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, 1974-2000
Local Government Reorganization.The extensive discussions on the future of local government in Cheshire which followed the appointment of the Redcliffe-Maud Commission in 1966 made it clear that the county borough alone was too small to survive as a separate administrative unit. In the end Cheshire continued as a county council and Chester district council was created as a second-tier authority which united the county borough with Chester and Tarvin rural districts. (fn. 1) There was widespread relief that the city was not merged into Merseyside, as the commission had proposed, and a recognition that the county borough and the county had common interests. The county council was already a powerful presence in the city, and there were personal links between some county and city councillors, brought together by common membership of political parties, churches, and masonic lodges. The city had been losing its powers since 1945 to county or regional bodies, was not large enough to afford desirable but expensive public services on its own, and was already jointly providing secondary education with the county. Their collaboration was extended before 1974 to library and leisure facilities in Chester. Despite fears of being swallowed up in a much larger local authority and wild talk of selling the corporation buses to Crosville rather than lose them to the county (quelled when it became clear that the new district council could continue the bus service), there were also hopes expressed by the editor of the Conservative local newspaper, the Cheshire Observer, that 'reform should give us better government than we have had in the past'. (fn. 2)
The new district council which came into being in 1974 thus united the city with the extensive suburban housing estates at Upton and Great Boughton which had previously lain outside its boundary, but also with large swathes of countryside. In deference to Chester's historic past, the district was granted a royal charter which conferred on it the title of city and allowed the chairman of the new council to be called mayor. In 1992, on a visit to Chester, the Queen elevated the title to lord mayor. The ancient offices of alderman and sheriff were discontinued, along with the last vestiges of the borough's portmoot, Pentice, and passage courts, though the city was allowed to describe the ceremonies by which it admitted freemen as being 'in the Pentice court'. The county borough's town clerk and treasurer became chief executive and treasurer of the new district, which initially had seven main committees to discharge its responsibilities for planning and development regulations (subject to the formulation of policy at county level), environmental health, open spaces, and housing. Conservation was a joint responsibility of county and district. (fn. 3)
After 1974 at least three quarters of the rates went to the county to pay for the functions such as education and social services which it now provided. Despite government cushioning of the impact of reorganization, the district's rates rose in the first year by an average of 39 per cent, (fn. 4) in part a measure of the earlier effectiveness of ratepayer pressure in keeping the county borough's rates low. After 1979 government policy was that the private sector should deliver many local services. Spending restrictions severely curtailed what local authorities were able to do, and in many areas stimulated a preference among the public for better funded unitary authorities. In Cheshire, however, when further reorganization of local government was projected between 1992 and 1994, Chester city council's bid for unitary status was undermined by clear evidence that the reforms of 1974 had taken root and had strong local support. The Local Government Commission's recommendation was therefore for no change. (fn. 5)
Politics. The parliamentary seat was held by the Conservatives with comfortable majorities in general elections between 1974 and 1987, but tactical voting by anti-Tory electors reduced the margin to 1,100 in 1992 and put a Labour M.P. in for the first time in the landslide of 1997. (fn. 6)
Chester district was divided for local electoral purposes into 27 wards, 15 of which covered the built-up area of the city. Of the 60 councillors, 41 represented those urban wards. Each year a third of the seats were contested, with county council elections taking place in the fourth year. Party politics dominated the district council's affairs far more than they had the county borough's before 1974. The first council consisted of 42 Conservatives, 15 Labour, 2 Independents, and 1 unidentified. The rural seats were held by Conservatives or Independents, a pattern which continued in 2000. Within the urban area, Labour strength was confined mainly to the council estates, particularly Blacon, whose wards returned 13 of the party's first group of councillors. The main feature of later elections was the growth in Liberal Democrat support from the later 1980s, mostly at the expense of the Conservatives in the suburban wards dominated by privately owned housing. After the 1992 elections the Conservatives had 22 seats, Labour 19, and the Liberal Democrats 16, with 3 others, necessitating cooperation between the parties. From 1998 the urban part of the district had an extra ward but only 38 councillors. In 1999 there were 22 Labour councillors, 18 Liberal Democrats, 18 Conservatives, and 2 others. (fn. 7)