Sunday, 4 May 2008

'Municipal Socialism'

The role of local authorities in improving amenities was a matter of importance and some controversy before 1914. A Medical Officer of Health was first appointed in Liverpool in 1847 but other cities did not do so until the 1860s, for example Manchester in 1868, or 1870s. As the interventionist role of local authorities was defined, especially in the legislation of the 1870s and 1880s, the number of local authority employees increased[1]. This resulted in various responses:

  1. Frederic Harrison commented in 1875 that local self-government might stand for 'local mis-government and local no-government'.
  2. Ratepayers understood that increased staff meant increased rates and landowners saw their rents decline if they needed to improve their properties.
  3. Councillors wanted to maintain their autonomy and restrict the role of what they saw as meddlesome inspectors.
  4. Working class people were invariably hostile, in the cherished cause of liberty and privacy. This was, in part, the same attitude as opponents of Chadwick exhibited in the 1850s. But this is only part of the reason. Where borough health departments were small the police were used to enforce sanitary legislation. Property and possessions were damaged by fumigation procedures whenever infectious diseases were suspected. Provision for compensation existed after 1875 but was rarely taken. To the working class inspection was highly suspected.
  5. Slum clearance, even more than inspections, aroused bitter resistance. Communities were broken and dispersed by health authorities.

In 1850 municipal priorities were public order, street maintenance and lighting and the provision of basic sanitary services. There was some investment in gas and water supply but the scale of public amenities and municipal trading that developed in the next half century was altogether grander. But was this 'socialist'? Although collectivism caused unease, there were some who did not see it as socialist. The Whig authority on local government, George Brodrick, said in April 1884 that Public Health and Education Acts were 'founded on reasons of public utility, and not on the principle of equalising the lots of the higher and lower classes in the community.' By contrast, Joseph Chamberlain speaking a year later in Warrington said that 'The Poor-Law is Socialism, the Education Act is Socialism, the great part of our municipal work is Socialism; every kindly act of legislation by which the community recognises its responsibilities and obligations to its poorer members is socialistic....Our object is the elevation of the poor of the masses of the people -- a levelling up which shall do something to remove the excessive inequalities in the social condition of the people, and which is now one of the greatest dangers as well as the greatest injury to the State....'

In 1895 the later Conservative Prime Minister, A.J. Balfour, saw social legislation as the 'direct opposite and most effective antidote to socialist legislation' and that 'the adoption of what is good [in socialism] is the best preventative for what is bad': social legislation was designed to raise the standard of living and provide efficient services that did not endanger existing institutions. A.K. Rollit, from 1890 to 1906 President of the Association of Municipal Corporations and a Tory Democrat, argued that the municipality should do what individuals 'cannot do, or do so well, for themselves'. The issue by the 1890s was not whether the state, locally or nationally, should intervene in matters of public concern but the level of that intervention and the balance between public and private utilities. The major areas where intervention occurred were:

