Big local government: 100 years of history

There is an idea that local government in the past was small and local, responsive to ideas because of tightly drawn boundaries. The figures at first glance bear this out. In 1900 there were 152 local authorities in the area that is now Greater London. By 1950 there were 85 and now we have 32. The City of London itself, like the River Thames, has remained constant.

There was a mean average of 42,000 people per local government area in 1900, which increased to 94,000 in 1950 and now we have around 230,000 per London borough. So the figures suggest that there is a nice narrative about our local democracy getting more remote as the number of authorities reduced. That is until we look at the detail. In 1900 there were two authorities with populations of over 300,000 from a group of 23 that had populations of over 100,000. In 1950 there were six authorities with populations over 200,000 from a group of 31 over with populations over 100,000.

At the other end of the spectrum in 1900 there are 21 authorities with populations under 1,000. Imagine the ratio of population to councillors. This particular anomaly had been cleared up in the 1930s and the minimum had risen to 10,000. Still, a range of 10,000-300,000 indicates a significant lack of consistency in the experience of local democracy in London. Islington had a staggering population of 334,981 in 1900, followed by Lambeth with 301,895 and West Ham with 267,358. Shifts in population from inner to outer London caused Wandsworth to top the population leader board in 1950 with 330,493, followed by Croydon with 249,870 and Islington, with 235,632, was driven into third place.

This data tells me that the histories of the communities in London in terms of the relationship to ‘big’ or ‘small’ local government does not necessarily follow the linear narrative of increasing scale the total figures suggest. Some areas have no real tradition of truly local statutory democracy and I would like to know if less formal community leadership has stepped in to fill the void.

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