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As most political journalists are not very interested in local government they normally rely on Tony Travers of the LSE to give a definitive view. In The Guardian he says that Margaret Thatcher's legacy regarding local government was centralisation.

He concludes:

Thatcher's legacy to local governments was increased centralisation and the willingness of her successors to cap, limit and control local democracy in England. This country is one of the most centralised of western democracies, which is an odd legacy for a politician who so prized individualism and freedom.

I suppose that given Mr Travers is an "expert" and is reinforcing establishment orthodoxy his opinion will continue to be repeated by the BBC as fact. But he is wrong. At least he is wrong beyond narrowly equating localism with more power for local councils – and centralisation with less power for local councils.

The right to buy for council tenants certainly cut the power of local authorities. They couldn't decide whether to sell or not – this may have been what Mr Travers had in mind when he complained of "limiting local democracy." Given that a million homes were sold that also meant a dramatic retreat in municipal empires. But can anyone really say it was centralisation? Owning your own home is the ultimate decentralisation.


The 1980 Education Act required local education authorities to provide information on the exam results of schools. Was that requirement an attack on localism? Or was it giving more power to parents?

Then there was the introduction of Grant Maintained schools. They were free of local councils, but far from this being centralisation, they had more independence to run their own affairs.

Mr Travers mentions the Community Charge or Poll Tax as the abortive replacement for rates. There can certainly be various objections to the Poll Tax but I don't see that it was inherently any more or less centralist than rates.

Scrapping rent controls for the private rented sector meant a reduced role for councils. Before there would be council Rent Officers telling landlords what rent to charge. Now the landlord and tenants are left to negotiate for themselves. That is a diminished role for local authorities but a devolution of power.

Enterprise Zones meant new businesses being able to start up without a lot of tax or red tape from local or central government.

What about abolition of the GLC and the Metropolitan Authorities?

Some of the powers did go up to central government but other went down to lower tier councils.

Even before the GLC was abolished its housing was handed over to the London boroughs – prompting some back chat from Frank Dobson. How was that centralisation?

The Inner London Education Authority was abolished with its schools being passed down to the London boroughs. Mr Travers specifically mentions it. But how can that conceivably be regarded as centralisation?

When it comes to rate capping Mr Travers has more of a point. But it should be remembered that most of the rates were paid by small businesses that had no vote – so the "local democracy" argument rather unravelled.

My conclusion is that there was some two way traffic between central and local government and between lower tier and upper tier local government. But the big devolution was from the state – local and national – to the individual.

The charge of centralism which is repeatedly levelled at Margaret Thatcher does not stack up against the reality.

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