Local government will feature in the Queen’s Speech, but is there hope of actual change? The messages are contradictory: more powers for councils, as long as they all obey central directives; more protection for the environment, but new towns must built on it.
A more fundamental change is needed: repeal the Local Government Act 1972.
Like many bands from the 1970s, the Act is a creaking parody of itself. It had an ill-starred birth, it was passed just after the Act that sent us into the European Communities. It was knocked together hurriedly when Ted Heath was facing an election: he had unexpectedly won the 1970 election on a promise not to abolish the counties but he went on effectively to do just that. The Act was both a reaction to the Redcliffe-Maud Report, and an implementation of it. The Report was itself a reaction to changes in the 1960s. What we have today as the governing structure of modern local government is a 1970s act that was old hat even then.
The scheme of the 1972 Act did not last; before it came into effect it had to be changed, then 10 years letter Margaret Thatcher threw out one of its key planks, and ten years after that, many of its assumptions were reversed. There have been amendments and corrections, exceptions and provisos every other year since it was passed, but the 1972 Act limped on as the foundation on which stands a structure bearing almost no relation to the assumptions built into that Act.
The scheme of the Local Government Act 1972 is based on a series of assumptions including: universal two-tier government (now rare); a committee system (again, a rarity); strictly defined competences (no longer applicable); discrete employed council staff; and all to be done with paper and face-to-face meetings. On top of this have been added changes which have to be looked up in a scattering of other Acts and Regulations, joint authorities, devolved powers, mayors (whose powers have to be conferred using legal fictions because the Act does not contemplate them) and other bits held together with chewing gum and string none of which did Ted Heath’s text anticipate. It simply does not fit any more.
Even though the Act’s assumptions are all abandoned, Parliament is still forced to follow the 1970s terminology in the Act, and treat every exception to its scheme as an exception, even though there are now more exceptions than conformity.
If there is to be a radical devolution agenda, it simply does not fit the rickety frame of the 1970s.
Maybe this leftover from the age of corduroy flairs and soft-rock has been kept just because it is too complicated to work out what goes where, afraid of ‘ch-ch-changes’, but if we cannot see where the rules are, they must go.
Ted Heath’s legacy must go: the European Communities Act 1972 has been repealed by Boris, and now the Local Government Act 1972 should follow it into the bin.
A new Local Government Structure Act is needed quickly, to reflect the actual structure of local administration and to provide a framework for building anew.
- Build Back Britain, Boris
- Our plan for the new Prime Minister (July 2019)
- Law Reform
- Fay’s pop guide to Brexit
- The Borisaurus: The Dictionary of Boris Johnson by Simon Walters
- The Madness of Crowds: Gender, Race and Identity by Douglas Murray
- Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds by Charles MacKay (1841)
- 12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos, by Jordan B Peterson
- Woke: A Guide to Social Justice by Titania McGrath
- By Boris Johnson: