London’s boroughs celebrate 50 years in existence this year, and look set to continue in existence for years to come. And, despite the many gripes about their governance, author Tony Travers argues they have – by and large – delivered good governance over that period.
In a new book, London’s Boroughs at 50, he tells the story of how the boroughs came to created, how they have steadfastly retained their unique characters, and gives a potted history of the progress of each one, over their first half century of existence.
Looking back, he suggests this “bottom heavy, two tier system” of government is probably a good way to run a large city. It has served the capital well. Where it has gone wrong has been on issues such as boroughs involving themselves in direct development of major redevelopment schemes, which Travers says did not turn out well.
In reaching the milestone, the boroughs – 33 authorities, including the City of London – have substantially outlived other major institutions. The Greater London Council survived 21 for years, and the Inner London Education Authority made it to 25 before being abolished.
The Herbert report, delivered in 1960, paved the way for London’s boroughs, proposing an overarching authority with 51 boroughs beneath it that would absorb the existing county structure. Swaps, amalgamations and boundary changes reduced that number to the present 33 as they were finally signed into statute.
Politics has continued to play a part, with some boroughs such as Newham and Westminster keeping the same affiliation throughout, while others have regularly swapped allegiance. Travers notes that each has maintained its own distinct look and feel, even in adjacent boroughs where the same political party has control.
There have been political battles along the way, and issues such as the provision of council housing have changed substantially over the time. The boroughs have remained steadfastly different, and that continues to put those living on their boundaries in awkward situations from time to time.
This has been a time of massive change, and some grand plans, and the book explores several “what if” alternatives – and their likely impacts on the capital. The London Docklands Development Corporation made an unimagined impact on the dying docklands area which, speculates Travers, would otherwise have become a light industrial area seeking to create jobs for ex-dockers, had it been left to the local authorities. The new boroughs spent much money and effort constructing new, system built homes, often in tower blocks. In retrospect, the better alternative would probably have been to refurbish the slums that were cleared to make way for these troublesome towers.
And had the transport planners found the cash they wanted, the capital today would have many more neighbourhoods split by fast freeways into the city, and ringways around it. As a result, London would arguably have had far worse pollution problems than it suffers today.
Looking ahead, Travers sees the potential for tension from London’s continued growth, suggesting the mayor may need to have enhanced powers to drive through decisions that are hard, but necessary for the greater good. “But in doing so, the mayor will need to take great care: if the boroughs are unnecessarily aggravated, they will begin to agitate for reform,” he warns.
And, with fiscal pressures continuing, there has been talk of merging local authorities, perhaps to create a smaller number of larger boroughs. This, argues the author, is not necessary, though there is logic in sharing back office facilities.
London’s Boroughs at 50, by Tony Travers, is published by Bite Back Publishing in hardback or as an ebook