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M.A., LL.D., Q.C.





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This book is an attempt to sketch our existing system
of Local Government, to state in popular language the
net result of the combination of recent legislation with
the former law. It contains the substance of six
lectures which I delivered in Middle Temple Hall at
the request of the Council of Legal Education during
Michaelmas Term, 1898. I have taken as my model
an admirable little book written in 1883 for this
English Citizen Series by Mr. Mackenzie D. Chalmers,
who was till last month a member of the Council of the
Governor-General of India. My book is to a large
extent founded upon his ; but the changes made in our
local institutions since 1883 are so varied and so vast
that every chapter had to be entirely re-written.

There is this difference also between the two books.
Mr. Chalmers' book was a powerful and convincing
argument for reform. He denounced with righteous
indignation the chaos and confusion which then existed
in all local affairs. My book, on the other hand, seeks
to inspire its readers with gratitude — not wholly devoid,



perhaps, of some hope of favours yet to come — but
still with honest gratitude for the benefits which we
have derived from the Local Government Acts of 1888
and 1894.

The mention of favours yet to come naturally reminds
one of the London Government Bill now before Parlia-
ment. My chapter on the Metropolis was in print
more than a month before Mr. Balfour brought in his
Bill, and I therefore thought it best to leave unaltered
what I had written as to the reform of the Metropolitan
Vestries and District Boards.

W. B. 0.

4 Elm Court, Temple, E.C.,
March 20, 1899.




Sphere of Local Government — Constitutional Importance — Com-
parison of Local and Central Government in England — Position
of Women- — Representation and Taxation — Interaction of Local
and Central Government ...... 1

General View of English Local Government

Chaos of Local Authorities in 1883 — Early Local Government —
Confusion in the Nineteenth Century — The Local Govern-
ment Acts, 1888 and 1894— Simplification of Areas — Local
Finance . . . . . ... . .14


The Parish

The Township — The Manor — The Ancient Parish — Different Kinds
of Parishes — The Modern Civil Parish — The Overseers —
The Vestry— The Local Government Act, 1894— The Parish
Meeting — The Parish Council — The Ecclesiastical Parish 35



The Borough

English Towns — Creation of New Boroughs — History of the
Boroughs — The Municipal Corporations Aet — Constitution of
the Borough or City — Borough Officers — Functions of the
Council — Borough Finance — Central Control . . 69


The Union

History of Unions — The Guardians of the Poor — Their Election —
Their Duties — Central Control ..... 103


The County District

County Districts — Necessity and Province of Sanitary Legislation
—History of Sanitary Legislation — Its Results — Sanitary
Districts — District Councils : their Constitution, Powers,
Officers, and Finance — Central Control — Port Sanitary
Authorities . . . . . . . . .121


The School Authority

National Education — Elementary Schools — School Districts — The
School Board — The School- Attendance Committee — Voluntary
Schools 149



The Highway Authority

Highways — Repair of Highways — Main-roads — Bridges — High-
way Areas and Authorities — Bridle-paths, Footpaths, etc. —
Roadside Strips . . . . . . . .104


The Burial Authority

The Parish Churchyard — The Cemetery — The Burial-ground —
Burial Boards — Local Government Act, 1894 . . . 184


The County

The Administrative County — History of the Shire — Divisions of
the County — Its Officers : the Sheriff, the Lord-Lieutenant,
the Coroner, and the Justices of the Peace — The County
Council : its constitution and powers — County Finance 190


The Metropolis

The Administrative County of London — Confusion of Areas and
Authorities prior to 1888 — History of London and its Suburbs
— The Metropolitan Board of AVorks — The London County
Council — Metropolitan Vestries and District Boards — The
City of London — The School Hoard for London — Metropolitan
Poor-law Authorities, etc. ...... 213



Central Control

Local Self-government — Necessity for Central Control — The Board
of Trade — The Board of Agriculture — -The Local Government
Board — Its Functions — -Advice — Administrative Control —
Financial Control — Audit — Limits of Central Control . 235


INDEX .265




Sphere of Local Government — Constitutional Importance — Com-
parison of Local and Central Government in England — Position
of Women — Representation and Taxation — Interaction of Local
and Central Government.

