The Housing Acts of 1980: a watershed in housing policy

Alan Murie and Christopher Watson

The Housing Act 1980 and the Tenants’ Rights etc. (Scotland) Act 1980 mark a watershed in housing policy.  In the aftermath of the First World War and the slogan ‘Homes fit for heroes to live in’ the introduction of exchequer subsidy for new housebuilding in 1919 resulted in sixty years of steady growth of council housing.  Council housing, along with the expansion of home ownership, had transformed the condition of and access to good quality housing.  By the late 1970s some 1 in 3 households were council tenants. But the election of 1979 and the new legislation passed in 1980 saw a change in the long established cross party support for council housing, ended the period of growth in the sector, and heralded a period of deregulation and privatisation.

The Housing Acts operated in the context of reduced public expenditure on housing and introduced the ‘Right to Buy’, the ‘Tenants’ Charter’, a new subsidy system for council housing and changes to the Rent Acts.  They led directly to the decline of council housing, rapid growth in home ownership, a new and enlarged role for housing associations, and an eventual revival of private renting following a century of decline.

The Conservative Manifesto at the General Election of 1979 echoed ‘Homes for heroes’ in its emphasis on ‘Homes of our Own’, ‘The Sale of Council Houses’, and ‘Reviving the Private Rented Sector’.  While the primacy given to home ownership was not new, the specific policies designed to achieve it marked a break with previous policy and were a challenge to local autonomy.

When the Conservative Party won the 1979 election, they saw their housing policies and the ‘right to buy’ in particular as factors contributing to their electoral success.  Throughout the subsequent period the government continued to regard its initial policy stance as an electoral asset.  It was also advantageous fiscally – delivering the largest capital receipts of any privatisation programme: though none of the capital could be spent on replacing the council housing that was sold.

The right to buy in 1980 did not introduce the sale of council houses for the first time as discretionary powers enabling sale had always existed.   These were replaced in 1980 by a statutory RTB.   It applied to almost all secure tenants with three or more years’ tenancy and to almost all properties where the landlord was a council, a new town, or a non-charitable housing association.  A statutory procedure for sale was laid down to limit local variation over implementation and the Secretary of State was given very strong powers to monitor and intervene in local administration.   Generous sale discounts were introduced, rising from 33% of market value to a maximum of 50% depending on the length of tenancy; and these were further increased under later legislation, to 60% for houses and 70% for flats.

The RTB was highly publicised and made more attractive to tenants because of a related policy to steadily increase council rents.  After some initial nervousness on the part of building societies and other lenders, these institutions adopted the RTB with enthusiasm and more than nine out of every ten sales under the scheme were financed with private sector loans.  By 1990 some 1.8 million council, new town and housing association dwellings had been sold into owner occupation in Great Britain and sales continued thereafter, making it the most successful privatisation ever.  With reduced funding for new council housing the sector went into sharp decline.

The 1980 Act was a game changer not only in its own right but also for the future changes it signalled.  Despite many protests, the Act subjugated local government to the will of central government.  In this respect, the government’s approach was brazen, unlike the less transparent later attempts at privatisation in health and education.

The decline in the proportion of council housing from 33% in 1980 to 8% today has speeded the residualisation of the sector, moving council housing towards an American-style welfare housing sector, as intended by the Thatcher governments of the 1980s.  The decline of council housing has been made more dramatic because of the transfer of a large part of its role to housing associations: in many parts of the country, associations now are more important housing providers than local authorities, further weakening the direct role of local government, especially district councils.

But with the combined housing stock of housing associations and local authorities, we still have a social rented sector in the UK which, at 18% of the stock, remains one of the highest in the world and which would now be difficult for governments of a neo-liberal persuasion to further challenge, especially in today’s situation of housing shortage.

The Labour governments of 1997 to 2010 were criticised by some for their continuation of the policy of council house sales but their encouragement of the further transfer of council housing to other registered providers (ie housing associations) has served to protect the provision of social housing, even if at the same time it has further weakened the direct role of local government.  For these reasons, it can be concluded that the long term consequences of the Housing Act 1980 have profoundly changed the role and responsibilities of local government and weakened the position of council housing within the UK housing system.  What remains, however, is a tradition of publicly provided not-for-profit housing and an organisational structure which continues to provide an essential alternative to the private housing sector.

