Sermon given at Evensong marking the 50th anniversary of the reorganisation of local government in London
Start Date: 8th Mar 2015
Start Time: 15:00

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The Very Reverend Dr John Hall, Dean of Westminster

On 20th September 1777, Samuel Johnson, the great lexicographer who is buried in the south transept of this Abbey, was discussing with James Boswell his biographer whether or not Boswell's affection for London would wear thin should he choose to live there, as opposed to the zest he felt on his occasional visits. Johnson commented, 'Why, Sir, you find no man, at all intellectual, who is willing to leave London. No, Sir, when a man is tired of London, he is tired of life; for there is in London all that life can afford.' He also said to Boswell, 'Sir, if you wish to have a just notion of the magnitude of this city, you must not be satisfied with seeing its great streets and squares, but must survey the innumerable little lanes and courts. It is not in the showy evolutions of buildings, but in the multiplicity of human habitations which are crowded together, that the wonderful immensity of London consists.'

The 'multiplicity of human habitations', not the 'showy evolutions of buildings'. I suppose Johnson might have supposed the building in which we worship this afternoon to have been amongst the showiest of its day with its new west towers, though we are now dwarfed by the multiplicity of showy buildings that surround us in central London. But it is the human habitations and the people whose homes they are that we should hold before our attention as we mark the 50th anniversary of the current configuration of local government in the 32 municipal authorities of Greater London. Government is about people and how people live together in peace and harmony, and how they manage their mutual interests. If the law is about settling differences, government is about avoiding disagreements and enabling people to flourish.

In his historical note printed in our order of service, Professor Tony Travers has set out the spirit of 1965 and the changes then implemented. The antecedents are also interesting. The Municipal Corporations Act of 1835 had by-passed London, which waited until 1889 for the establishment of the London County Council. After the Second World War it was clear that the government of London, which was by now far larger than the County Council area, had to be re-considered as a whole. In 1957 Harold Macmillan's government established a Royal Commission on Local Government in Greater London. Their conclusions, considerably amended, were passed into law right at the end of the fourteen year Conservative administration, in the Local Government Act 1963.

Harold Wilson's government, formed in 1964, had reservations about the Act. Even so, early in 1965, Richard Crossman, the Minister of Housing and Local Government, said in the House of Commons that the government would 'do its utmost to ensure the success of the new system.' Perhaps that is not surprising since the members of the Greater London Council and new Borough Councils had already been elected.

And indeed the 32 London boroughs have continued structurally unchanged for the past fifty years, a period through which many other changes have been made to local government elsewhere in the kingdom. The Greater London Council survived little more than twenty years and was replaced after a period by the Mayor of London and the Greater London Authority with markedly different powers and responsibilities.

There is much to celebrate today in a London which as Tony Travers says is 'recognisable as the city of 1965 but also unfathomably different.' We see this afternoon that the representatives of the 32 London authorities personify the diversity of our great city, a diversity largely held together nowadays within harmony, mutual recognition and peaceful respect.

It would be dishonest, however, to suggest that all is as it should be in local government in London. It never has been. Professor William Robson, who exercised considerable influence on the 1957 Commission, timed the publication of his book The Government and Misgovernment of London in 1939, to coincide with the 50th anniversary of the LCC in order to deter celebrants 'from indulging in any excessive satisfaction at the present state of affairs.' A similar caution is needed now.

There have been many failures, directly affecting the people of London, from abortive road schemes – drive south across Wandsworth Bridge (but the Wandsworth Council is not to blame) – to disastrous decisions destroying communities through decanting and rebuilding and the sheer lack of available housing. And structurally, the powers of the boroughs in 1965 to decide on the level of resources they needed and to raise and spend the funds were far greater than are the powers of their successors fifty years on. And with only one in three potential electors taking the trouble to vote in an election that is not coupled with a general election, it seems that the lack of straight-forward, untrammelled power in local government is recognised by the potential voter, leading to a downward spiral of confidence.

Radical changes are required. The high level of national debt will drive those changes. But the necessary changes need to be based on sound principles. Allow me to re-state for a moment some bases in the belief and values of our society and culture, in our national Judaeo-Christian tradition, on which those principles may be established.

From the very first chapters of the Hebrew and Christian bible, we learn that human beings have responsibility for the order of creation, a duty to work and to work together for the common good. From the prophet Isaiah in today's reading, we heard that there is a duty to free people from whatever binds and oppresses them, whatever prevents them flourishing and making their contribution. And in St Paul's letter to the Romans, we heard that we are required to be unselfish and humble, to collaborate, recognising the dignity of difference and respecting each other's diverse gifts and skills, to resist evil and work for the good, to honour all people, to be generous and hospitable.

None of this offers us a detailed programme for the work of local government, or of central government, but these fundamental principles provide a valid test for elected representatives as to whether they are maintaining a true path. They themselves in their own diversity collaborate together, not to work for their own benefit but for the common good. They have a duty to remain close to those who have elected them, who in their turn should honour those who offer themselves in service of the public. And the whole system of local government, as of government at other levels, should, by working alongside voluntary associations, groups and bodies, enable the whole people to flourish.

Jesus said, 'I came that men and women might have life and have it more abundantly.' As we celebrate the work of local government in London, so we pray that everyone living in this great city may come to enjoy abundant life, in the 'multiplicityof human habitations in which the wonderful immensity of London consists.'

© 2017 The Dean and Chapter of Westminster

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