The object of the present volume is to describe the
existing machinery of local government in England, and
to give a short account of those matters which are ad-
ministered locally but which do not form the subject of
separate volumes of the English Citizen Series. And,
as no English institution is intelligible apart from its
history, a brief historical sketch has been included in
the description of the various local institutions which
in the aggregate constitute our system of local govern-

By local government, as opposed to central govern-
ment, is meant the administration of those matters which
concern only the inhabitants of a particular district or
place, and which do not directly affect the nation at
large. It is with the duty of an English citizen to his
Si B


neighbours or his neighbourhood that local government
is concerned. It is his duty to succour and provide for
the poor and the helpless. The administration of the
poor-law, the education of the children of the poor, and
the provision of lunatic asylums, hospitals, and other
aids for the sick, fall under this head. It is also his
duty to create no nuisance — to do nothing himself and
to permit nothing to be done on his premises by others
which is injurious to health, or which interferes with
the lawful enjoyment by any man of his own property.
Fresh air, sound food, and good water are the essential
conditions of public health. It is the business of the
local government to see that the neighbourhood is sup-
plied with pure Avater, that the food is unadulterated,
that the air is uncontaminated, that streets are properly
lighted, and that the roads are reasonably safe and suffi-

As long as we keep to general principles, there
is not much room for controversy as to the appro-
priate sphere of local government. The difficulty
consists in the application of admitted principles to a
concrete instance. Whatever be the constitution of a
State, a vast amount of business must be locally adminis-
tered. Such business may be dispatched either by the
officers and nominees of the Central Government, or
by the inhabitants of the particular district concerned.
In England it is for the most part disposed of by
the inhabitants of the particular local area or their
representatives. This has ever been our prevailing

Constitutional writers lay great stress on the political
importance of a vigorous system of local self-government,


which they regard as the chief corner-stone of political
freedom. And no doubt it was in their local assemblies
that our forefathers learnt those lessons of self-respect,
self-help, and self-reliance, which have made the English
nation what it is. But while all will admit that local
institutions play a most important part in the life-history
of a free State, the exact nature of that part is not so clear.
Do free and autonomous local institutions create a spirit
of freedom in the people at large which necessitates a
constitutional central government, or does a constitutional
government carried on by a free people necessarily
generate a system of free local institutions 1 Which is
cause and which is effect 1 Or are both constitutional
government and healthy local institutions merely the
outward and visible signs of a spirit of freedom animating
the nation, and in their turn reacting on the national
character ? It is the old difficulty of post hoc vel propter
hoc. This much, however, is certain : a very complete
system of local self-government is compatible with an
entire absence of political freedom. The history
of India shows that self-governing local institutions,
possessed of intense vitality, may exist apart from
any form of representative government, and be suc-
cessfully administered by a people who have no notion
of political freedom.

Happily this has never been the case in England.
Our local institutions have conduced, and still conduce,
to political freedom. And our political institutions in
no way trammel or endanger our local independence.
The sphere of local government has not diminished;
on the contrary it steadily increases. Legislation
now is centrifugal rather than centripetal. Parliament


has found it impossible to cope with all its duties,
and has been compelled to delegate large powers to local
bodies. In one instance, however, a step has been taken
in the contrary direction. This is in the case of prisons.
Prisons were formerly managed by the local authorities.
County prisons were under the control of the justices,
and borough prisons under the control of the town
councils. But by an Act of 1877 the management of
all prisons was, after a prolonged controversy, trans-
ferred from the local authorities to the Central Govern-
ment as represented by the Home Secretary. It was
urged, in opposition to this Act, that prisons stood on
precisely the same footing as workhouses and lunatic
asylums, which are properly left to the management of
local authorities. It was answered that criminal justice
should, as far as possible, be administered throughout
the land with absolute uniformity. Gaols are part of
the machinery of criminal justice, and as long as they
were administered by independent local bodies the
requisite uniformity in carrying out sentences of im-
prisonment could not be obtained. This consideration
carried the day, and in obedience to this principle the
transfer was effected. .

The object of this series of volumes is a practical
one — namely, to give some information to an English
citizen as to his actual rights and duties as such. In
the next chapter an attempt will be made to lay before
the reader a general view of our local institutions con-
sidered in the aggregate. In the succeeding chapters
particular local areas, and the authorities which rule
them, will be considered in detail. But first let us
compare one or two of the salient features of local and


central government in England, and cc sider the points
of similarity and contrast.

In the first place, our local institutions, like our
political constitution, have developed spontaneously, and
therefore irregularly. Formerly both alike bristled with
anomalies. Even now, to every general proposition
relating to either, there is a host of exceptions to puzzle
the student and bewilder the citizen. Englishmen care
little for regularity and form ; they value utility more
highly than symmetry. And indeed, where, as in England,
government by party is a tradition, and every important
measure proposed by the party in power is inevitably
resisted by the party in opposition, symmetry becomes
an unattainable ideal : laws are born in caution and
shapen in compromise. We have had little artistic
legislation since the time of Cromwell, because states-
men have not been in a position to carry premisses to
their logical conclusions.

