Thursday, January 18, 2007

End in sight for county record offices?

The government has invited the remaining 34 county councils and their constituent districts to apply for abolition and merger into unitary authorities (actually formally known as county boroughs).

The historic counties

Hitherto, remodelling of local government into unitary authorities was carried out obligatorily in certain areas under the Local Government Act 1992. It is widely believed this act was intended to prepare the way for countrywide unitary local government on a pilot basis, although the government protested unitary authorities would not be suited to all areas. If the sceptics are right, this was a gloss aimed at disguising the true objective in order to conceal the longer-term, gradualist objective.

Our regular readers will have guessed by now where this is leading. As we know from earlier blogs, the EU is nothing if not gradualist in its tendencies. Although the 1992 act was enacted by the previous Conservative government and Ruth Kelly, Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government for the current Labour administration, has criticised the Conservatives for passing on public services and institutions that were run-down, demoralised and starved of cash and resources (see statement) in 1997, Labour (and the Liberal Democrats) take their policy on local government, like much else, from the European Commission.

This much is admitted by independent observers, e.g. Bob Spink of Epolitix who states compulsory unitary local government is a fundamental part of the Labour Government's agenda of transferring power away from local councils to regional chambers or elected regional assemblies (see his online article on Local Government Restructuring). Disregard any propaganda about empowering communities and strengthening local democracy.

This is all very well, you may say. But how does is bear on archives and their users?

Firstly, we should understand that local government archives provision is mainly by county councils, partly as the result of historical accident as the bodies inheriting the records of the clerks of the county quarter sessions (which comprise the historical core collections of any county record office) and partly by design under the Local Government (Records) Act 1962 which created county councils as archives authorities, although this function remains permissive unlike library reference and lending services. A change to this pattern of local government whereby county councils give way to unitary authorities gives rise to the issue of the survival and funding of residual and rather nominal county record offices by the new unitary authorities.

Berkshire provides an example of fragile success; Humberside one of disaster.

Secondly, most consumers of archives are family historians and genealogists whose researches are necessarily historically based on the pre-1974 counties whose county councils inherited from the Quarter Sessions in 1889 the ancient counties. In 1974 the issue was amalgamation, reduction in size or renaming of counties, ostensibly for economy’s sake. The result was unpopular, especially in Rutland and Somerset. However, files released by the National Archives recently confirm the reorganisation was motivated by a longer term European regionalisation scenario, mooted as early as the 1960s concurrently with planning for Common Market entry. The proposed new changes go a step further and will see counties administratively abolished and replaced by unitary authorities, completely eradicating the traditional pattern of county based historical research.

Under this new arrangement, in which we are led to believe two tiers will be replaced by one much more economical tier (itself an argument dismissed by Professor Michael Chisholm of Cambridge University in research for the Local Government Association) there will actually be three tiers of local government: regional government, unitary authorities and neighbourhood councils (see The Daily Telegraph 3 January 2007)

The government has created a rod for its own back in this latter regard, having generated popular enthusiasm for genealogical research through the National Archives and the media. Genealogy being the second biggest presence on the World Wide Web, and probably the most popular leisure pursuit, is liable to trip up policy makers. It is already the case following the 1974 local government reorganisation that genealogical user groups have felt obliged to publish clarification on such matters (see Genuki) The position looks like becoming even more confusing for our main user group, especially those genealogists living abroad.

The ultimate irony in all of this is that despite reorganising UK local government so as to usher in direct rule of the regions and UK by the EU, with the marginalisation of UK central government as an inevitable and planned by-product, academic researchers from EU countries are equally flummoxed by UK local government archives provision as there is no direct correlation between local government systems and archives provision here and in mainland Europe and the situation is worsening.

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