Alan Murie and Chris Watson are former Directors of the Centre for Urban and Regional Studies at the University of Birmingham.  Alan Murie is Emeritus Professor of Urban and Regional Studies and Chris Watson is Honorary Senior Lecturer.  Both are members of the Housing and Communities Research Network in the University’s School of Social Policy.

Direct Payments Act 1996: a legislative game-changer on a slow burn

Catherine Needham

Some legislative game-changers have a high-profile passage through Parliament, with much media fanfare about how things will never be the same again: gay rights legislation, for example, fits into this category. Other game-changers proceed more quietly, with their immediate implications limited to a relatively small number of people. This latter type can be characterised as ‘valve’ legislation, in the sense that once passed there is no going back, even if this is not fully appreciated at the time.

The Community Care (Direct Payments) Act 1996 is an example of valve legislation. Its passage followed from the persistent and passionate campaigns of people with disabilities to gain more control over their support. It made legal the transfers of cash to people eligible for local authority funding. Some local authorities had been finding ways to make such payments for years, with a wary glance at the apparent ban on such activity in the National Assistance Act 1948. But the passage of the Act gained little media interest beyond the Society Guardian, and it was assumed by government that the payments would only be taken up by a minority of younger people with physical disabilities. Indeed people over 65 weren’t eligible for the payments. The Act gave local authorities the power but not the duty to grant the payments, meaning that access to them was heavily dependent on a supportive social services department.

Nearly twenty years later the English government is committed to getting a direct payment or managed budget (where the local authority or third party holds the money on your behalf) to 70 per cent of people receiving local authority-funded social care – more if possible. In a succession of modifications to the law and its regulations, direct payments are now expected to be the default funding mechanism for people with physical disabilities, learning disabilities, older people and people using mental health services, and are available to carers. They have expanded to parents with disabled children and are being proposed for children with special educational needs and for adoptive parents. They are being introduced for aspects of NHS care as personal health budgets, which constitutes a radical change to health funding albeit on a small scale at present. The policy has cross-party support, being pursued as assiduously by the Coalition government as by their New Labour predecessors.

Why was the 1996 legislation able to trigger such a systemic change? Here are four suggestions.

  1. It was a simple idea: give the money straight to the user. Although the implementation has been enormously complex, it was an easy idea to explain, helping its proliferation and popularity
  2. It fitted the political mood, both to expand choice to people as consumers of public services (seeing that as the best way to improve outcomes) and to break down barriers for people with disabilities on rights basis. Governments since the 1980s have promoted both strands of legislation, even though there are tensions between them.
  3. It didn’t seem to cost anything, since money was simply being allocated differently. This aspect of the policy appealed to the Conservative government that first introduced the policy and to subsequent New Labour and Coalition governments. It is particularly appealing in a period of public spending austerity. Evidence for cost-savings has been harder to establish in practice, however.
  4. It created a wedge that could be used by policy entrepreneurs to push for further change. Once the principle was established that disabled adults under 65 were eligible for such payments it was very hard to argue on a principled basis that they should not be extended to other people in receipt of local authority support. Organisations such as In Control pushed at the boundaries of the legislation to broaden its range and built national alliances of supporters to agitate for its extension.

All these factors created a permissive legislative and policy context in which devolved budgets have come to be seen as the way to respond to a whole range of social issues. However behind the simplicity and potency of the idea lie two challenges which have not yet been resolved, and will continue to pose issues for future government.

The first is implementation. The simple insights of personal budgets and direct payments have proved very difficult to apply to a hugely complex, variable and underfunded social care system. Personal health budgets may help to integrate health and social care provision but it is difficult to do this when social care funding is means-tested and health funding is not.

Second, there is a normative challenge: if people are better at spending their own money than the state is at spending it on their behalf, what is the state for (aside perhaps from channelling money from rich consumers to poor ones)? This vision of a voucher state has long been cherished by some on the right of the political spectrum. Raising questions about the need for a welfare state was not the vision of any of the advocates of the Direct Payments Act 1996 but such debates affirm that the full consequence of that Act are not yet known.


