The London County Council and the need for a County Hall

Pages 1-5

Survey of London Monograph 17, County Hall. Originally published by Guild & School of Handicraft, London, 1991.

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CHAPTER I. The London County Council and the Need for a County Hall

County Hall was hailed as the 'Hôtel de Ville' of London in 1922 when it was officially opened by King George V and Queen Mary. For over sixty years it was the tangible expression of metropolitan government for Londoners of all political persuasions.

While it is no part of the scheme of this book to recount the history of the London County Council (LCC), or that of its successor, the Greater London Council (GLC), the story of County Hall is inextricably bound up with those Councils' duties and responsibilities and their Members' perceptions of their role in local government. In order to understand first the drive to build a headquarters and then the chronic inability of the LCC to house all its own staff in County Hall, it is necessary to look at the political and administrative movements which created and enlarged the LCC.

The London County Council was established by the Local Government Act of 1888 to meet the long-standing need for a centralized London government, an objective of reformers over the previous fifty years or so. It held its first meeting on 21 March 1889 in the board-room of the offices of its predecessor, the Metropolitan Board of Works (MBW), at Spring Gardens, Westminster. The Council's first Chairman, the Earl of Rosebery, recognizing the need for a new headquarters building for the Council and its staff, said 'We meet in a very small and in a very inadequate room, but that is not altogether unfitting. Our physical position at this moment resembles our political position. We shall go into greater premises, and we shall assume greater political power'. (fn. 1) Though the need was eventually realized in the construction of County Hall, this did not solve the LCC's immediate accommodation problem. As powers were piled on to the willing shoulders of local authorities in the early years of the twentieth century, so the LCC's need for space became increasingly acute. However, the self-confidence of both Members and officers grew with the breadth and extent of its responsibilities. This was reflected in the scale and appearance of the building, and in Herbert Morrison's description of it as 'the headquarters of the greatest municipality in the world .. almost the home of a parliament and a government rather than a municipality'. (fn. 2)

The Creation of the London County Council

There was no London-wide administration before the establishment of the Metropolitan Board of Works in 1855. Outside the City, local government was conducted variously by the Justices of the Peace, the Parish Vestries, innumerable Commissions for the paving, cleansing and lighting of the streets and seven separate Commissions of Sewers. Responsibility for poor relief was transferred from the vestries to district Boards of Guardians following the Poor Law Act of 1834, but in all other respects the administrative arrangements in the capital were untouched by the changes imposed upon other English urban authorities by the Whig administration of the 1830s, including the reforming Municipal Corporations Act of 1835. (fn. 3)

The changes in metropolitan administration which were effected in the mid-nineteenth century were made largely because of concern over public health. In particular, outbreaks of cholera, which first appeared in 1832, drew attention to the unsatisfactory state of the sanitary arrangements in most English cities, including London, and led to Edwin Chadwick's crusade for centralized authorities to tackle the health hazards caused by inadequate arrangements for sewage disposal and water supply. This campaign culminated in the establishment in 1848 of the Metropolitan Commission of Sewers, but the sewageladen state of the Thames and the loss of life in the cholera epidemics of 1849 and 1854 clearly showed that a more powerful body was required. (fn. 4) In 1855 Sir Benjamin Hall's Metropolis Management Act established the Metropolitan Board of Works as the upper tier of London's government, with jurisdiction over the area which the Registrar General then treated as the capital for the purposes of the Weekly Returns of births and deaths, but excluding the City. The Board's members were elected indirectly, by the thirtyseven district boards of works and vestries which were constituted by the same legislation as the lower tier authorities. (fn. a) The MBW was charged chiefly with the construction of a system of main drainage – a responsibility which it performed admirably – and it was entrusted with a number of other functions, including the embankment of the Thames, street improvements and the oversight of building regulations. Other duties were added later. In 1866 it took over the fire-fighting operations of the insurance companies and established the Metropolitan Fire Brigade; in 1874 it was entrusted with the regulation of slaughterhouses and in the following year it was designated as the authority for the implementation of the Explosives Act and the Artisans' and Labourers' Dwellings Improvement Act. It also developed responsibilities for parks and other open spaces, the Thames crossings and the regulation of places of entertainment.

