A History of the County of Chester: Volume 5 Part 1, the City of Chester: General History and Topography. Originally published by Victoria County History, London, 2003.
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LOCAL GOVERNMENT AND POLITICS, 1918-39
Parliamentary Elections. In 1918 the Boundary Commission extended the Chester constituency to cover Hoole urban district and Chester rural district as well as the county borough, while retaining the name City of Chester and keeping the city sheriff as the returning officer. (fn. 1) The Conservatives dominated the constituency between the wars, usually winning over half the votes cast. Sir Owen Philipps was succeeded as M.P. in 1922 by Sir Charles Cayzer, Bt., who served until his death in 1940. The Liberals were in second place at each general election apart from 1922, but were well behind except in 1929. The Labour Party fielded a candidate for the first time in 1918 and from the 1920s mustered between 4,500 and 6,500 votes. (fn. 2) An attempt to establish a Chester branch of the British Union of Fascists in 1934 failed when the organizer could find no one to rent him a hall for a meeting to be addressed by Sir Oswald Mosley. (fn. 3)
Municipal Politics. (fn. 4) Municipal politics were also dominated by the Conservatives, who remained the majority party on the council. The two main parties generally chose the mayor alternately and invited him to serve a second successive term. Aldermen, usually former mayors, were appointed by the council, and held office until resignation or death. The Labour Party made little headway. Until the collapse of the coalition government in 1922, there was a pact between Tories and Liberals not to compete with one another in local elections. Afterwards, out of a total council membership of 40 (44 after 1936), the Conservatives usually had between 16 and 19 seats, and the Liberals between 10 and 14. Until 1919 the only representative of organized labour was not a candidate of the official Labour Party; thereafter, there were usually between seven and nine official Labour councillors, although in 1928, their worst year, they shrank to three. Even so, in 1930 Labour took its turn in choosing the mayor, as well as aldermen in proportion to the number of its councillors, an arrangement which often caused dissension. A mayor's purse of £250 was first granted in 1925 after a highly respected councillor turned down the mayoralty on financial grounds. The first female councillor was Mrs. Phyllis Brown, from the department store family, who was elected as a Liberal in 1920. In 1933 she became the first female alderman and in 1939 the first female mayor. Another prominent woman councillor was Labour's Mrs. Kate Clarke, first a candidate in 1920, elected to the council in 1929, the first female sheriff in 1937, and mayor 1939-40. (fn. 5)
The most influential council official was the town clerk, the universally respected and often outspoken J. H. Dickson, who served from 1903 to 1939 and was also closely involved with the work of the Council of Social Welfare and the Royal Infirmary. (fn. 6) Also notable was Charles Greenwood, who made a significant contribution to town planning and conservation during his long period as city engineer and surveyor (1922-53). (fn. 7)
Because Labour was relatively weak in Chester, the question whether responsibility for social and environmental reform was to be public or private was debated on its merits rather than on party-political lines. Opponents of public provision could not, as elsewhere, denigrate and often defeat proposals merely by asserting that they were advocated on impractical ideological grounds by a profligate Labour Party. The chief exponent of publicly owned utilities before the First World War had been a Conservative, B. C. Roberts, (fn. 8) but after his death in 1923 there was little enthusiasm for public enterprise, apart from the purchase of the Overleigh cemetery in 1933 after complaints about its upkeep. (fn. 9)
The burden of the rates was largely borne by householders and retailers. Unusually for a town of Chester's size, shopkeepers were poorly represented on the corporation: in 1925 the mayor claimed that they paid three quarters of the rates but formed only a third of the council. (fn. 10) The Chester Chamber of Trade, inaugurated in 1921, periodically exhorted its members to obtain greater representation but recognized that they disliked being 'politically labelled' and apparently relied on householders to keep down the rates. An additional weapon in the battle for 'economy' was the threat to call an electors' meeting under the Borough Funds Acts. A short-lived ratepayers' association was formed in the late 1930s under the pressure of rapidly rising rates. (fn. 11) Its absence earlier may well have reflected satisfaction with the council: finance committee chairmen could boast that rates in Chester were much lower than the national average for county boroughs. As elsewhere, the rates increased because of central government initiatives rather than local ones. Health and education were the main spending areas. In 1939 2s. 9d. out of Chester's total rate of 13s. 3d. in the pound was spent on public health, largely on the City Hospital. Education cost almost as much, and public assistance was third, at 1s. 9d. Housing and town planning together cost the ratepayers only 6¼d. (fn. 12)