Catherine Needham is Reader in Public Policy and Public Management at the Health Services Management Centre, University of Birmingham, and is developing research around public service reform and policy innovation. Her recent work has focused on co-production and personalization, examining how those approaches are interpreted and applied in frontline practice. Her most recent book, published by the Policy Press in 2011, is entitled, Personalising Public Services: Understanding the Personalisation Narrative.

The Health Act 2006: Behaviour change in action?

Catherine Staite

The Health Act 2006 is a very dull title for an Act of Parliament which has had such a profound and universally beneficial impact on all our lives.  It enacted the ban on smoking in enclosed places to which the public have access.

When I was training to be a solicitor in 1976, I shared an unventilated basement office with an etiolated, chain smoking Welshman.  He chain smoked Gauloises and I went home every night with a bad headache, smelling like a kipper.  His right to smoke – and the social acceptance of smoking – trumped my right to breathe. How things have changed! But why have they changed so much?

In the 1950s the UK had one of the highest rates of smoking and consequently one of the worst rates of death from lung cancer in the world.  However, smoking began to decline in the 1960s and death rates began to fall from 1965.  In 1979, 45% of the population smoked but by the 1990s that number had fallen to 30%.  Between the introduction of the smoking ban in 2007 and 2010 it fell a further 9%.

There was much controversy at the time with dire predictions of damage to businesses, particularly pubs. Smokers argued that their human rights were being attacked. The tobacco industry complained that it was leading to a reduction in the number of cigarettes smoked and a significant rise in the number of people quitting. Fancy that!

So why has the smoking ban been such a success?  Firstly, the time was right.  Research at the time showed that there was very strong public support for the ban.  It has been largely self-policing; note how quickly people react if anyone breaches the ban. That is because the reasons for the regulations are well-understood and the benefits are now clear, in the same way our air is now clear.

The smoking ban did change behaviour but it achieved it by building on and reinforcing longer running changes in behaviour and attitudes.  It made it clear that the right to breathe trumps the right to smoke.  In 1976 I didn’t feel able to assert my right to breathe clean air in our dank little office.  In 2013, I don’t need to, because Parliament championed and legitimised my right not be harmed over the rights of others to harm me.

At INLOGOV we are very interested in behaviour change and how changing public expectations and behaviour can impact, both positively and negatively, on public services.  Behaviour change has come to be seen as a’ quick fix’ for all sorts of perceived ills.  The experience of the smoking ban shows that it is all much more subtle and complex than that.  It also demonstrates that the right legislation, at the right time, can work with the grain of changing  social attitudes and can help both to change the behaviour of the unwilling and to embed that changed behaviour in new social norms.

Catherine Staite

Catherine Staite is the Director of INLOGOV. She provides consultancy and facilitation to local authorities and their partners, on a wide range of issues including on improving outcomes, efficiency, partnership working, strategic planning and organisational development, including integration of services and functions.

Catherine has recently co-authored INLOGOV’s latest book, Making Sense of the Future: Do We Need a New Model of Public Services. The chapter ‘Beyond Nudge‘ by Catherine Mangan and Daniel Goodwin deals specifically with behaviour change.

Who’ll work with the Lib Dems?

Chris Game

One of the few perks of my first paid research job was visiting the major party conferences. This was in the early 1970s, when policies were genuinely debated, votes were taken and mattered, and leaders’ speeches didn’t have to be delivered without visible notes.

I recall particularly Harold Wilson, then Opposition Leader and past his prime, but still, it seemed to me, master in that conference hall of all he surveyed. And still, more than a decade after the man’s death, getting himself an easy ovation by quoting one of Labour Conference’s forever favourite sons, Aneurin Bevan.  One such quote, used by Wilson on probably numerous occasions, was: Why look into the crystal ball when you can consult the book?

I was reminded of it this week in relation, as it happens, to the Lib Dems’ conference. There were two polls last weekend – one of Lib Dem members for the Independent on Sunday, one of Lib Dem councillors for BBC1’s Sunday Politics programme – both showing that the respondents would greatly prefer Labour, the devil they don’t really know, to the one they’re currently in coalition with.

Not exactly new news, and, moreover, entirely crystal ball stuff.  Wouldn’t it be more interesting, rather than speculating about what national politicians might do in the event of a future hung parliament, to read the metaphorical book and see what local politicians have actually done when confronted with hung councils? That’s what the rest of this blog is about.

