It's rather a relief for a think tank to produce a paper urging us to look to the past. The History Boys from the New Local Government Network seeks to do so. I'm not sure how much of a guide to policy it is but there are some inspiring anecdotes.
Cities Minister, Greg Clark, who is an MP and has been a councillor, has this to say of the collection of essays:
You don’t just see the impact of what you decide on a page of statistics, but on the streets where you live and the faces of your neighbours.
I believe that this direct connection to the community is what inspired great local leaders like Joseph Chamberlain to achieve what they did. And it is why it is so important that we should remember not only their inspirational example, but also what happened next: how the powers of local democracy were usurped by Whitehall and Westminster.
Today, as we seek to turn the tide of centralisation, we need to learn all the lessons that history can teach us. That is why this collection of essays – brought together by the New Local Government Network – is so important. Through the City Deals programme and other reforms, my hope is that we will lay the foundation for a second golden age of local government, but in the meantime I draw great encouragement from these tales of the first.
I enjoyed the chapter by George W. Jones about Herbert Morrison leading the London County Council:
Morrison was at his most innovative in his attitude to publicity, both for the LCC and himself. He courted the press, creating a full-time department for press relations, moving the reporters from the distant gallery of the Council chamber, where the acoustics were bad, to the floor, making himself accessible to them and using them to break a story. He gave the press quotable items they could use without revision. He urged his chief officers to tailor their reports to what the press required.
Morrison was eager to publicise the LCC and its services, holding exhibitions, putting up posters, floodlighting County Hall and commissioning a history of the LCC. He used the most modern methods of publicity to identify himself in the public mind with what the LCC was doing. He used an outside unofficial group of young advertising experts, public-relations specialists, and journalists to advise him, devising snappy slogans for elections; making him and the LCC synonymous. Press photos showed him starting demolition work on Waterloo Bridge and at County Hall on the top of a fire-brigade ladder.
His grandson Lord Mandelson was a chip off the block.
Mr Morrison certainly put in the hours: "He often slept at County Hall in his office on a camp bed tucked behind a screen and he padded around the corridors in his pyjamas."
Then we read about Conservative dominated Liverpool:
In the early 1920s, around 90 council members in Liverpool were Conservatives, 25 each of Liberals and Independents, and around 6 members were of the Labour Party. By the mid- 1930s, there was a greater proportion of Labour council members and in 1936 there were 78 Conservatives, 14 Liberals, 7 Independents, 12 Protestants, and 53 Labour.
Sir Archibald Salvidge, Chairman of the Conservative Party in Liverpool from 1892 until his death in 1928, was known as the "King of Liverpool." He had a populist, inclusive "mucking in" approach to politics. His greatest legacy was the Mersey Tunnel – it was built with a subsidy of £1.4 million. I suppose it was a lot at the time. It is now rather a money spinner from all the toll revenue.