Cllr Peter Golds is the Leader of the Conservative Group on Tower Hamlets Council
The governance and boundaries of London predate the Norman conquest. William the First actually accepted obedience of the City in December 1066. Of the three remaining clauses of Magna Carta in use today, one is the Rights and Privileges of the City of London. For centuries the Square Mile City has resisted expansion of its boundaries despite the inexorable rise in the population of the surrounding areas. One reason that Winchester was historically the wealthiest diocese in the land was that it included all of ancient Surrey, extending to Lambeth and Southwark.
The Bills of Mortality, passed in the Parliament of Elizabeth the First, were collected from an area even now identifiable as the twelve inner London Boroughs – boundaries that were used when the Metropolitan Board of Works (MBW) was established in 1855 and remained as those of the London County Council (LCC) between 1889 and 1965.
By Tudor times, London was almost a triple City. The historic City; Westminster – seat of Government and the place of Coronations; and bustling, booming, theatrical Southwark. From 1855, the Metropolitan Board of Works was an indirectly elected body established to bring order to a vast and growing metropolis carved from Midddlesex, Surrey and Kent.
When Sir Robert Peel created the Metropolitan Police in 1829 the City of London was excluded and to this day operates a City Police force.
By 1889, London County Council was created alongside the creation of County Councils elsewhere with large towns created as County Boroughs, including Croydon and West Ham, neither of which have ever had a local government connection to Surrey or Essex County Councils. The LCC was carved out of Middlesex, Surrey and Kent, but because of the speed of introduction the boundaries were those of the MBW, strangely excluding developing urban areas, including, Acton, Hornsey, Tottenham, Willesden and Wimbledon, all of which were in the London postal area.
This left incongruities such as the county boundary running along the middle of Kilburn High Road and Seven Sisters Road, a somewhat narrower boundary than that of the Hudson River, which divides New York and New Jersey.
Still the population grew and moved out.
In 1921, what is now Tower Hamlets had a population of over 500,000. Between 1921-1931, overspill saw the village and farmlands of Dagenham grow from 9,000 to 90,000. The London postcodes intrude into all but six boroughs. The London telephone numbers appear in all but one borough and there is, of course, the Metropolitan Police which since 1829 has included all of the Greater London Area. London transport also covers the GLA area.
Reform was variously considered after the First World War and Middlesex became a strange anomaly, the second smallest county in terms of area, with only Rutland smaller, and the second largest in terms of population, with only the LCC being more populous. Lancashire, and the West Riding of Yorkshire, both had many County Boroughs exercising all local government functions within their boundaries.
There was constant agitation by the larger boroughs in Middlesex (Ealing, Hendon, Hornsey, Tottenham, Twickenham Wembley and Willesden) for County Borough status which would have made Middlesex a very strange unit. In Essex, Ilford was promoting County Borough status as late as 1955.
Middlesex County Council was based and met in Middlesex Guildhall in Parliament Square. The Quarter Sessions were originally based in Clerkenwell.
The original proposal considered by the Herbert Commission was for Greater London within what we now know as the M25. Where the problem arose is the reduction of over 50 boroughs into 32 in 1964. The reason for this being to establish effective units of education authorities, which certainly attracted the interest of councillors from the former authorities, where education policy was previously decided in Maidstone or Chelmsford rather than by them in their own town halls.
Many of the new boroughs were unpopular in 1965, but after half a century they have become familiar. Chingford has London postcodes and direct transport links (Chingford to Liverpool Street) into the city. The LCC operated a direct tram link, route number 57, from Chingford Mount to Liverpool Street, passing through Walthamstow, Leyton, Hackney and Shoreditch, and is more London than Essex focussed, although the merger with Leyton Walthamstow may not have been the best; Wanstead and Woodford would have been a better fit, but we cannot re-visit a decision of half a century ago.
At the time of reform, local government was almost entirely funded by local and business rates – a property tax. In 1961, leaflets were circulated in the more rural areas of Essex entitled “Kick out the Cockneys”. The reason being that rates would fall as Essex ratepayers would no longer pay for education and social services in Barking, Dagenham, Leyton, Walthamstow and other outer London suburbs.
Current residents of Hornchurch may well like writing Hornchurch Essex on letters. It would be a different story if county councillors based in Chelmsford decided not to pay the subsidies to Transport for London for their buses and the District Line.
Abolition, as opposed to reform, of the GLC in 1986 is now generally considered an error. It is always a mistake to abolish an elected body and replace it by a quango. The GLC had too much money and too little power and a slimmed down co-ordinating body would have served Londoners better.
In 1998, when London voters were asked to vote on a return to London wide government, the decision was 72 per cent to 28 per cent with 65 per cent in support in Havering and 57 per cent in support in Bromley. I would suggest that any further referendum would produce an even larger margin.
The mistake in reform came in reducing the boroughs to 32. Over the years the various powers have shifted between boroughs, the GLC, the GLA and Government. London is now the world city – to dismantle city-wide governance would be a recipe for poor government.