Subject to this general observation, it may be said
that our local and our political institutions have de-
veloped very much along the same lines. In Saxon
times, both were essentially democratic ; later, both
became more and more narrow and exclusive ; and now
at last in both the principle of representation reigns
supreme. But it must not be assumed that such de-
velopment was either harmonious or contemporaneous.
Our local and political systems neither declined nor
advanced together. Each grew up in its own way, with
no direct reference to the other, though the same forces
were at work in each case. The government of our
counties became more and more aristocratic just at the
time when our boroughs were acquiring the right to


send representatives to Parliament ; and the administra-
tion of local affairs in our boroughs became more and
more bigoted and exclusive after political freedom had
been secured by the execution of Charles I. and the
expulsion of his second son. Nor did our local institu-
tions themselves grow up at the same pace side by side.
Counties and boroughs were never in line. And the
boroughs themselves never kept abreast with each other.
None of our many boards and councils were elected on
the same method or by the same class of electors.

In the political sphere, it seems only natural that the
rights of the individual should often yield to rank and
wealth and territorial influence. But one might have
anticipated that in small areas, in the government of
which only a few were concerned, no restriction would
be placed on the working of the principle of representa-
tion. The contrary is the fact. Property has always
had most weight in the sphere of local government.
The franchise has been extended first for parliament-
ary purposes, and only afterwards for the election of
local governing bodies. The Reform Act of 1832 was
followed by the Municipal Corporations Act of 1835, and
the Reform Act of 1885 preceded the Local Government
Act of 1888, which for the first time admitted the prin-
ciple of representative government in county affairs.
While the plural vote, which was invented to give pro-
perty a predominating voice in the administration of
the poor-law and in all sanitary matters, lasted on till

What was "the plural vote"? At a parliamentary
election, every man's vote is as good as his neighbour's.
This was always so. The vote of the poorest man who


had the franchise was always equal in value to the vote
of a Kothschild. But a contrary rule prevailed at an
election of poordaw guardians or of a Local Board of
Health. There a wealthy man had six votes to the
poor man's one. Every owner of property and every
ratepayer was entitled to vote, and he had from one to
six votes according to the rateable value of his property.
A rateable value of £50 or less gave one vote ; if over £50
but under £100 it carried two votes; and so on, each
additional £50 of value up to £250 gave an additional
vote. Six votes was the maximum. But a resident
owner might vote both as an owner and as a resident.
Hence a man who resided in his own house might have
as many as twelve votes, if the house was rated at £250
or upwards.

This plural vote existed only for local purposes. It
was defended by Mill and others on the ground that
the honest and frugal dispensation of money forms so
much larger a part of the business of the local than of
the national body, that there is justice as well as policy
in allowing a greater influence to those who have a
larger money interest at stake. Some political writers
have recently detected, both in the political and in the
local sphere, a tendency to substitute for the good old
rule that representation should go along with taxation,
a new maxim that representation should be universal,
but that taxation should be limited to the classes enjoy-
ing a marginal superfluity of wealth. And a fear has
been expressed in some quarters that, as the voting
power extends downwards in the social scale, l»>tli
political and local government may become concentrated
in the hands of those who, paying no taxes or rates,


have no personal motive for economy. The future, in
this respect, may be left to take care of itself. At
present, at all events, there is no ground for any such
apprehension in the management of our local affairs.
The danger was often the other way ; representatives
were returned pledged to injurious economy ; necessary
work was neglected, and local improvement stopped.
Besides, all local governing bodies are subject, first, to
the supremacy of Parliament, which could end them
all at a stroke ; secondly, to the common law, and
especially to the statute book which contains their
written constitutions ; and thirdly, to the controlling
action of the various departments of the Central
Government. Surely, with such powerful " engines at
the door," free scope might have been allowed to the
representative principle in the sphere of local govern-
ment. The plural vote (except in the case of a poll of
a vestry) is now happily abolished. So is the property
qualification which was formerly required from all town-
councillors, guardians, way -wardens, and members of
Local Boards of Health. There are no longer any ex
officio guardians. And central and local government
now rest alike on a broad basis of popular representa-

The rights of property are now safeguarded in a
different way. It is not often that a local body is
guilty of extravagant expenditure out of its current
income : for an immediate heavy increase in any
rate would cause the individual members to lose their
seats. The temptation is rather to incur undue
burdens by means of loans, repayment of which may
be spread over a long series of years, so as to


burden ratepayers after the benefit of the expendi-
ture has been exhausted. Parliament has provided
against such improper anticipation by fixing an amount,
proportionate to the annual rateable value of the district,
beyond which the local authority may not borrow, by
limiting the period of years within which repayment
must be made, by naming a maximum rate per £, and
by granting powers of control to a Central Department.
Whether these expedients are sufficient or efficient,
may be doubted.