There are currently more than 50 English hung councils, or more than 1 in 7. In the majority of these (28) there are no formal coalitions, alliances or pacts at all, because they’re run by single parties as minority administrations: 16 Conservative, 7 Labour, 3 Lib Dem (Bath & NE Somerset, Stockport, Cambridge), 1 Green (Brighton & Hove), and 1Independent (Isle of Wight).

One of these – Harrow’s Conservative minority administration – came into existence only this week, but in such exceptional circumstances that, even without any significant Lib Dem involvement, it seems worth a couple of parenthetical paragraphs before continuing with the mostly more mundane happenings recounted in the remainder of the blog.

In one of many noteworthy results buried under the post-General Election headlines in May 2010, Labour, under Bill Stevenson, took majority control of Harrow LBC. Last October, Stephenson stood down due to poor health and was replaced by Thaya Idaikkadar, the UK’s first Sri Lankan council leader. At the Labour group’s AGM in May, however, he lost the group leadership to David Perry, prompting allegations of unfairness and “elements of racism”.

Idaikkadar and 8 other councillors left the Labour Party and formed their own Independent Labour Group, leaving Labour and the Conservatives each with 25 seats. Still Council Leader, Idaikkadar sacked his entire Labour cabinet and created a kind of Independent Labour-Conservative minority coalition, but with the two Conservative cabinet members holding only non-executive posts. This ended last Monday at an extraordinary (in every sense) meeting of the Council, called by the Conservative group and at which, with sufficient Independent Labour support, they elected their own leader, Susan Hall, to head a Conservative minority administration.

These were exceptional events, but in one sense they do reflect the reality and uncertainty behind the formation of any minority administration. Even where the party concerned has the most seats and is close to an overall majority, it’s still a risk, and some sort of at least informal agreement will usually be needed to get the party over the hurdle of the annual meeting, as indicated in my blog following this May’s county council elections.

Warwickshire was one example. The Conservatives had lost their majority control of the 62-member council, but remained the largest party with 26 seats. Labour were up to 22, and there were 9 Lib Dems, 2 Greens and 3 Independents.  The Lib Dems and Greens wanted a multi-party rainbow coalition, but, as regularly happens in local government, Labour preferred to do business with their traditional opponents.

They agreed to abstain in the key vote at the annual meeting, allowed the Conservatives to form a minority administration, and in exchange took control of the scrutiny committees. There were accusations, naturally, of a stitch-up, but no cabinet seats were involved, so Labour could argue that they remain free to work and vote with the smaller parties to defeat any policies they wish to oppose.

A similar informal Conservative-Labour arrangement was negotiated in Gloucestershire, but in Lancashire it was the Conservatives who lost out. Labour had failed to regain their majority control, but with 39 of the 84 seats were the largest party. Sensing a lifeline, the Conservatives (35) tried talking with anyone who might be interested in forming an anti-Labour coalition. But the Independents (3) didn’t want an alliance with anyone, which left the 6 Lib Dems agreeing to support a Labour minority administration, its budget, but not necessarily anything further.

It’s by no means always, though, the largest party that calls the shots, and in arithmetical terms perhaps the most remarkable outcome of the May county elections was in Norfolk. The Conservatives were overwhelmingly the largest party – or should have been, with 40 out of 84 seats – but they were comprehensively outmanoeuvred. While their leader thought he had an agreement with the 9 Lib Dems to enable him to form a minority administration, Labour (14) and the Lib Dems had negotiated a (very) minority coalition of their own, with backing from the 15-strong UKIP group.

Here was one example, then, of the kind of arrangement most Lib Dems say they favour. There are others in Cumbria, in Broxtowe (Notts), where the two parties have a power-sharing history dating back ten years now, and, most recently and with some similarities to Harrow, in Worcester.

While most election-watchers’ attention back in May was on the county elections and in Worcestershire on Labour’s ultimately dashed hopes of winning enough seats to recreate the Lab/Lib Dem pact that had run the council in the 1990s, the heavy action was not in County Hall at all, but in the City Council’s Guildhall, where Labour staged a notable coup.