Nevertheless, the Board's role was limited and its position was not strengthened by the creation of independent administrative bodies to operate within its area, such as the Metropolitan Asylums Board (1867), the School Board for London (1870), and the Port of London Sanitary Authority under the supervision of the Corporation of the City (1872). Nor was support for it increased by occasional imputations of corruption against some members of staff. Indeed, the period from 1855 to 1889 was to be dominated by the struggle over the shape of London's government, between the advocates of a stronger centralized authority and those opposed to the establishment of a potentially powerful metropolitan tier of local government.

The Government's intentions to follow up the 1855 Act with some reform of the Corporation of the City foundered, and none of the Private Member's Bills that were introduced into Parliament between 1860 and 1888, with the object of partial or complete re-organization of the system, reached the statute book. Such attempts at reform could not succeed without government support and the failure of Gladstone's Liberal ministry of 1868– 74 to tackle the question slowed the impetus towards change. (fn. 5)

It revived during the early 1880s, however, stimulated by the creation in 1881 of the London Municipal Reform League, which absorbed the flagging Metropolitan Municipal Reform Association, founded in 1865. The League, under the presidency of the vigorous and skilful campaigner, J.F.B. Firth, (fn. b) had considerable success in publicizing and co-ordinating the demands for a central municipal government for the capital. There were few who wished to retain the MBW, and revelations in 1886–7 that some of its officers had been guilty of corruption in the granting of contracts undermined what residual support the Board did have. On the other hand, attempts to alter the constitution of the City Corporation were likely to meet with stiff and well orchestrated opposition. Nevertheless, in 1884 Sir William Harcourt, Home Secretary in Gladstone's second ministry, introduced a Bill which proposed to establish a new arrangement for governing the capital by reforming the Corporation and greatly extending its jurisdiction, thereby creating a County of the City of London. Although the Bill was withdrawn before it reached the committee stage, its introduction had aroused the active opposition of the City and the vestries and the alarm of a considerable body of opinion which still viewed the centralization of London's government with strong suspicion. (fn. 7)

Following the failure of Harcourt's attempt to reform the City and introduce a metropolis-wide authority, and the fall of the Liberal ministry in 1885, it seemed likely that London government reform would be delayed for some time. In fact, it was Lord Salisbury's ministry which established the London County Council, as a part of its measures to reconstitute the administration of the counties and larger boroughs by creating county councils and county boroughs. Ironically, it was one of the leading critics of Harcourt's Bill and a prominent opponent of centralization in local government, C. T. Ritchie, who, as President of the Local Government Board, prepared and piloted through Parliament the Local Government Act of 1888 which created the LCC. (fn. 8) The solution to the problem presented by the City was to grant it a status by which it retained its autonomy, with a relationship to the LCC that was essentially the same as it had been to the MBW. Ritchie did not, however, develop his early ideas to set up district councils within the LCC area, to balance the powers of that Council, and so the vestries and district boards of works were left virtually untouched. (fn. 9) Thus the LCC came into being through the back door opened by the reform of county administration, rather than as a part of the complete overhaul of London's government so earnestly desired by the municipal reformers. It inherited the MBW's boundaries unaltered, together with its powers and the entire range of its administrative functions. In addition, it was given the right to oppose Bills in Parliament.

The arrangements made in 1888 did not satisfy everyone. The reformers wished to continue with their programme by widening the LCC's powers and area, particularly by bringing the City within its jurisdiction rather than by leaving it 'as an excrescence on the new system'. There was a proposal to this effect during Rosebery's Liberal ministry of 1894–5, but the Government fell before a Bill could be introduced. Once again, it was a Conservative Government which, by the London Government Act of 1899, carried through a reform of metropolitan administration by replacing the vestries and district boards with twenty-eight Metropolitan Borough Councils within the County of London. The powers of the LCC were not extended and the City was left untouched. The establishment of the Metropolitan Borough Councils was intended not only as a necessary reform of the lower tier of local government in London, but also as an administrative and political counterweight to the LCC. (fn. 10)

