Government of England: Local Government
1. The Government of Towns
The reign of William IV saw reforms not only in Parliament but in Local Government. And first the Municipal Corporations Act of 1835 swept away countless abuses in cities and towns.
For centuries these places had been ruled by small bodies of men, almost free from popular control. These bodies varied greatly in composition, but were each headed by a Mayor, elected every year. They held office till they died or resigned. They themselves very often filled up any vacancies in their own number. Even if there was an election it was generally a mere farce, and the electors themselves were usually only a tiny minority of the townsmen. Thus the municipal governments neither represented the people nor depended on their goodwill. Often, indeed, they abused their power, oppressing the townsfolk and dishonestly enriching themselves.
The Act of 1835 changed all this. It made the Municipal Corporations throughout the kingdom—except in London—similar in form, representative in character and (as far as law could do it) honest in conduct. In every town now all the ratepayers, male and female, elect a Town Council, one-third every year. The Councillors themselves choose a smaller body of Aldermen, one-sixth in each year, to sit with them in the Council. And Aldermen and Councillors together elect every year a Mayor.
The Mayor—in a few large cities he is a Lord Mayor—is generally unpaid. But he has great expenses in the way of public dinners, subscriptions to charities, and so forth. Hence he is ordinarily a wealthy man: and sometimes the Council secures the services of some rich and public-spirited neighbour, e.g. a great landowner in the county, instead of electing one of its own members.
While in office the Mayor—wearing his official chain and robes—presides in the Town Council. He presides over the town magistrates. He represents the town itself in all public functions. And under him the Council aided by permanent officers, such as the Treasurer, the Chief Constable, and, above all, the Town Clerk, a man learned in the law—deals with everything that concerns the welfare of the place.
It sees to the lighting and paving of the streets, the maintenance of order, the health and education of the inhabitants, and sometimes the supply of water and gas or electric light. Often it constructs and maintains great public works, such as tramways, markets, parks, baths and wash-houses, picture-galleries, museums, and libraries. And for all these purposes it levies every year "rates"—that is, local taxes—on the inhabitants, according to the value of their lands and houses.
2. The Government of Counties
No such abuses ever existed in the government of the shires by the Justices of the Peace as disgraced the town governments before 1835. Yet, towards the end of Queen Victoria's reign, a new system of county government was obviously needed.
The Justices themselves were overworked. Even under Elizabeth, it was said, the "stacks of statutes" they had to enforce—besides discharging their duties as judges—were enough to "break their backs." And, though they had now no longer to collect forced loans or ship-money, fix labourers' wages, or hunt for "popish" priests, many new duties had fallen to them.
Again, recent laws had set up various local authorities, Boards of Health, School Boards, Highway Boards, Burial Boards, and so forth, which made the county government complex and confusing.
Lastly, though the Justices worked with no reward beyond a certain dignity, and with a general excellence that astonished and delighted foreign observers, they were in no sense representative of the people. They ruled, and taxed, but they were neither chosen nor controlled by those who had to pay and obey. For they were appointed by the Crown, i.e. really by the Lord Chancellor, generally by the advice of the Lord-Lieutenant of the county, and, unless dismissed for misbehaviour, they held office till death.
Hence the Local Government Acts of 1888 and 1894—one a Conservative, the other a Liberal, measure—transferred most of their duties, except the administration of justice, to popularly elected councils. And these councils took over also some work from other local authorities, so that the county government became somewhat simpler, its main features being as follows.
At the head stands the Lord-Lieutenant, representing the King, by whom he is appointed, and holding office till resignation or death. Next comes the High County officers Sheriff, an annual officer, unpaid, like the Lord-Lieutenant, and also appointed by the King. His duties are now chiefly connected with Parliamentary elections and the Assizes, and, as they involve a great deal of expense, only wealthy men are chosen for the post.
But the real chief authority is the County Council, consisting like a Town Council—of ordinary Councillors and Aldermen, but having a Chairman instead of a Mayor. Below the County Council come the District Councils "Urban" and "Rural," dividing the county between them, except where there is a town with a government of its own. And below these again come the Parish Councils, which are found in all parishes except those so small that they have only a parish meeting of all the ratepayers in the place.
Each of these bodies has its own special duties.
The County Council maintains the great high-roads. It controls schools receiving grants of public money. It maintains lunatic asylums. It licences theatres and music-halls. And, with the Justices, it manages the county police.
The District Council looks after the smaller roads, the administration of the Poor Law, and the public health. Urban District Councils control elementary education: in rural districts elementary and higher education alike are left to the County Council.
The Parish Council deals with little local matters—the maintenance of footpaths, the lighting of streets, the inspection of drainage and water supply. Sometimes it owns and manages libraries, allotments, drinking-fountains, and other public properties.
Every council appoints certain officials and raises certain rates, but the smaller bodies are partly controlled by the larger, and have much less freedom of action. And all are checked by the Local Government Board, whose President is a Cabinet Minister, and whose inspectors supervise especially financial doings, the levying of rates and the raising of loans. In like manner, though elementary education is the business of the councils, who build schools, appoint managers, and so forth, and raise rates to pay for them, the whole system is controlled (again through inspectors) by the President of the Board of Education (another Cabinet Minister), and vast grants of money are made to the schools from the national Exchequer.