The plural vote was created for the minority of
wealth ; the cumulative vote for the minority of opinion.
Under this system, each elector has as many votes as
there are seats to be filled, and may assign what
number he pleases to any candidate. In the political
sphere it has been generally held that the representa-
tion of minorities is sufficiently secured by the division
of the country into voting areas so numerous that a
minority in one area finds a representative through a
majority in another. In the local sphere, the conflict
of opinion is intensified by the small size of the arena
and the mutual acquaintance of the combatants, and
when questions of religious belief arise, the conflict is
often bitter ; so that a minority would possibly under the
ordinary voting arrangements receive no representation
at all. Hence the cumulative vote was invented to
enable any active minority to make its influence felt.
This method prevails only at School Board elections.

A third important experiment which has been tried
in the sphere of local government is the extension of the
suffrage, and in some cases of the right to be elected, to
women. Here our local system is distinctly in advance


of the political. A woman cannot vote at a parlia-
mentary election, neither can she serve as a member of
Parliament. But if she be qualified in other respects,
she may exercise all local franchises ; and she may also
fill most local offices, including those of poor-law guardian,
overseer, parish councillor, district councillor, and member
of a School Board. The most important offices, however,
those of town and county councillor, are still closed to
women. It may be noted, as a presage of what the
future may bring forth in England, that the year 1894
has witnessed in New Zealand the election of a Parlia-
ment by a suffrage both male and female, and the choice
of a woman as mayor of a borough.

Central and local government are alike in this, that
in both our representatives are unpaid : they do a vast
amount of work without any remuneration. But there
was formerly a striking difference in the class of men
who were elected to administer the two systems, — a
difference which is now happily disappearing. Speaking
broadly, in the case of the Central Government, political
power now rests with the masses, but the masses
elect as their representatives in Parliament men of
first-rate education and intelligence. But, thirty or
forty years ago, the administration of local affairs in
all but the most important areas had largely fallen into
the hands of small tradesmen, and that class had also a
disproportionate voting power. It is of course right and
just that the lower middle class should be represented
on local governing bodies; but the abstention of the more
educated classes from taking their proper share in local
government, and the insufficient representation of the
working classes on local executive bodies, were great evils.


As population increases, and as science enlarges our
knowledge of sanitary matters and conditions, the
problems of local government become more and more
complex, and must be dealt with by more highly
trained intelligence. On the other hand, a large propor-
tion of the matters administered by local bodies — as, for
instance, elementary education, the relief of the poor,
and a good many sanitary improvements — directly and
almost exclusively concerns the working classes. All
classes should therefore be directly represented in the
administrative bodies, and work together for the common
good of the district. Fortunately the last ten years have
seen a considerable improvement in this respect.

Again, as regards the franchise, the right to vote at
parliamentary elections and the right to vote for pur-
poses of local government alike rest on the oAvnership
or occupation of land or houses. No amount of mere
funded property, no payment of income tax, Avill give
a vote. When we turn to taxation, hoAvever, Ave
find a marked difference between national taxes and
local rates. The Central Government taxes both real
and personal property, while rates fall exclusively on
land and houses. The State levies both direct and
indirect taxes : local rates are, as a rule, direct only.
A man is rated in proportion to the visible real property
which he owns or occupies in the shape of land and
houses, to the exclusion of his other property in bonds,
shares, cash, ships, furniture, and the like, on Avhich,
hoAvever, he pays taxes. This practice is based on the
very doubtful hypothesis that a man's annual expenditure
in house rent or its equivalent is in the majority of cases
proportionate to his income. It is clear that under the


present system much wealth escapes local rating which,
under an ideal system, ought to bear its share of the
general burdens of the locality. Why should not
personal property, as well as real, be made to contribute
to the rates 1 A large part of local expenditure, it is
true, directly affects and benefits land and houses ; but
such matters as poor relief and elementary education
have no connection with local property. It would
therefore seem fair that the expenses of such matters
should fall, at any rate in part, on actual income as well
as on visible expenditure. Local financiers have recently
claimed a share in the death duties, the tax paid on the
estate of a deceased person. The practice of making
imperial grants in aid of local taxation, which has
been very largely extended during the last ten years,
is an attempt to meet the difficulty, but it is open to
objection on the ground that it has a tendency to en-
courage extravagant local administration. It raises,
moreover, many difficult questions. Imperial funds are

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Online LibraryWilliam Blake OdgersLocal government → online text (page 1 of 19)