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, 1945-74
Politics and Services. In 1946 Chester's parliamentary constituency was extended further into the surrounding rural districts. The Conservatives won all the elections in the period with majorities ranging from 2,800 to 11,000 and normally taking over half the vote. Labour was always in second place, usually polling around a third of the vote. The Liberals came a poor third when they stood, and failed to put up a candidate in 1951 and 1959. (fn. 1)
In local elections, too, Labour made significant gains and replaced the Liberals as the second party. The three parties had virtually equal representation in 1945, but thereafter the Conservatives gained at the Liberals' expense. When Conservative fortunes were low the Liberal vote tended to recover, and except in the mid 1960s was generally high enough to prevent Labour from achieving an overall majority. There was little serious animosity between the three parties; local politics were still the politics of the rates, and Labour was forced to adopt the same call for 'economy' as its rivals. (fn. 2)
The functions performed by the county borough were reduced by the post-war Labour government. Chester's police force was merged with the county's in 1949, although the city still contributed to its costs and was the location of the county headquarters (in Foregate Street until 1964). (fn. 3) Chester retained its own fire service until 1974. (fn. 4) With the loss of the profitable municipal electricity undertaking through nationalization in 1948, (fn. 5) the corporation's chief remaining assets were its estates, markets, and share of the profits of the race meeting. The municipal transport undertaking, which made large profits during the war, thereafter fluctuated between profits as high as £7,500 in 1959 and deficits of almost £3,000 in 1957 and 1958. In 1972 there was a surplus in the revenue account of £21,000. (fn. 6)
For a while after 1945 both main political parties believed in the need for more public spending, underpinned by central government support. As a result the council became increasingly dependent upon centrally provided rate-support grants. Although national legislation removed some heavy burdens of health and welfare from the council's remit, the rates still rose, in particular to pay for educational reform. As early as 1955 the total capital spending programme, the greater part of which was for new schools and the refurbishment of older ones, had reached an unprecedented £1¼ million. In 1963 the education committee's budget alone cost the ratepayers over £1 million. The second largest spending committee, the improvement committee, took up less than a third of that even though it had built new ambulance and fire stations, a crematorium, sewage works, roads, and housing. In the later 1960s capital expenditure continued to grow, for instance on the inner ring-road and the cattle market and abattoir at Saltney.
While the council was expected to provide a higher standard and range of public services, the large increases in rates to pay for them were very unpopular. (fn. 7) By the early 1970s the council was left with little scope for independent action, accompained by an inflexible rate bill which depended almost entirely on factors outside its control, such as the size of government grants, national interest rates, and salaries and wages negotiated nationally. Central government's contribution to the council's expenditure rose from a quarter of the total in 1952 to three fifths by 1972. Most of it was for education and housing. (fn. 8)
In the 1960s Chester spent less per head on services than the average county borough. In 1962, for example, it underspent the national average by 2 per cent on education, 32 per cent on health, 10 per cent on welfare, and 2 per cent on childrens' services. (fn. 9) Its parsimony was the cause of civic pride, even though it had probably been achieved at the expense of quality of service. (fn. 10) One of the council's objectives was to keep the rates of city-centre shops as low as possible, and when the government took over responsibility for valuation in 1955 shopkeepers found that their rates increased by up to 200 per cent. (fn. 11)
Chester was more successful than any other borough in the North-West in increasing its rateable value. The growth was mainly due to shops and offices. From 1952 to 1972 the contribution of industry as a percentage of the total rose from 3 per cent to 4.2 per cent whereas the share of shops and other commercial premises increased from 25 per cent to 38 per cent. The wish to maximize revenue determined the council's attitude towards the commercial redevelopment of the city centre, perhaps without sufficient consideration for environmental factors or the needs of Cestrians.
The small size of a county borough such as Chester could lead to organizational inefficiency and a tendency to reactive, short-term decision making. In 1968 the town clerk noted the absence of a policy-making committee, (fn. 12) a problem compounded by the increased volume of council business. (fn. 13)
Borough Extension. (fn. 14) Chester could perhaps have increased its revenues more if it had been able to extend its boundaries to include those areas of the surrounding rural districts which had become suburbs and for which the county borough provided most of the services. They included both council and private estates, many of whose residents worked in Deeside or Ellesmere Port. Attempts at widening its boundaries, however, usually encountered strong opposition from Cheshire county council. As one of the smallest county boroughs, there was thus a genuine possibility that Chester would lose its independent status. In 1951 its population was under 50,000 and even after it absorbed Hoole urban district in 1954 it was still less than the 60,000 thought to be sufficient to guarantee the retention of county-borough status. In 1962 the council unsuccessfully sought a further extension which would have brought under its control not only the suburban housing estates but also Saltney and Sealand as potential industrial areas. In 1971 Chester's population exceeded 60,000 but by then 100,000 was considered a more realistic figure to guarantee independence.