Lewis Baston is author of Reggie: The Life of Reginald Maudling and several books about British general elections. He is a consultant on politics, elections and constituencies.

This spring marks 50 years since the first London borough elections, and 40 years since the big reforms of local government in the mid-1970s took effect. Both sets of changes were introduced by Conservative governments in self-consciously modernising mood, and it is interesting to note that the Tories have been much more willing to redraw the map of local government than Labour. The Conservatives reformed London government in 1888, 1900, 1963-65 and 1986; local government in the rest of England, Wales and Scotland radically in 1972-75 and less radically in the 1990s, and drastically reformed local authorities in Scotland and Wales in the 1990s. The only Labour structural reform of any note was the creation of the London Mayor and Assembly in 1998-2000, although Labour did start the process that led to the Heath-Walker reforms of 1972-74.

Local government boundaries are an interesting example of how the interests of different bits of the same political party can be opposed to each other. Think for a moment of Ken Clarke’s constituents in West Bridgford, just across the Trent from Nottingham city centre, whose neighbourhood contains such key Nottingham landmarks as Trent Bridge and the City Ground (not, note, the ‘Rushcliffe district’ ground!) and has in the (fairly distant) past been in a constituency called Nottingham South. Although it has recently trended a bit towards Labour, West Bridgford has always been a Tory area.

The Conservatives of Nottingham could have done with the reinforcements – it would have meant Tory control rather than Labour, or hung councils in several elections. But the Conservatives of West Bridgford would prefer to be the largest element in a fairly safe Tory council, Rushcliffe, rather than a small element in a marginal or Labour Greater Nottingham. For residents of outlying suburbs, the very point of living there often is to escape the city, and whenever such proposals are discussed there is nearly always impassioned resistance to being sucked back into a big city political environment, both in terms of identity and fears about local taxation, property values, insurance rates and so on.

In fairness to the Heath government, this was not resolved in the same way in every situation. The boundaries of Bradford and Sheffield were drawn very wide, but those of Manchester and Leicester rather narrowly. The party political element came in the allocation of powers to the two tiers of local government. In the metropolitan areas, the boroughs were more powerful (they were the local education authorities, for instance) and Conservative enclaves like Solihull and Trafford could more or less govern themselves.

In the shire areas, the counties were the bigger authorities, and the old jealously independent county boroughs, such as Southampton and Bristol, were subordinate to the county councils. It was quite a neat trick, even if it didn’t quite work out as planned (the Tories swept most of the metropolitan counties in 1977, for instance, but lost most of the shire counties in 1985 and 1993). The Major government restored many of the county boroughs during the 1990s as ‘unitary authorities’, and abolished some of the less loved creations of the Heath-Walker era like Avon and Humberside. Charmingly, the cluster of four unitary councils around Bristol is sometimes known as CUBA (‘County that Used to Be Avon’).

The tension between city and suburban Conservative interests was vividly demonstrated in the early 1960s with the creation of Greater London. There were several reasons why the Macmillan Government decided to expand London. The existing London County Council’s (LCC) boundaries were already out of date when it was created in 1888 – for example, the county line ran down the middle of Kilburn High Road in north west London, and some of the boroughs under it were very small local authorities. The county of Middlesex was nearly all urbanised by 1939, and part of a single social and economic unit with London; there were all sorts of services, including transport, for which the boundaries made no sense. But there was also – of course – a partisan calculation. Labour had run the LCC since 1934, and the Tories had more or less given up after their narrow loss in 1949. Housing construction had ‘built the Tories out of London’ in a few areas, notably Putney (a Conservative seat in 1945 but not in 1964). Many of the outlying areas voted Tory, so why not create a system of London government under which the Tories could win?

The government’s initial proposals involved a larger Greater London than we have now, extending out to Weybridge, Spelthorne, Caterham, Cheshunt and Chigwell; but the good burghers of these areas did not like the idea of being absorbed into London, and their resistance was stiffened by a concession from Iain Macleod in the House of Commons. He said that “we have no desire to force into the London system of government areas which are not truly part of London as it now is. We will look with as sympathetic an eye as possible on proposals for adjusting the boundary. The object is to include within the London system the whole of the continuous town, but no more than that.”

Most of the bids for exclusion were successful, although a couple were refused (Romford and Coulsdon & Purley did not manage to escape, for instance). This lost the Greater London area around 240,000 people (perhaps around three constituencies’ worth at the time), some from highly Conservative areas. It might have been enough to prevent Labour from winning the GLC in 1981, and thus the political career of Ken Livingstone would have looked very different.

Having fixed the external boundary, the Government then had to work on building the new boroughs. Some of them were smaller than intended because of the loss of the fringe areas: Kingston-upon-Thames was supposed to go out as far as Weybridge (and would probably have been much more Conservative), while Sutton lost a lot of territory when Epsom & Ewell opted out.

Some of the groupings were welcomed by the constituent councils, while others generated some political heat. Willesden was particularly dissatisfied with being linked to Wembley, and proposed instead to annex Paddington, and Chelsea did not like the idea of being swallowed up by Kensington. But both had to live with the original plan, and the boroughs of Brent and ‘RBKC’ were born. There were three phantom boroughs that appeared in the initial proposals but where the plans were altered beyond recognition. We might have had a borough of Leaside, covering Tottenham, Edmonton and east Enfield; and a Borough of Southgate extending to west Enfield, East Barnet, Hornsey and Wood Green, instead of Haringey and Enfield. There would also have been a borough covering Clapham, Tooting and Streatham, but it was dissolved into Wandsworth and Lambeth, with who knows what consequences for Conservative local government…

Initially, the London boroughs were regarded with suspicion and disfavour by local residents. What, people asked, could the bustling legal and business centre of Holborn have in common with the leafy hills of Hampstead? How could Borough Number Three  – which we now call Camden – ever be a cohesive unit? How could small but very proud and innovative little boroughs like Fulham and Bermondsey cope within the smothering embrace of larger councils?

While London-wide government has come in 1964, and gone in 1986, and then reappeared in 2000, the borough level has remained constant. The entities that Londoners (reluctant or not) first elected in 1964 have stood the test of time. Some took a while to settle down (Fulham and Dagenham were restored to borough names in 1979 and 1980 respectively, and Brent was a bad-tempered mess until the late 1990s) but all the 1960s creations have put down roots – even Havering whose very name evokes its position held in the balance between London and Essex.

At the age of 50, they now seem natural units and alternatives are hard to imagine. They have often developed distinct local political traditions, social identities and, in some cases such as Islington and Wandsworth, even stereotypes of their inhabitants. Boroughs are visually different from each other: crossing a borough boundary takes the parochial Londoner (and all Londoners are a bit parochial) into unfamiliar territory in which the street signs look funny and the bins are the wrong colour. What started as a bit of administrative rationalism has ended up evoking a flutter of sentimental loyalty even in the cynical hearts of Londoners, and is therefore an almost perfect piece of Macmillan-era Conservatism.

Further reading:

Ken Young Metropolitan London: politics and urban change,1837-1981 Edward Arnold, 1982.
Nirmala Rao and Ken Young Local Government since 1945 Wiley, 1997.

I did some original research for this one in the splendid National Archives – file references at HLG29/551 and subsequent.