The first elections to the Council were held early in 1889 and the provisional Council's inaugural meeting took place at Spring Gardens on 31 January. (fn. 11) The Act allowed the MBW to continue for another two months, overlapping with the provisional LCC, but its rather mischievous intention to issue contracts for the construction of the Blackwall Tunnel, which would have been binding on its successor, were forestalled by advancing the date of its abolition slightly, to 21 March 1889. (fn. 12) Thus it was that the first meeting of the LCC was held on that date. The Earl of Rosebery was chosen as its first Chairman, for, although Firth was a strong candidate, his outspoken advocacy of centralization made him politically unacceptable; to have chosen him would have been 'a red flag to the City'. (fn. 13) Firth was given the salaried position of Deputy Chairman, but he died a few months later. (fn. 14) The Council consisted of 118 directly elected Members, who chose 19 Aldermen. In 1919, following the widening of the franchise, these numbers were increased to 124 and 20 respectively. (fn. c)

Rosebery was not alone in hoping that it would not divide along party political lines, but two more or less coherent party groups were formed almost immediately, the Progressives and the Moderates. (fn. 15) The Progressives contained almost every shade of Liberal and Radical opinion, and attracted the support of a number of Fabians; the Moderates was the title adopted by the Conservative party in the LCC. Party discipline was relatively loose in the early years of the new Council and the whip was not strictly applied. Nevertheless, the organization of the parties soon came to resemble that of their Parliamentary counterparts, and, by the mid–1890s, both the Progressives and the Moderates operated with definite party leaders. It was not until the Standing Orders of 1934, however, that the positions of 'Leader of the Council' and 'Leader of the Opposition' were given official recognition. (fn. 16)

The Progressives took roughly two-thirds of the seats in the 1889 LCC elections and remained in power for the following eighteen years. Their success may have been partly due to the overhaul of the Liberal party organization in London following its poor results there in the general election of 1885. (fn. 17) The Conservatives responded in kind, making strong efforts in support of the Moderates' campaigns in the triennial elections to the LCC, and strengthening their organization in the capital by the setting up of the London Municipal Society in 1894. (fn. 18) In the 1895 election the Moderates and Progressives won equal numbers of seats and the latter retained control of the Council only because they had a majority among the Aldermen. At the elections of 1898 the Progressives reestablished a comfortable majority. However, in 1907, their opponents, now known as the Municipal Reformers, won a majority of forty seats. The Progressives' efforts may have been weakened by the election to Parliament of a number of their most able members in the Liberals' general election victory in the previous year, but their defeat was also attributable to the shift in voting patterns in London, for, in electoral terms, the capital had become predominantly Conservative. (fn. 19) The Progressives never regained power. In 1925 they were replaced by Labour as the second largest party on the Council, a reflection of the general decline in the Liberals' electoral support and of the enlarged electorate produced by the extension of the franchise. In 1934 Labour came to power with a clear majority in a Council to which, for the first time, no Progressives were elected. The LCC remained under Labour control until its replacement by the GLC in 1965, when the system of local government established by the Acts of 1888 and 1899 was superseded. (fn. 20)

The Functions of the London County Council

As a county authority, the LCC discharged the administrative duties formerly carried out by the Justices of the Peace. It also took over the MBW's functions and developed them. It carried through a number of major street improvements, rebuilt six bridges over the Thames, constructed vehicular and pedestrian tunnels at Blackwall, Rotherhithe, Greenwich and Woolwich, continued the Board's work in maintaining sewerage and drainage systems and operating the fire brigade, added to the number of parks and open spaces under its control and acted as the authority for the implementation of legislation on building regulations, the storage of dangerous substances and the licensing of places of entertainment. Further duties were added, most notably the responsibility for education in London, which was transferred to the LCC on the abolition of the School Board for London in 1904. A range of welfare services formerly carried out by the Metropolitan Asylums Board and the twenty-five Boards of Guardians in its area, together with their hospitals, asylums, workhouses, infirmaries, dispensaries and residential schools, passed to the LCC in 1930. Between the two World Wars the Council obtained new powers respecting town planning and greatly expanded its operations in the provision of housing, both within the County of London and beyond it. By 1938 it had provided 86,700 new houses and blocks of flats, the vast majority of them within the previous twenty years. (fn. 21) On the other hand, the Royal ('Ullswater') Commission on Local Government in London of 1922–3 offered an opportunity to expand the Council's jurisdiction, which was not taken. (fn. 22)

