© 2017 The Harpenden Society
The jaunty music of the Sir John Lawes school jazz band welcomed and the soul music of the April Blue duo bid farewell to the hundred and thirty members and friends who packed the annex of the Harpenden House Hotel on the evening of Thursday 11 April.
Above: Sir John Lawes school jazz band welcomed members and guests. Right: Blues duo ‘April Blue’ concluded the event
The Harpenden Society, eschewing the glum routine of the conventional annual general meeting, opted to celebrate in style, with a modish pictorial display of its year's achievements and the chance for members and friends to chat informally with The Society officers and committee members. Posters and leaflets proclaimed the four 'Big Issues' which The Society is currently pursuing, namely the revival of the Red House, the renewal of the public halls, the refurbishment, complete with cafe, of Rothamsted Park and the regeneration of the high street.
The formal annual general meeting business was expeditiously dispatched by President Alison Steer and Chairman Chris Marsden. The Society's well-supported competition for primary schools was profiled and the winners of The Harpenden Society Awards 'for projects that have added special appeal or value to the town's environment' were announced. The Society's energetic public relations officer, Ron Taylor who was largely responsible for the evening's successful format launched a 'Double the Membership' drive.
Editor's note: it will have particularly pleased both President and Chairman that members of the audience both proposed doubling the membership subscription and also dealt vigorously with the only 'noisy neighbour' to attempt irrelevant interruption.
As the evening drew to a close, there were many expressions of genuine appreciation offered and throughout the event there was a constant buzz of congenial and responsive enjoyment.
Said Chris Marsden, 'we have a number of exciting projects under way and I am looking forward with enthusiasm to taking them forward in the next year. It is great that this meeting has given the opportunity to so many of our members and others to talk to us about what we are doing and for the meeting formally to have given its unanimous support for the continuation of our work'.
How many of Britain's fifty and more prime ministers had substantial local government experience? Only two – Clement Attlee and John Major. Only two very senior British politicians had previously enjoyed really high-ranking local government success – Joseph Chamberlain as an outstanding mayor of Birmingham and Herbert Morrison as a most effective supremo of the London County Council.
Does this curious lack of connection between central and local politics go some way to explaining why, over the last 60 or 70 years there has been a gradual diminishing of the powers of local government?
There has been a significant expansion since 1939 of centralisation, with governments of all colours claiming command over or removing tasks previously allocated to local government. The workable 19th century balance of the central state laying down a frame of reference and local elected authorities making appropriate neighbourhood decisions endured for some hundred years. Older, well, alright then, very old readers may recall a time when 'municipalisation' had established and then controlled gas, water, buses, hospitals, substantial housing and many other services – and if you had a complaint you had a local councillor to ear-bash.
Education is an example of localism in decline. The dictates of a national curriculum, plus a strait-jacketing inspectoral and testing regime, and a massive increase in the number of schools directly funded from Whitehall has seriously weakened the hands of local education authorities.
Other local services now have, by governmental decree, a commercial base. Yet, for example, in the generation since municipal bus services were abandoned, bus usage has more than halved and bus fares have, in real value, more than doubled, except in London where, under a reformed system of local authority tendering, it has – 90,000 passengers a day - thrived.
The Harpenden in Question
being a series of editorial commentaries on important Harpenden issues that should challenge thought and encourage inquiry and action.
9. Lament for Local Government
Another aspect has been that of 'rationalisation', whereby local government units have grown in size and thus lost touch with local opinion and influence. In April the new Chief Constable of 'Police Scotland' – shouldn't we find a continental style national police a bit scary? - created by the amalgamation of the existing eight forces, advised the 43 forces of England and Wales to do something similar. He might not be aware that in 1939 there were 183 police forces in England and Wales, each with its own local supervision, employing 60,000 police officers, whereas the 'merged' 43 of today have 140,000 officers. So much for rationalisation.
It used to be said that one paid taxes in sorrow and rates in anger, but, nowadays, less than 15% of revenue is collected locally...he who pays the piper... and, sadly, local voting turn-out has dropped drastically. Yet it is an accepted axiom of consumer representation that the closer the degree of local oversight to the source of provision, the likelier it is to be effective.
Within the last few weeks there have been two encouraging national polls. In one 49% of respondents were opposed to the concept of utilities – gas, electricity, water etc – being so unaccountable to public supervision. In another, asked who they trusted to educate their children, 59% of parents said headteachers, 16% said the local education authority, 13% said school governors and only 6% central government and academy chains.
Should all this be a cause of genuine concern to all who value the strength of the civic community? Let me be clear that this is an entirely personal if gloomy commentary. Others may feel just as strongly that the local elective process became clumsily old-fashioned and what has happened has been progressive and modernising. I hope they will write and tell me so. But we should acknowledge that a very major change has occurred in the post-war decades, so gradual almost to have passed unnoticed.
Please send comments on this article or any other issues raised in this edition to the editor:
Eric Midwinter 37 Bloomfield Rd. Harpenden AL5 4DD
Sub-editor Harry Downie
Above: A packed audience listened intently to the proceedings