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The birth of the London boroughs

At the beginning of the second half of the 20th Century, London was substantially smaller than the city we know today.

Geography

Local government of London was carried out by the London County Council (LCC) and 28 metropolitan borough councils, a structure that had existed since the end of the 19th century.

The boundaries of London government were defined by those of the LCC. This stopped short of places such as Willesden, Acton and Chiswick in the west, Wimbledon and Croydon in the south, West Ham and Leyton in the east and went no further than Hampstead, St Pancras and Islington in the north.

Beyond the boundaries of the LCC, West Ham and Croydon were county boroughs which were administratively independent of the counties they were located in. Otherwise, areas such as Hornsey, Barnes and Walthamstow had municipal borough or urban district status and shared powers with the county councils of Kent, Essex, Hertfordshire, Middlesex or Surrey.

Reform

London’s structure of government had been criticised since not long after its conception – particularly the shortcomings of the LCC, which had jurisdiction over less than half of the inhabitants of the metropolitan area[1].

In 1944, Sir Patrick Abercrombie’s Greater London Plan outlined a vision for the future development of London premised on the creation of ‘new towns’ that would accommodate population growth in outer London and recommended the creation of a green belt to contain London’s growth. But it said little about the systems of government that such an expanded metropolis would need.

In 1949, Lewis Silkin – the town and planning minister and a former LCC housing chairman – had called for an inquiry into Greater London government. But it was not until 1957 when Henry Brooke – minister for housing and local government under Harold Macmillan – established a Royal Commission on Local Government in London under the chairmanship of Sir Edwin Herbert that the question came to a head.

A Royal Commission

The commission took its geographical coverage to be the continuous built-up area inside the newly designated metropolitan Green Belt. It heard a number of representations with key points of debate being whether or not to create a single authority for the whole of Greater London and the nature of the lower tier of government – namely the size and functions of the smaller units of local government that would perform the functions best administered at the more local level.

The report of the Herbert Commission, published in 1960, called for a new system of government whereby the majority of functions in an expanded ‘Greater London’ would be conducted by 52 boroughs. A Greater London Council would be created to perform “those functions which can only be or can better be performed over a wider area”.

The GLC would be responsible for:

  •     producing a Greater London development plan
  •     the building of homes outside London
  •     cross-borough redevelopment schemes
  •     standard setting in education
  •     overseeing traffic management.

 A key overarching principle was that new arrangements should avoid overlapping or duplicating responsibilities between the two levels of government and that boroughs should carry out all functions best discharged locally.
The new system

The 1963 London Government Act, which implemented the Herbert Commission’s recommendations, contained some notable deviations from the original proposals. Most obviously, instead of 52 boroughs, there were to be 32 alongside the City of London Corporation.

Another key difference from the original recommendations was that a number of functions were shared between the boroughs and the GLC. For example in education, outer London boroughs acted as standalone education authorities whereas in inner London, a statutory committee of the GLC called the Inner London Education Authority (ILEA) held responsibility for education functions. This situation persisted until the abolition of ILEA in 1990 when education responsibilities were passed to the inner London boroughs.

Similarly in transport, boroughs were responsible for general road maintenance but trunk roads were the responsibility of the Minister of Transport while the GLC acted as a general transport planning authority and shared responsibility for parking with the boroughs. Meanwhile, the transfer of the LCC’s huge housing stock mean there were effectively two housing authorities in every borough.

The first shadow elections for the new London boroughs were held alongside those for the GLC in 1964, marking the beginning of a new system of government for London. It would not be without its controversies, nor would it escape further revisions. However, 50 years on the boroughs are increasingly seen as one of the most efficient and effective parts of English local government.

[1] Hebbert, Michael; William Robson, the Herbert Commission and ‘Greater London’; chapter in London Government – 50 Years of Debate (London, LSE London);