The increasing range and scale of the LCC's duties added considerably to the size of its staff and budget. In 1891 the total number of its employees was 3,700, by 1938–9 the corresponding figure was 78,000, and its annual expenditure rose from less than £2 million in its early years to £37 million in 1937–8. (fn. 23) With this expansion came growing self-confidence among its Members and officers, reflecting the current feeling in local government at the time. Indeed, the optimism and sense of purpose which characterized much of the work of the early County Councils probably reached its zenith in the mid-twentieth century. In a volume published in 1935 to mark the centenary of the passing of the Municipal Corporations Act, William Robson wrote that:

the local government service will grow substantially in size, in status, in esprit de corps, in professional excellence. Municipal officers will find themselves entrusted with great new responsibilities. They will have to develop qualities of creative leadership for preparing and carrying out the policy of the council beyond almost anything we now know. They will acquire new skills for the performance of new tasks. They will deepen their knowledge and broaden their outlook. They will have to strive to develop that imaginative insight into the processes of civilized life which is the true mark of the educated mind. (fn. 24)

Four years later Sir Gwilym Gibbon and Reginald Bell produced a history of the LCC to mark its Jubilee, summarizing its work and proudly declaring that 'What stands out above all ... is growth, and still more growth. The progress of the Council has been like that of a great river taking in tributary after tributary on its way'. (fn. 25)

Not all of the tributaries had flowed in to the LCC's river, however, for the control of the Metropolitan Police remained with the Home Secretary and a number of independent authorities had been created, such as the Metropolitan Water Board (1902), the Port of London Authority (1908), the London and Home Counties Traffic Advisory Committee (1924) and the London Passenger Transport Board (1933), which took over the Council's tramways. On the establishment of the National Health Service in 1948, the LCC surrendered some aspects of the health services which it had inherited in 1930 and had subsequently transformed, most notably the Poor Law hospitals. On the other hand, the Second World War had greatly added to the Council's work, both through the measures taken for civil defence during the war and, most significantly, because of the scale of the planning and reconstruction required in the aftermath of wartime destruction.

The long-term planning implications of reconstruction in London and south-east England were set out in two reports, the County of London Plan of 1943 – which was prepared under the auspices of the LCC – and the Greater London Plan of 1944, which covered a wide area around the capital. As well as the preparation and implementation of planning procedures, the LCC was also involved in the provision of new homes and the rebuilding and developing of new schools. Post-war redevelopment also provided the opportunity to reconstruct areas badly in need of improvement. One of these was that part of the South Bank close to County Hall, an area that had formerly been 'a large heap of rubble and a lot of semi-derelict buildings', which was transformed under the LCC and GLC into an arts complex. (fn. 26) Similarly, the development of the Council's Lansbury Estate in East London as a show place of 'living architecture' for the Festival of Britain expressed the self-assurance and energy of the Architect's Department. There was, indeed, no loss of confidence within the LCC in the post-war years. One young Council Member's impression in the 1950s was that the building and the reputation of the County Council were somehow inseparable: 'Twin bastions of democracy we thought – the Palace of Westminster and County Hall – equally imperishable ... Local Government was then a proper source of pride, and County Hall a visible embodiment of the pride'. (fn. 27)

The Greater London Council

The case for a regional planning authority in the London area had been made before the Second World War. (fn. 28) Postwar reconstruction was closely linked with this concept and the wider aspects of planning, such as the implementation of the Green Belt around the capital as set out in the 1944 Greater London Plan and the implications of the New Towns Act of 1946. (fn. 29) It was in respect of the emphasis upon regional planning in particular, that the organization of London's local government was questioned once again. The White Paper Local Government in England and Wales during the Period of Reconstruction (1945) stated that 'the problems ... of reconstruction, have made it clear that a reconsideration of the allocation of functions between the [metropolitan] boroughs and the county is overdue'. (fn. 30) There was, therefore, some pressure for change for practical administrative reasons, apart from political considerations. No changes were made during the immediate post-war years, however, for it was not part of Labour Government policy to alter London's system of local administration. (fn. 31) The Conservatives were more willing to countenance some change, partly because of their lack of success in elections in the capital since the mid-1930s, when both the control of the LCC and the majority of seats on the metropolitan borough councils had been won by Labour. An overhaul of the Conservative party's organization in London in 1945, when the title of Municipal Reform Party was abandoned, did not produce an electoral victory. (fn. 32) Indeed, it seemed that the migration from the LCC area to outer London by many amongst those sections of the electorate which consistently voted Conservative would make it difficult for the party to regain control of the Council. It did, however, appear that an extension of the LCC's boundaries would redress the electoral balance. (fn. 33) Thus, in the 1950s, the perceived need for a strategic planning authority coincided with the political will required for change, and in 1957 Henry Brooke, Minister of Housing and Local Government in Harold Macmillan's Government and a former Conservative Leader on the LCC, set up a Royal Commission to examine the local government arrangements in Greater London.

