Historians' Books

A Civic Gospel for the 21st Century?

Ian Cawood , Albert Bore |

Ian Cawood:

In the new collection of essays on the career of Joseph Chamberlain (I. Cawood & C. Upton (eds.) Joseph Chamberlain: International Statesman, National Leader, Local Icon (London: Palgrave Macmillian, 2016)), there is much discussion of the impact of his brand of municipal leadership on British civic culture. The book suggests that unlike his subsequent national career, Chamberlain’s years as Birmingham’s leader had an effect which is seemingly out of proportion to his three short years as Mayor. He certainly cast a long shadow over the political culture of his adopted city, which, through the influence of his two sons, Austen and Neville, remained largely loyal to the Unionist party until 1945. But what exactly was his real contribution to local government in Britain and what lessons can his career teach those who seek to revive civic cultural in the provincial cities?

At the heart of Chamberlain’s programme was finance: the decision to secure a significant income stream for the city council through buying up and investing in local utility companies. The income would then be re-invested in improvements to the city fabric and the creation of new services, without the need to raise the rates. Whatever it has been called over the years, this was not socialism, more like “municipal capitalism” and Chamberlain himself described it as “a joint stock or co-operative enterprise in which every citizen is a shareholder”. He simply believed that where a monopoly such as the supply of water or gas existed, it should be accountable through elected representatives. It was this initial decision that enabled him and those that followed to transform the role of the City Council and the city with it. On a visit to Birmingham in 2012, Eric Pickles visited the city’s Water Hall, where people came to pay their bills to the municipal water company and declared with some enthusiasm that he was in the “epicentre of municipalism”. But the importance of what Chamberlain did was much wider than that. His primary innovation was the idea that collective action to improve housing, health and education would not only raise the quality of life of citizens but make the city more prosperous by creating the conditions in which businesses could thrive. A second important strand to Chamberlain’s philosophy was the idea of the city itself; building on the civic gospel of George Dawson and R. W. Dale, he helped to establish the great cities as the centre of Victorian civilisation. Dawson saw the city as “a solemn organism through which should flow, and in which should be shaped, all the highest, loftiest, and truest ends of man's…nature.”[1] It was a community with a moral purpose, not just a random collection of people.

Reforms to the franchise and the opportunity to petition for an elected council after 1835 were also encouraging a wider view of the role of city councils and a more radical politics. They would enable Chamberlain to build an alliance between the upper middle class and the working class and side-line the “economist” group of ratepayers that had been leading the city with a narrow and penny-pinching agenda. But the engagement of the business community remained important and indeed the new ambitions of the council attracted more substantial business figures. The proportion of businessmen (and they were all men) on the council from larger firms increased from 7.8% in 1862 to 23.4% in 1882, whilst people running smaller businesses fell from 32.8% to 17.2%. The Times commented in Chamberlain’s obituary that “perhaps no such capable and enterprising men have ever met together on an English public body as gathered around Mr Chamberlain on the Birmingham Council.”[2] Putting together the political alliances, the new ‘civic gospel’ and the participation of a strong group of business minded councillors enabled Chamberlain to push forward the idea of a much more active local government. For the first time, the idea took hold of a unified local government as opposed to a collection of local service agencies. Through Chamberlain the idea of the city as a community became embedded in the determination to use civic powers to make a difference to the lives of citizens. This stood in stark contrast to the ancient heritage of British local government, based on the guild system and a narrow merchant interest.

Instead of discussing small administrative issues, council members would enthuse about what a great and prosperous town like Birmingham might do for its people. They spoke of sweeping away unhealthy streets and making the city cleaner and brighter, of providing parks and music, of erecting baths and free libraries and an art gallery and museum.

But it was the autonomy that Victorian cities enjoyed that enabled these ambitions to be realised. In those days there was little legislation controlling the activities of a city. Ideas and innovations were made in the cities and then picked up later by Whitehall. As late as 1920, over 70% of the money spent by councils was raised locally. The Treasury simply did not concern itself with spending by local authorities.

It is hard to believe now, but Sidney and Beatrice Webb once wrote of “the characteristic English preference for local over central administration.”[3]

By the second half of the twentieth century, however this relationship between central and local government had been totally reversed. As Peter Marsh notes in the preface to this collection, the central control required in the two World Wars contributed to the centralising trend.[4] But there were also changing political trends, in particular the rise of the Liberals and then the Labour Party, the creation of the welfare state and the unfortunate consequences of the otherwise progressive adoption of social democracy; ironically the welfare state that Chamberlain would have (to some extent) supported. There was also a growing conservative reaction to the strength of the left in local government in the inter-war period, with the emergence of rate payer groups lobbying for more control on spending.

In 2007, Tristram Hunt spoke in Birmingham and described what happened to local administration after 1945:

The man in Whitehall knew best…The nationalisation of gas, water and electricity; the creation of the NHS and the welter of national edicts covering housing, culture and transport catastrophically undermined civic initiative. As the state mushroomed, weakened councils submitted to Edward Heath’s rationalisations and could only plead in vain against Mrs Thatcher’s privatisations. Rate-capped, surcharged and roundly dismissed as incompetent, local government became a client state of Westminster.

As he pointed out, local government’s share of total state expenditure fell from 51% in 1905 to 24% in 1999. By 1950, electricity, gas, hospitals and major trunk road provision were all under central control and by the mid 1970’s water supply, sewerage and local health services would join them. There was a shift from Chamberlain’s ‘gas and water’ trading services to the local delivery of a national welfare state, removing from local government its commercial activities and forcing it to focus more on services for specific groups, rather than the whole community.

