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‘Super councils’ and ‘deserving poor’ – are these new or do we need a history lesson?

Anyone remember the Met County Councils? For those who can’t it is only as far back as 1986 that these leviathans were abolished by the then Conservative government as being too big, too unwieldy and too remote from their citizens to be accountable – they also had some vast budgets.

The Metropolitan Counties of England 1974-1986

The Metropolitan Counties of England 1974-1986

Their functions devolved to the Metropolitan District Councils (or London Boroughs) who, for some functions such as waste disposal and fire, set up county-wide joint boards to govern them. Other functions like highways were subsumed by each district.

When they were established under the Local Government Act 1972 and came into being in 1974 they were modelled on the London set up. The original report produced in 1969 had recommended huge swathes of the shires of Cheshire, North Yorkshire and Staffordshire be included in their near neighbour Met County areas but the government shied away from dismantling the shires in such a radical way. Only Southport was added in at the former County Borough’s own request – some might argue it has spent the last 30 years trying to get back into Lancashire!

What many might not know is that there were proposals for “super councils” to cover:-

  • Most of Hampshire including the Isle of Wight
  • Central Lancashire (now Preston, South Ribble and Chorley) but then an emerging New Town area and
  • The Thames Estuary covering northern Kent and southern Essex (deja vu viz the LEP proposals?)

Each of these additional super councils were rejected by parliament, decisions in the main taken as a result of insufficient population density.

It is also interesting to note that these super councils were only ever charged with a strategic role looking after regional stuff like waste disposal, highways, trading standards, strategic planning and emergency services – it was never envisaged that such large bodies could deliver “local services”. Of course, back then we had significantly poorer communications but we also had significantly fewer local public services; education, housing and “the rates” being the main ones alongside public health and town planning. Social Services was in its infancy as a local government service having been a health service from 1948 (when the Poor Laws were axed) to 1970. Indeed in relation to social services there are some interesting corollaries between current government policy on welfare and the policy of the Victorians who introduced welfare reform; the concept of the ‘deserving poor’ and ‘undeserving poor’ was first enshrined in policy well over 150 years ago when Henry Mayhew wrote his articles on the street workers of London.  The continuity doesn’t seem to end there either.   The Victorian concept of ‘less eligibility’ and the new benefits cap – set no higher than the average wage – appear to have a striking resemblance to each other.

Access to services is now better than it has ever been – but there is still a vast amount of room to improve this still further. Already the government are backtracking on the concept of a single universal benefit payment – it really is hard to introduce without some seriously losing out and without some major up front costs. The promise in the Spending Review Report (at para 1.104) that the Govt will use digital means, such as online and digital telephony, as the default option to deliver more of its services is bold but will also need investment of time, money and, critically,  vision to make it happen. It is a way, an opportunity even, to join up services around citizen’s needs rather than organisational needs but it requires great leadership to make it happen. Labour tried with the e-government Programme; it made a difference in so far as it helped modernise some woefully arcane business processes and opened up some new ways to access services but few succeded in making a major difference to peoples lives or in reducing costs – the opportunity was missed.

Those of us who have worked in or for public services for many years have always known what goes around, comes around, sometimes for better, sometimes for worse. What history tells us is that it is incumbent upon policy makers not to repeat past mistakes regardless as to whether that past was a long time ago or within the last decade. History also tells us, unfortunately all too often, we do not learn from past mistakes.


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