The Commission reported in 1960 and its essential recommendations were incorporated in the 1963 London Government Act. The London County Council was replaced by the Greater London Council consisting of one hundred directly elected Members and sixteen Aldermen: twenty-nine Metropolitan Borough Councils were created as the lower tier authorities. The area within the GLC's boundaries was 616 square miles, compared with the 117 square miles of the LCC's jurisdiction, and its electorate of almost 5,500,000 was double that of the LCC election in 1961. (fn. 34) Some of the outer areas included in the boundaries recommended by the Royal Commission were excluded from the GLC as actually established and, partly for that reason, its electorate did not contain an inbuilt Conservative majority. Labour won control in the elections for the first GLC in 1964, was replaced by the Conservatives three years later, and held power again in 1973–7 and 1981–6. (fn. 35)

The Powers of the Greater London Council

The GLC was established primarily as a planning authority for the London region having a wide brief with respect to planning, redevelopment, housing, highways and traffic. Other responsibilities were transferred from the LCC. Control of education within the former LCC area was allocated to the Inner London Education Authority, a new body separate from, although related to, the GLC. Outside the former County of London, education was administered by the boroughs. Amongst the initial proposals which did not come to fruition was one which would have included water provision within the GLC's responsibilities. (fn. 36) The most significant addition to the GLC's functions was made in 1970, when various aspects of transport in London were brought under its control.

Some of its responsibilities were subsequently removed. Those relating to main drainage, sewage disposal, the control of river pollution and the discharge of effluent were transferred to the newly established water authorities in 1973. This took away from the GLC the main purpose for which the MBW had been created in 1855. Similarly, also in 1973, the new regional health authorities took over from the Council the operation of the London Ambulance Service. Responsibility for the capital's public transport system was removed from the GLC's control in 1984, on the creation of London Regional Transport.

The Abolition of the Greater London Council

The removal of these various powers from the GLC, doubts about its success as a strategic planning authority for the London region, and continued political opposition to the upper tier of local government led to an examination of its position. In 1977 the Council, which was then under Conservative control, commissioned a review of London government from Sir Frank Marshall. (fn. 37) His report recommended that the GLC should be retained and strengthened. (fn. 38) No action was taken to pursue its recommendations in Parliament, however, either by the Labour Government then in office or by its Conservative successor that came to power in 1979. Following the Labour victory in the 1981 GLC elections, and that of the Conservative party at the general election two years later, it was the alternative of abolition of the upper-tier local authorities which was adopted and was effected in 1986. The Inner London Education Authority was not abolished with the GLC, but, by a separate measure, was dissolved in 1990. (fn. 39)

The Council has no permanent successor, although a temporary organization, the London Residuary Body, was created to operate during a transitional phase in which the GLC's functions were redistributed. The County Hall was designed and used as the headquarters of a Londonwide administrative body, but that role necessarily came to an end when the Inner London Education Authority left the the building. Its future use is at present uncertain.


