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Why was it introduced (political/sociological context)?
The Local Government Act 1972 reformed the structure of local government in England and Wales. The changes were introduced in the context of significant problems with the pre-existing structure of local government. The root cause of these were that many county boundaries were based on those established in the Middle Ages, which were no longer appropriate in the light of subsequent urban development. Despite attempts to merge councils, there remained an excessive number of small district councils in smaller areas of the country, contrasted with overstretched councils which managed newly emerged urban areas such as Manchester and Liverpool. There was also confusion resulting from the different boundaries used for ceremonial and judicial counties.
The proposal for reform based on a two-tier structure was a key commitment in the election manifesto of Heath’s Conservative party during the 1970 General Election campaign. This was in contrast to Labour proposals (based on a controversial report by the ‘Redcliffe Maud’ commission) favouring a single tier system (though many of the boundaries proposed in this report were retained by the Conservative government in their reforms).
What was the aim of the Act (legal context)?
The overriding purpose of the legislation was to update the local government boundaries and structure to meet the needs of twentieth century Britain. It was accompanied by the Local Government (Scotland) Act 1973 which introduced similar changes in Scotland.
What main changes did it make to the law?
The Act abolished entirely the existing system of local government and in its place established a two-tier system of metropolitan and non-metropolitan district councils which remains in use in many areas of England to this day. In addition to establishing new metropolitan and non-metropolitan boroughs, it designated functions to these bodies. The new counties replaced the old for all purposes, hence aligning the boundaries of local government districts with those used ceremonially and by the justice system. The only remnant of the old system which remained untouched by the reforms were the civil parish councils (which in Wales were renamed as ‘community councils’); although the Act referred to a ‘two-tier’ system, there was in fact a third tier at the community level in many areas. This was intended to combat the risk that the new structure would be more remote from communities.
The Act also allocated the functions of the previous local authorities between districts and counties (the precise allocation differing between metropolitan and non-metropolitan counties) with the exception of health care and water supply, responsibility for which was allocated to newly created non-elected authorities. The underlying intention of these provisions was to increase the efficiency of local government. To further this aim, the Act also introduced the concept of ‘agency’ for relationships between councils (although certain areas, such as education, were specifically excluded from the scope of agency). The Act also modernised the law, abolishing defunct positions such as that of the ‘alderman’.
A number of unrelated or tangentially related matters were also incorporated into the Act, including: amendment of the provisions of the Transport Act 1968; provision for appeal of licence decisions under the Home Counties (Music and Dancing) Licensing Act 1926; provisions relating to magistrates’ courts committees and inferior courts of record.
The reception to the Act was not universally positive. The reforms had not encompassed the finance of local government, and this caused controversy, particularly following the change of government after the 1974 election. The transition to the two-tier system was also less than smooth, with friction between the new districts and counties on various issues, most notably planning. There was also objection to the boundaries themselves. In some areas it was felt that they had been drawn too rigidly and excluded suburban areas, whilst other districts mounted protests to the changes. In Berkshire protestors lit a bonfire upon the coming into force of the Act in objection to the removal of the Uffington White Horse from their area, whilst the transition of Gatwick airport from Surrey to West Sussex was also a source of determined local opposition. Many areas also lamented the loss of local control which they felt resulted from the Act, and felt that their heritage had been lost due to the renaming of areas and the abolition of traditional positions such as the Lord Lieutenant.
The system of local government established by the Act has been gradually amended so that only a shadow of its provisions remains in place today. In 1986 Thatcher’s government abolished the county councils of the metropolitan counties, whilst local government reform in the 1990s established new ‘unitary’ authorities and the abolition of redefinition of many areas. In Wales, the departure from the system established by the Act was more total; the two-tier system was abandoned in 1996 and replaced with a system of ‘principal areas’ which remains in place today.
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