Public Services. The corporation's chief assets in offsetting the rates were its public and livestock markets. It also had an income from letting the Roodee for the race meeting and for pasture during the rest of the year. (fn. 13) Neither the electricity works nor the tram system made any significant contribution. Electricity was from 1913 provided by a hydroelectric generating station, cost-effective but of limited capacity, built on the site of the Dee Mills. (fn. 14) After the acquisition in 1922 of the government-owned power station at Queensferry, the area supplied was extended beyond the city, and by 1930 the municipal undertaking supplied an area of 144 square miles around Chester. Costs were kept down by avoiding investment in modernization, and the long-overdue transfer to alternating current in 1930 increased electricity bills by 33 per cent. By 1939, however, the enterprise was in profit again, and able to reduce its prices. (fn. 15)
Chester's municipally owned transport system illustrates the pressures brought by private interests able to harness ratepayers' anger at utilities which burdened the rates. The tram system was not financially selfsupporting between the World Wars, partly because of the debt incurred when the council bought and electrified it, (fn. 16) and partly because the tramways committee was responsible for street repairs. In 1928, rather than renovate the system, which needed new cars and tracks, the council converted to motor buses which it proposed to run on routes extending over a 10-mile radius from the city centre. The move was vigorously opposed, and a campaign was mounted to abandon the city routes to the privately owned Crosville Bus Company, whose proprietor, Claude Crosland-Taylor, was a member of the council. The council compromised and agreed to reduce the corporation's bus routes to a radius of three miles from the centre, sufficient to serve the built-up areas outside the borough boundary at Newton, Hoole, and Great Boughton. (fn. 17) Although the first corporation buses appeared in 1930, there was continuing pressure to sell or lease the routes to Crosville. The transport committee claimed that it ran at a profit and had contributed greatly to reducing traffic jams in the city; by 1936 it was indeed profitable, but still financing the tramway debt incurred in 1903. (fn. 18)
Among the privately owned utilities, the Gas Company provoked little public comment and was evidently adequate for the city's needs. The water supply, however, remained an issue, because dirty water contributed to Chester's poor health record, a fact not publicly acknowledged. From 1914, the corporation made several attempts to buy the Water Company, which had failed to provide sedimentation tanks and still relied on the less effective method of sand filtration to purify the supply. (fn. 19) In 1928, after the failure of yet another attempt at purchase, (fn. 20) the chairman of the public health committee admitted publicly that the standard of water was unsatisfactory. Its quality was in fact deteriorating. From 1928 the Water Company briefly chlorinated the supply, before beginning extensive improvements, virtually complete by 1933. (fn. 21) In 1932 the corporation opened a new sewage works costing over £100,000. (fn. 22) Those improvements were complemented by the establishment of the Dee Catchment Board to control pollution on the river as a whole. By 1939 the river, which had hitherto been seriously polluted, was considered relatively clean. (fn. 23)
Borough Extension. (fn. 24) The council had difficulty in finding land for development within the borough boundaries, and sometimes had to buy sites for housing in the surrounding rural districts. In such areas the cost of roads, electricity, sewerage, and other services laid on by the borough could not be recovered because the rates went to the county. The population within the city boundary rose very slowly, and Chester, one of the smallest county boroughs, was in danger of losing its independent status. The incorporation of the built-up areas outside the boundary into the county borough thus became extremely desirable. (fn. 25) In 1932 the council planned a large extension into both Cheshire and Flintshire, but dropped the proposal when it became clear that a parliamentary Bill would be vigorously contested by Cheshire county council and that the government would not allow the borough to extend across the Welsh border. (fn. 26) In 1936, however, the county agreed to surrender Blacon, the built-up part of Newton, and a part of Hoole which included the City Hospital and the railway station. (fn. 27)