  • a. The local Board of Health for Woolwich brought the number of local authorities up to 38.
  • b. J.F.B. Firth (1842–89) was M.P. for Chelsea, 1880–5, and for Dundee, 1888–9, and a member of the London School Board, 1876–9. His. Municipal London (1876) was the most substantial of his numerous writings advocating the reform of metropolitan government.
  • c. In 1949 the number of elected Members was increased to 129 and the number of Aldermen to 21; six years later the number of elected Members was reduced to 126.
  • 1. The Times, 22 March 1889, p. 4e.
  • 2. Herbert Morrison, How Greater London is Governed, 1935, p. 40.
  • 3. William A. Robson, The Government and Misgovernment of London, 1939, pp. 22–4: Kenneth Young and Patricia L. Garside, Metropolitan London: Politics and Urban Change 1837–1981, 1982, p. 23.
  • 4. This paragraph is based on David Owen, The Government of Victorian London, 1982, pp. 23–39, 47–155 passim.
  • 5. Young and Garside, op. cit., pp. 28–33: Robson, op. cit., pp. 66, 71–3.
  • 6. Frederic Boase, Modern English Biography, vol. 1, 1892, pp. 1050–1: The Times, 5 Sept. 1889, p. 4f.
  • 7. John Davis, Reforming London: The London Government Problem 1855–1900, 1988, pp. 64–5, 71–3, 76–95: Gibbon and Bell, pp. 65–9: Owen, op. cit., pp. 108–14: Young and Garside, op. cit., pp. 30–1: Robson, op. cit., pp. 71–9.
  • 8. Young and Garside, op. cit., pp. 53–7.
  • 9. Gibbon and Bell, pp. 72–4, 76: Davis, op. cit., pp. 103–4, 107.
  • 10. Gibbon and Bell, p. 74: Davis, op. cit., pp. 176–84, 195–8: Young and Garside, op. cit., pp. 86–101.
  • 11. The Times, 1 Feb. 1889, p. 9b.
  • 12. Owen, op. cit., pp. 207–8.
  • 13. Young and Garside, op. cit., p. 60.
  • 14. The Times, 5 Sept. 1889, p. 4f.
  • 15. Gibbon and Bell, pp. 84–5: Davis, op. cit., pp. 118–19.
  • 16. Young and Garside, op. cit., pp. 61–3: Gibbon and Bell, pp. 92,668.
  • 17. Davis, op. cit., pp. 115–20.
  • 18. Ken Young, Local politics and the rise of party: The London Municipal Society and the Conservative intervention in local elections 1894–1963, 1975, pp. 47–9, 57–61.
  • 19. Ibid., pp. 41–2, 91, 96–7.
  • 20. Young and Garside, op. cit., p. 343.
  • 21. Gibbon and Bell, pp. 367–8.
  • 22. James Gillespie, 'Municipalism, Monopoly and Management..', in Andrew Saint, ed., Politics and the People of London: The London County Council 1889–1965, 1989, pp. 106, 110–11.
  • 23. Gibbon and Bell, pp. 182, 203.
  • 24. H. J. Laski, W. I. Jennings and W. A. Robson, eds., A Century of Municipal Progress, 1835–1935, 1935, p. 468.
  • 25. Gibbon and Bell, p. 658.
  • 26. Herbert Morrison, How London is Governed, 1949, p. 77.
  • 27. Robert Vigars, MS 'Recollections of County Hall 1988', in possession of the Survey of London.
  • 28. Robson, op. cit., pp. 330–2, 388–402.
  • 29. W. Eric Jackson, Achievement: A Short History of the London County Council, 1965, pp. 71–4, 109–17.
  • 30. Cited in K. B. Smellie, A History of Local Government, 2nd ed., 1949, pp. 193–4.
  • 31. Young and Garside, op. cit., p. 296.
  • 32. Young, op. cit., p. 197.
  • 33. Young and Garside, op. cit., pp. 307–9: Frank Smallwood, Greater London: The Politics of Metropolitan Reform, 1965, pp. 87–97: Helen Jones, 'Conservatives and the LCC after 1934', in Saint, op. cit., pp. 247–8.
  • 34. Donald L. Foley, Governing The London Region: Reorganisation and Planning in the 1960's, 1972, pp. 27–33: Report of the Royal Commission on Local Government in Greater London, 1960, cmnd. 1164: London Government and the London Boroughs, Report to Ministry of Health and Local Government, 1962.
  • 35. Young and Garside, op. cit., pp. 315–17,343.
  • 36. Foley, op. cit., pp. 33,35: S.K. Ruck and Gerald Rhodes, The Government of Greater London, 1970, pp. 154–7.
  • 37. GLC Mins, 1977, pp. 281–2.
  • 38. Sir Frank Marshall, The Marshall Inquiry on Greater London, 1978, pp. 105–14.
  • 39. Ken Young, 'Governing Greater London: The Background to GLC Abolition and an Alternative Approach', in The London Journal, vol. 10, 1984, p. 71: Parliamentary Debates, House of Commons, vol. 126, 4 Feb. 1988, cols. 1178–9.