  1. Water supply. Chadwick's 1842 Report on the fifty largest towns had condemned private enterprise in providing clean and efficient water supplies. Legislation in 1847-8 allowed municipalities to establish their own, or to transfer privately owned, water companies. Additional legislation in 1870 and 1875 cheapened and speeded up the process. Even so the assumption of water supply by local authorities was irregular: by 1871 only 250 of 783 urban districts provided some supply and by 1879 only 413 out of 944 urban districts were doing so while 290 were supplied by private companies. By 1914 two-thirds of the population were supplied by a public authority. There were various reasons for this situation. First, for the larger cities the massive cost of extending supplies brought local political turmoil. In Liverpool the Rivington Pike scheme unhinged party political alignments for ten years after 1847, as did the Lake Vyrnwy scheme forty years later. Secondly, supply was a serious problem. Between 1850 and 1900, for example, Manchester's population doubled and its daily water needs quadrupled from 8 to 32 million gallons. This meant piping water from areas where supplies could be found: Thirlmere in the Lake District, some eighty miles away, was tapped. Finally, purity mattered and many rivers were seriously polluted by industrial effluent and untreated sewage. Waterborne diseases had not yet been eliminated and typhoid epidemics were common into the 1870s and isolated outbreaks, as at Cambridge in 1887 and Kings Lynn ten years later, still occurred. To prevent contamination, as much as to ensure supply of water, there was a real need for co-ordination between local authorities.
  2. Municipalisation of gas. It contains some different features from water but in both, as with tramways, the disturbance to public highways from the laying of services roused the municipal authorities' interest. Nine municipalities took control of gas before 1850; another 18 in the 1850s, 22 in the 1860s, 76 in the 1870s, 24 in the 1880s, 50 in the 1890s and 25 between 1901 and 1910. Over two-thirds were northern and Midland towns but several large cities -- Liverpool, Sheffield, Newcastle and Bristol -- remained in the hands of private companies. By 1910 local authority gas sales comprised 37 per cent of the total. The vast increase in domestic users was chiefly due to two inventions: the gas mantle and the slot meter. Towns and cities could take over gas companies in the same way as water companies. Gas companies, as local monopolies, could have exploited their position without municipal intervention. By 1906 local authorities charged on average 2s.8d. and private companies 2s.11d. per thousand cubic feet of gas. The difference can be explained by the reluctance of local authorities to take over unprofitable concerns. It was the issue of profitability that roused arguments that were absent over water supply and a deceleration of the movement to municipal ownership can be seen from the 1880s partly because of the development of electricity.
  3. Electricity. The threat from electricity in the 1880s to municipal gas profits led to the 1882 Act that limited an electricity company's licence to operate to 21 years after which a local authority has the right to purchase without compensation. This so discouraged the industry that in 1888 the licence was extended to 42 years. From the 1890s, however, municipal investment accounted for two-thirds of the organisation and distribution.
  4. Transport. As with electricity, technical economies and regional services were hindered by too rigid adherence to local government boundaries. This prevented local authority ownership and management of the majority of tramways. The Tramways Act 1870 chiefly licensed private enterprise and, though local authorities might build and lease tram systems, they could not operate them. By 1913, however, about 1,500 miles of local authority line existed and municipal ownership embraced 63 per cent of lines and 80 per cent of passengers carried.

There were other areas where local authorities could take a lead. The Housing Act 1890 determined public and private interests and some council housing was the consequence. Restrictions hedged other municipal ventures. Hull and several other towns established municipal telephone services; resort towns ventured into the entertainment business [Bournemouth even sponsored its own orchestra]; Doncaster managed a racecourse; Worcester a dairy and Wolverhampton a cold store. Non-profit making activities were pursued with less vigour and voluntary provision was preferred. Consider public libraries. Their finances were limited by the maximum rate of halfpenny under the 1850 Act and from 1885 to 1919 by a penny rate. Take-up was patchy: by the late 1870s only 86 rate-supported libraries existed. Since free-libraries were conceived as a service for the working classes, the question had to be argued whether those classes would really benefit and suspicion of the working class public persisted. By 1910 a sizeable reading public had emerged with library loans doubling since 1896 from 26 to 46 million book issues. But fewer than 5 per cent of the population were registered borrowers.

These enterprises did not, however, mark a transfer of control from private to municipal ownership, as many socialists wanted. 'Municipal socialism' was rarely, if ever, socialist. R.H. Tawney summed up the position in November 1914 'The motive of nearly all these developments has been a purely utilitarian consideration for the consumer, They have not been inspired by any desire to introduce more just social arrangements....They have been inspired simply by the desire for cheap services....Clearly there are no germs of a revolution here.'

A review of municipal services inevitably results in a mixed account. It may be easy to scale down achievement but civic pride had genuine foundations. There is little doubt that sanitary services in English towns enhanced the living standards of the nation. By 1914 England could boast some remarkable civic creations but there was still a great deal wanting especially in respect of housing and town planning. In 1850 it was argued that municipalising essential services was a sound way of achieving efficiency and economy. By 1914 municipalisation had been widened to encompass 'desirable' as well as 'essential' services. But there was a widespread belief that the existing provision of services and the type of municipal management could not survive without major restructuring. Nationalisation, or the bringing of services under the State, provided one solution to this problem. Privatisation provided the alternative. The development of services after 1918 was, in many respects, a dialogue [albeit on occasions a dialogue of the deaf] between these two positions.


[1] On the development of public utilities see James Foreman-Peck and Robert Millward Public and Private Ownership of British Industry 1820-1990, OUP, 1994, chapters 1-6.

1 comment:

Arthur Carden said...

Hope you will add something about Sir Herbert Carden of Brighton (your home town!). See "Carden of Brighton 2009 by David Carden and Arthur Carden, available from www.lulu.com and from the library in Brighton.