At 9.00 p.m. on Tuesday 14th May, the 17 Conservatives were running the 35-member council as a minority administration, backed by the 2 Lib Dems. Then by 10.00 p.m. they weren’t, having been dramatically ousted by a coalition of Labour’s 15 members, the single Green, and, yes, those same Lib Dems. They described their turnabout as a carefully considered “change of mind”; the Conservatives pronounced it shameless, unprincipled and considerably worse.

There are two other examples of Lib Dem/Labour partnerships. In Colchester the 26 Lib Dems are very much the lead party, so it is presumably their decision to extend their coalition to include the 3 Highwoods Independents, even though not arithmetically necessary for a majority.

In Stroud, by contrast, every vote in the Labour/LibDem/Green coalition counts. The Conservatives in 2012 were comfortably the largest party on the 51-member council and, with 22 seats, might reasonably have hoped to form a majority alliance with the 5 Lib Dems. However, Labour, though starting from only 16 seats, could and did assemble a similar majority in coalition with the 6 Lib Dems and 5 Greens: trickier but apparently more harmonious.

In all, then, there are 7 current examples of Labour/Lib Dem coalitions, compared to just 4 involving Conservatives and Lib Dems – Lincolnshire, Redbridge, Walsall, and Pendle, in all of which the Lib Dems are the minor partners and generally very much so.  Add in North Devon’s Lib Dem/Independent administration, and it turns out that the Lib Dems (12) are involved in at least slightly more of these formalised local coalitions than either Conservatives (10) or Labour (9).

It is interesting that there seems such minimal enthusiasm in local government to follow the lead of the Conservative and Lib Dem parties at Westminster. As to whether it’s significant, or offers any clues at all to what might happen in 2015, the answer I’m afraid must be a resounding NO.


Chris Game is a Visiting Lecturer at INLOGOV interested in the politics of local government; local elections, electoral reform and other electoral behaviour; party politics; political leadership and management; member-officer relations; central-local relations; use of consumer and opinion research in local government; the modernisation agenda and the implementation of executive local government.

The role of social value outcomes in commissioning services

William Jabang

A contract culture has become widespread in public services, but the question often asked is: is ‘price’ alone a satisfactory mechanism for deciding what is done and by whom? The very meaning of ‘value’ has been dominated by the notion of price. In many organisational settings, price is seen as the most obvious way of gauging contract performance, as well as the means by which to judge efficiency.

However, many have questioned this approach and successive governments have sought to widen the debate by bringing forward policies that go beyond price as a mechanism for deciding what has to be done and how. This could be best illustrated by the ‘Best Value’ regime that emerged in the latter part of the twentieth century and still places a duty upon public services to seek best value – where price alone is seen as restrictive in ensuring that services match with what the public actually wants and needs.

This has brought with it certain difficulties and challenges that many public sector managers and elected members have experienced. However, the search goes on for policies and legislative instruments that help bring the public’s needs and requirements closer to an institutional decision-making mechanism that looks beyond price to ensure that what the public value is in line with what they get. Few citizens take the time to investigate the actual cost (in price terms alone) of contracts that are led by public bodies. Eric Pickles took the lead in expressing his desire to have an ‘army of armchair auditors’ scrutinising the books of public bodies after the 2010 General Election, though little evidence beyond the activity of the Tax Payers’ Alliance exists to support this desire.

Many public service managers will have been exposed to the debate introduced by Mark Moore some years ago on the concept of ‘Public Value’ – an interesting line of thinking that has occupied academics for some years now. The next step in this journey has now been taken. On 31st January 2013, the Public Services (Social Value) Act came into force in Engaldn and Wales (although its application to Wales is limited). The Act provides a new statutory requirement for public authorities to consider the economic, social and environmental wellbeing of the local area when commissioning or procuring services.

Consideration of social value is generally not promoted in the existing design, process and delivery of procurement. A recent survey carried out by Guardian Professional indicates that many procurement and commissioning staff feel they don’t even have the skills and training needed to carry out social value commissioning and procurement effectively.

Given the relatively short time for which the Act has been in place, it could be argued that it is too early to assess its full impact on procurement design, process and delivery. However, an appraisal of the level of awareness and degree of implementation of the Act by the public and voluntary/community sector could be important, providing a useful pointer to the potential effectiveness of the Act and the outcomes it could deliver.

