vast array of changes, many of which challenge the assumptions underpinning the reforms of the early 1970s. Cumulatively, these reforms have had a major impact on the institution of local government. The pace of change has been particularly pronounced since 1979 as successive Conservative governments have acted with great vigour to redefine the appropriate relationship between State and society and, as part of this endeavour, have sought to set in place a more limited role for local government. The model of local government emerging in the 1990s does not appear to be one which serves to strengthen local government's capacity for local initiative. Further, to the extent that the recent reforms have sought to return power to local people, their objective has been mainly to take power away from local councils. Local government, it would appear, has become part of the problem of finding democratic ways of living.

In this chapter, I will examine the thrust of the changes which have taken place over the last twenty years, with the objective of assessing the effect which these changes have had on the status of local government. For this purpose, those reforms which have had a significant impact on the political capacity of the institution of local government will be of particular importance. There are, I believe, four basic factors which have a major bearing on this issue: structure, functions, accountability and finance. The structure of local government obviously has a direct effect on institutional capacity, since it provides some indication of the appropriateness of the organization to undertake particular responsibilities. The range of local government functions is a manifestation of the relative importance of the institution within the general system of government.

____________________
1
1 Report of the Royal Commission on Local Government in England (` Chairman: Lord Redcliffe- Maud ), Cmnd. 4040 ( 1969) vol. 1, para. 6( i).
2
2 Local Government in England: Government Proposals for Reorganization, Cmnd. 4584 ( 1971).

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