My wife, Susan, has been telling me this for years: that larger does not mean better. I have been a supporter of a Greater Nottingham City Council since my days as a Nottinghamshire county councillor in the 1980s. I suspect my belief in large urban councils goes back to the fact that I grew up in Wembley, Middlesex, before it was subsumed in the new London Borough of Brent, when the then Greater London Council was created. For most of the 1970s I was a Birmingham city councillor, which was enlarged at the time of local government re-organisation in 1974 when the neighbouring borough of Sutton Coldfield became part of Birmingham.
If Birmingham with a million residents could have another 125,000 added in 1974, why were the boundaries around Nottingham drawn so tightly at the same time? The answer, of course, was gerrymandering. English local government is dotted with examples of large towns and cities constrained by tight geographical boundaries: Nottingham, Mansfield, Leicester, Norwich, Ipswich, Reading to name just a few. Look at a local government map for England and you will find many more examples.
In defence of my belief in large urban councils, I have have always been an advocate of neighbourhood empowerment through neighbourhood councils, urban parish councils and giving councillors more control over ward budgets. It is something I have spoken about in the past at national conferences and, as recently as 2013, I was invited to give evidence in person before the Parliamentary Local Government & Communities Committee on the topic of urban parish councils and 'neighbourhood mayors'.
In the 1970s, Birmingham was at the centre of a campaign for neighbourhood councils, which was led by Dick Knowles, who later became the Labour Leader of the City Council. Unfortunately, not even he could bring the change about — such were the forces ranged against us. The last Labour Government, thanks to Hazel Blears, put all the legislation in place to empower neighbourhoods. Unfortunately, no council has ever chosen to exercise these local democracy enhancing powers. Local councillors and officers are as eager to protect their status as are the Westminster colleagues.
I support executive council leaders only if they are counter-balanced by executive councillors representing single-member wards and I argued this during the Nottingham mayoral referendum a couple of years ago.
Thanks to Scotland, local government and de-centralisation are something local and national politicians are talking about. What we have to ensure is that the discussion does not stop in The Council House, County Hall or the Town Hall. The 'Summary of Local Government Changes' below is taken from the Beeston and Stapleford Official Guide. The only change since this was published has been the creation of Broxtowe Borough Council in 1974 (I know about the shadow council from 1973) and Nottingham becoming a unitary authority in 1998 after losing its county borough status in 1974, when it became a district council like Broxtowe. I think it is a very good summary of how local government evolved over one thousand years.
The Guide also offers a detailed insight into how 'personal' Beeston and Stapleford UDC (and the NHS) were c1970. It includes sixteen pages of 'Classified Information' giving names and addresses for all manner of public officials — most of it information you would not find easily, if at all, in 2015.
There is something ironic about the fact that in 2015 individuals happily post personal information about themselves on Facebook or Twitter and the like, yet our public servants have become, for the most part, anonymous.
How I wish we still had Medical Officers of Health managing services and compiling annual reports when, prior to the 1974 re-organisation, even a small UDC like Beeston and Stapleford had charge of primary health care and its scrutiny.
A section headed 'Midwives' gives names, addresses and telephone nos. Another section does the same for 'District Nurses'. We knew who they were. They visited us in our homes and were part of the communities they served. The Guide provides a detailed snapshot of Beeston and Stapleford UDC and local organisations in all their guises.
Today, the web has scattered such information to the wind. There is nothing online which is comparable to the Beeston and Stapleford Official Guide c1970 which I now own. Our local studies libraries and county archive will have many examples of such guides in their collections, published year in, year out, both by local councils and commercially. The web can give us nothing as good to peruse or use on a day-to-day basis. Everything has been compartmentalised, turned into a 'specialism'.
The web is a good example of what can happen when something large takes over. I treasure the few 'official guides' I have bought for places I have known and a few others as well.
The Guide is full of adverts for local companies, including this full-page advert for Boots:
By chance a similar image appears in the second edition of This is your Nottingham by Guy Denison and published by Nottingham City Council at about the same time. It also has no date nor, unfortunately, does it have a 'Classified Information' section. I like both images, but the pen and ink version a little more.
I will try to find a present-day image of the same view, but I suspect it not be a patch on either of the above. Modern digital images provide so much detail that nothing is left for the imagination.
If ever you find a copy of an old official guide to Beeston, buy it!
You will have days, no months, of wonder and enjoyment ahead of you. I would not sell my guide for a thousand pounds — that is how much pleasure it gives me.