Forty years ago this week local government boundaries across the North were ripped up in a major reform of how we are governed locally. It was meant to herald a more efficient system of administration with functions being carried out at an appropriate level reflecting communities that people could identify with.
In fact the last forty years has seen continued tinkering with the system, the scrapping and then the reinventing of city regions and, in some areas, a refusal of people to come to terms with the 1974 settlement. There is still much to do.
In 1974 local government across the north consisted of a patchwork of county boroughs covering the main population centres with a series of small urban and rural councils around them with boundaries that did not reflect the urban expansion since the Second World War.
In 1969 very wise man called Lord Redcliffe-Maud proposed that most people should have one tier of local government. His idea was rejected but it remains the obvious solution to this day. Instead the Heath government decided to create metropolitan councils for West Yorkshire, Greater Manchester and Merseyside. They dealt with transport, police, fire and structural planning whilst metropolitan districts handled schools, housing, social services and collected the rates.
The old shire counties had chunks taken out of them. Yorkshire lost Saddleworth to Oldham and Todmorden to Lancashire. The Saddleworth White Rose Society still campaigns for the old historic boundary. Cheshire lost Wirral to Merseyside. Lancashire,who’s southern border had been the Mersey, lost communities from Stretford and Whiston and Ashton and Droylesden to the mets and in the North the Furness area to Cumbria. Perhaps most contentious was the incorporation of Southport into Merseyside. A Southport Party campaigning to return the resort to Lancashire has enjoyed poll success in Sefton Council elections.
Cities like Manchester were never happy with an upper tier authority over them and shed few tears when the metropolitan counties became collateral damage in a war between Margaret Thatcher and Ken Livingstone, leader of the Greater London Council in the mid 1980s.
There was turbulence in the shire counties too. In Lancashire, Blackpool and Blackburn became all purpose authorities in 1998. It was typical of the piecemeal nature of local government reform in recent decades. Why wasn’t Preston given unitary status? Why have 12 district councils in Lancashire and yet in 2009 reduce the number of councils in Cheshire to two?
There was a moment of hope that a real overall coherent vision would be given to all this when John Prescott proposed regional assemblies to democratise the work of the Regional Development Agencies. It would have required unitary local government throughout the North, reducing the number of politicians not increasing them as critics of Prescott mislead people into believing.
Prescott was replaced by the current Local Government Secretary Eric Pickles who vowed to oppose any more reorganisation. In fact under the current government we have seem the rise of Combined Authorities in Greater Manchester and soon in Merseyside and West Yorkshire. They are reinventions of the metropolitan councils of 1974 recognising that there is a need for strategic thinking in the mets.
In Greater Manchester the antagonisms of 1974-86 have been avoided. The jury is still out elsewhere particularly in the Liverpool City Region.
A plethora of initiatives have been launched by this government. Local Enterprise Partnerships, elected mayors, City Deals etc. It is a confusing mess which people don’t understand and have little democratic control over.
Forty years on from the reform of 1974 we await the government with the guts to override petty local politics and introduce root and branch reform of our constitution from the House of Lords to parish council.