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The new municipalism is part of a proud radical history

Molly Conisbee reflects on the history of citizens taking collective control of local services

August 19, 2017
4 min read

In these times of austerity, it is important to cleave to our historical memory, which reminds us that the policy of aggressive cuts to essential services, and the crucial support they give to citizens, is an ideological assault on us all. A sense of our history can remind us of the long road to the welfare state, and the many women and men who fought across centuries to guarantee access to education, health and other basic services for all.

The laissez-faire state of the early 19th century was often disastrous for rapidly growing urban areas. As migrants looking for work poured into the cities, the old local government vestry system creaked at the seams. Small parishes that suddenly became densely populated could not cope with the demands made on housing, water and sanitation supplies. Even burial space was in short supply. In some communities, local parishes worked together to try to manage the huge economic and social changes confronting them. But many could not cope, as revealed in the local responses to the cholera outbreaks of the 1830s and 1840s. Thousands died, particularly in poorer, urban areas, because the infrastructure to manage large numbers of the sick and dead did not exist. The root cause of many disease deaths was the dire state of privately run and piecemeal sanitation and water supply.

The reform of local government in the 1870s was a curate’s egg, and the result of a long and complex series of processes. But its positive aspects remain relevant to us today, particularly given the current dynamic between central and local government. Local authorities have been forced to make stringent cuts, and are outsourcing services that were once central to their purpose and role. It is a political choice to do this, not an historical inevitability.

What a contrast to the proud and assertive local government that arose in some cities in the later 19th century, and which may find its echoes once again. Municipal socialism, often associated with the reforms of Joseph Chamberlain in Birmingham, describes a period of reform that included slum clearance, the development of city sanitation, the creation of public green spaces, and the conversion of gas and water services into publicly owned utilities. Although it would be a long stretch to describe Chamberlain as a socialist, his ideas for city reform were very influential to the Fabians, who believed they offered a model of humane and connected urban environment that helped to put citizens in charge of their own services.

Sidney Webb wrote in Socialism in England in the 1890s that civic reform had meant that nearly half of all citizens in the UK ‘already consume gas made by themselves, as citizens collectively, in 168 different localities, as many as 14 local authorities obtained the power to borrow money to engage [in] the gas industry in a single year’.

In addition, urban water supply was becoming a matter of public provision, with 71 authorities obtaining loans for its provision in 1885-86. So too was the tram network, with 31 localities owning lines, which at that time comprised a quarter of the UK’s mileage. In cooperation, local authorities and their communities could manage their needs much better than the piecemeal, half-private, half-philanthropic arrangements of earlier in the century.

A more radical version of municipal socialism was the ‘Poplarism’ of the London Borough of Poplar, led by George Lansbury in 1921. The Labour council, elected in 1919, led a comprehensive programme of social reform, including equal pay for women and a minimum wage for council workers. This was in part to address the desperate inequalities of a very poor borough at a time of high unemployment. The council also refused to pay the rates demanded by cross-London authorities, which would have compromised what they could spend on their residents’ needs. They marched in protest at the prospect of having to cut back on what their community needed, under the banner ‘Poplar Borough Council, marching to the high court and possibly to prison’.

‘Poplarism’ has entered the lexicon to mean municipal-led relief for the vulnerable and needy, and investment in local services and wages; and also to epitomise those times when local authorities stand up to central government for the rights of their constituents. It’s a proud, radical idea that shows that local authorities do not always accept the terms laid down from the centre, and that the municipality can become ‘free’ when it asserts the needs and rights of its community. We can make our future ‘as citizens collectively’.

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