The history boys of local government
Joe Manning, The Guardian, 8 July, 2013

From health in 20s London to infrastructure in 30s Liverpool, what today’s local leaders can learn from historic predecessorsIf we want to understand the future of local government, we must first understand its past. Because while technologies, demographics and social attitudes change, the fundamentals do not: Britain has faced recessions, poverty and budget deficits before, and for the last 150 years councils have done their best to meet these challenges.

In the late 19th and early 20th centuries local government, in the words of the contemporary novelist Winifred Holtby, was seen as “the first line of defence thrown up by the community against our common enemies – poverty, sickness, isolation and social maladjustment”. Councils tackled these challenges through entrepreneurial solutions to promote public health, finance new public services and kickstart economic growth.

Here are some snapshots from local government’s history: Bermondsey, Birmingham, Liverpool provide the stage and politicians from each of the major political parties take central roles. Hopefully, today’s local leaders can take both ideas and inspiration from the success of past pioneers.

Bermondsey: Alfred Salter

In Bermondsey in the 1920s, Dr Alfred Salter created policies for health and wellbeing that foreshadowed the creation of the NHS. He did this against the backdrop of severe poverty and squalor. Bermondsey featured dramatically in London’s statistics for overcrowding and child mortality. Deaths here were far higher than the rest of the city.

At the heart of the council’s plans for a “New Jerusalem” was a health centre. This provided a range of amenities from maternity care to dental clinics. Salter, a practising GP, also understood the importance of quality housing, to replace the old slums, and the creation of new public space. These are all policies that are again top of the agenda following recent public health reforms.

The imaginative energy of Salter’s schemes was inspiring. But even more remarkable to modern politicians may be that the schemes were financed through higher rates of local taxation that were nearly unanimously supported by the electorate. To Salter this represented “municipal socialism” in action.

Birmingham: Joseph Chamberlain

In 1874, the Liberal Mayor of Birmingham, Joseph Chamberlain, took over the private gas and water companies. He did this to both improve public health and generate revenue that could be reinvested in further public works. Chamberlain’s was a creative and commercial approach to meeting the needs of residents.

Chamberlain was driven by a desire to improve people’s lives by creating a better environment within which they could flourish. He helped shape the city’s urban fabric through the development of Corporation Street, the establishment of a university and investment in libraries, municipal swimming pools and schools.

Bold and visionary, Chamberlain’s strategy underpinned the future growth of Birmingham. Today, when many local authorities are understandably concerned about what they are losing, it is important that we also continually look to what we should be building.

Liverpool: Sir Archibald Salvidge

Between the world wars, Britain’s northern towns and cities, once the success stories of the industrial revolution, bore the brunt of the Great Depression. The situation in Liverpool was particularly dire as the decline in the city’s port trade led to acute levels of unemployment and poverty. Strong local government, led by the Conservative party under the chairmanship of the so-called “King of Liverpool”, Sir Archibald Salvidge, stepped in to kickstart local growth.

The council’s priority was investment in ambitious programmes for infrastructure and urban regeneration. The symbolic centre piece of Salvidge’s efforts was the Queensway Tunnel (one of three tunnels under the river Mersey), which opened in 1934 and connected Liverpool to Birkenhead.

The council’s vision and innovation also revitalised local culture, through the new Philharmonic Hall. Investments in new infrastructure ensured that the city’s economy not only survived but thrived during the most severe economic depression the country had ever seen.

To explore local government’s history in more detail NLGN commissioned an essay collection, The History Boys: Lessons from local government’s past.