In local government finance the 1929 Act introduced formula funding, the 1948 Act brought in “equalisation”, the 1984 Act that introduced rate capping and the legislation in the late 1980s that nationalised the business rates system and introduced the disastrous poll tax. Along the way there were various green and white papers and inquiries that grappled with the problems of revaluing the rates and the options for a more localised and broadly based finance system. At the same time there were frequent attempts to rationalise the geography and functions of local government. All had in common a search for the perfect, homogeneous system of local administration that would deliver nationally defined services. The extra significance of the great cities, recognised in the granting of charters and Lord Mayors, quietly disappeared, culminating in the abolition of the Metropolitan Counties and the GLC in 1986. By the end of this process, locally raised revenue had fallen to 40% of expenditure. In the larger cities it was even less than that.


Sir Albert Bore, former leader of Birmingham City Council, speaking at a conference on 5 July 2014 (which event led to the publication of the book):

We have of course been through something of a renaissance in British cities in the last two decades. City centres have become once again places for living, for culture and for entertainment. Stronger service sector economies have developed to compensate for the long term loss of manufacturing jobs. But just think what more could have been achieved with the funding and freedom of Chamberlain’s day. We have not yet restored the local civic institutions to their former glory and there are economic opportunities and challenges ahead that demand a renewed strength and autonomy for Britain’s cities.

There are many important differences between Chamberlain’s day and today. Chamberlain moved from municipal leadership to a concern with the Empire and with the divisive issues of trade and tariffs. In those days Birmingham was the workshop of the world and supplied manufactured goods to the whole Empire. Today the Empire has gone but Birmingham like other cities is more than ever a part of the global economy and exposed to competition from more recent “workshops” in China, India and elsewhere. Birmingham is now infinitely more culturally diverse, home to people from over 180 nations. This is a huge economic asset, but it also means we must respond to different needs and cultures and rise to the challenge of helping all communities to live and work together. But this diversity also means it is more difficult to capture and promote an identity as a city. As Tristram Hunt pointed out in 2007, “in a world of competing, multi-layered and global identities, trying to instil a civic identity is a serious challenge.”

As well as the social and economic changes there have also been significant shifts in the way we think about government. Today’s citizens are also far less deferential and far more demanding in terms of the range of services we must provide and the ways in which they are delivered. Changes in technology and in the way that the private sector delivers services have transformed expectations placed on public agencies. Citizens and communities also demand a greater say in decisions that affect their neighbourhood and their lives and they are increasingly using technology not just for social or business purposes but to create democratic communities and hold government to account.

And the way services are delivered and outcomes achieved in the future will also be fundamentally different. The starting point will not be the current structure of services and the buildings we use but the goals we are trying to achieve.

That may mean that we seek alternative uses for some of the physical fabric left to us by the great Victorian builders. Recently people have realised once again that a city is a living community in which cultures mix, ideas are born, prosperity is increased and the future is created. And the political parties have come to realise that the great cities are the drivers of the future economy. But the economy of today is on a different scale to that of Chamberlain’s day and this will also affect the governance response. Today his gas and water are provided by giant private sector companies making their services available across the region and the country and operating abroad. Today’s economy includes many international companies with a global reach or branch offices of London based companies and they inevitably have less engagement with the city than their Victorian equivalents. We have also lost the regional banks and stock exchanges. Cities have grown into conurbations over the twentieth century and local leadership must now be built at the level of the city region and this must work in partnership with neighbouring councils.

There are daunting challenges in equipping cities and city regions for the new economy that is now emerging. Amongst the biggest of these is the provision of a dramatically improved education for young people and the raising of the skills level in all cities. Chamberlain began his municipal career on the local School Board, where he faced the challenge of bringing education to the sons and daughters of the working people of the city. The modern educational challenge is no less important. The challenges also include the creation of a 21st century regional infrastructure of transport and mobility, linked to a national and international high speed rail network; the shift to advanced manufacturing, high tech, digital and cultural industries and a green economy and the provision of adequate and affordable housing for the expanding population.

If these challenges are to be met then we must reinvent city government to recapture the autonomy and influence of Chamberlain’s time. This is particularly the case because in future we will be operating with only a fraction of the resources we had in the last decade, thanks to the swingeing funding cuts implemented to local government budgets in recent years. In the Birmingham City Council a “New Model of City Government” has been developed to attempt to address these challenges. The model recognises that in a modern city there must be leadership at three levels – the city region, the city and the neighbourhood. Government needs to devolve a significant single pot of funding to the city region and give additional powers to enable cities to lead on economic development, transport, skills and housing. Cities must therefore strengthen their governance arrangements at that level as well.

So, in conclusion, what are the prospects for a new civic gospel for the 21st Century?

There is an emerging consensus between the political parties on elements of the above agenda: giving more powers to city regions; integrating public services and recognising the importance of the great cities to the future economy. But we must be cautious in any optimism. The process of change will probably be painful and drawn out because of resistance from Whitehall and Westminster and the long legacy of centralism. As in Chamberlain’s day, finance is the key that opens the door to change. We must find better ways to fund local government that ensure there are adequate resources to provide basic services and the flexibility and autonomy to drive economic growth and social progress.

Much will be different in the new world of local government that will emerge in the next period. But we can resurrect from the Civic Gospel the idea of the city as a community and a driver of national prosperity and the idea that such a city must have a powerful, autonomous government that actively seeks to improve the lives of its citizens.


[1] G. Dawson, Inaugural Address at the Opening of the Free Reference Library, 26 October 1866

[2] The Times, 7 July 1914

[3] S. Webb & B. Webb, English Prisons Under Local Government (London: Longmans, Green & co., 1907), p.201

[4] P. Marsh, ‘Did Joseph Chamberlain Really Make the Weather’ in I. Cawood & C. Upton (eds.) Joseph Chamberlain: International Statesman, National Leader, Local Icon (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2016), p.12

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