In view of this, INLOGOV is working together with the Society of Procurement Officers (SOPO), the National Association for Voluntary and Community Action (NAVCA) and the Association of Chief Executives of Voluntary Organisations (ACEVO) to carry out a survey. The survey aims to:

  1. Examine the awareness and perception of the Public Services (Social Value) Act 2012
  2. Identify changes (if any) which organisations are making as a result of the Act
  3. Establish whether or not the Act has opened up (or is likely to open up) more contract opportunities for voluntary, community and social enterprise organisations (VCSEs)
  4. Establish whether cost is a deterrent to pursuing social value outcomes.

We would appreciate it if you could provide us with your views by completing one of our survey questionnaires. The survey findings will be published jointly by the four organisations named above. It is the aim of the researching organisations that the information from this survey will help to improve existing practice and will enhance the sharing of knowledge between organisations.

The survey is likely to take approximately 15-20 minutes and all information provided will be held in strict confidence – and will be recorded and stored in accordance with the Data Protection Act 1998.

Please click to complete either the Voluntary, Community and Social Enterprise organisations questionnaire; or the Public Sector/NHS organisations questionnaire.

Thank you for taking part.

William Jabang is a Doctoral Researcher at INLOGOV. His PhD research is focused on commissioning and procuring social value.

Bankruptcies, scofflaws and aldermen: differentiated by a common language

Chris Game

It must have happened to you. You come across a word for, as far as you’re aware, the first time in your life, you learn its meaning, and then read or hear it again in a quite different context just a few days later.

It’s possibly just one of those exaggerated coincidences – like the birthday paradox of needing only 23 people in a room to have better than even odds of two of them sharing a birthday. But, even if it is, my recent experience still struck me as worth sharing in a blog – especially as I rather like the word in question, and without too much contortion can give it a local government slant.

I’ve just returned from an academic conference in Chicago. The paper I presented was mainly about English local government finance, but part of it touched on the usage and meaning of words – in this case BANKRUPTCY; and no, that’s not the ‘new’ word I’ve just discovered!  I wanted to explain why English local authorities, no matter how financially stressed, would not be going bankrupt in the same way as Detroit and several other American cities have done over the past couple of years – and that Chicago itself conceivably could too, were the Illinois state constitution to permit it.

It’s true the B-word has entered UK local government discourse in recent months – in relation, as it happens, to what in population terms are our largest (Birmingham) and smallest (West Somerset) principal councils.  But here it’s used actually or effectively in quotation marks, signalling unusual usage, and indeed signalling is what the recourse to the B-word is mainly about: signalling – to these councils’ residents and taxpayers, but above all to government ministers – that they’re getting close to being unable to meet their legal obligations with the funding foreseeably available to them.

They are not signalling that, to take Chicago’s case, they have approaching $30 billion of unfunded pension liabilities, a now junk-approaching credit rating, and that they’ve managed to set a 2014 general budget with a shortfall of only $339 million. There are several ways in which municipal bankruptcy has a different meaning and different connotations this side of the pond, not least of which is that little clause in successive Local Government Acts requiring local authorities to set their council tax at a level that will balance the budget. US municipalities can and do set deficit budgets, some of them year after year.

Anyway, this bankruptcy stuff meant I was probably at least subconsciously on the lookout for particularly American words and usages – the two countries separated by a common language idea – when I happened upon SCOFFLAW. It’s not remotely a neologism, its meaning is quite easily guessable, and you may well be familiar with it yourself. But, until it crossed my path in three entirely different situations in the space of a few days, I wasn’t.

It originated in the Prohibition era, as a label for someone who literally scoffed at the law and illegally drank, sold or manufactured alcohol.  It’s since been extended to anyone who flouts any law, but it remains very much an Americanism. Indeed, it may be that its widespread usage is concentrated around the Chicago area, because my first sighting was the Scofflaw bar/restaurant in Logan Square, near to where I was staying in Lincoln Park.  Not, disappointingly, as edgy as it sounds. Unless there’s a local ordinance outlawing tractor seat barstools or menus containing exceptionally weird cocktails, chocolate chip cookies, and Brussels sprouts, the name must refer more to historic than present-day custom and practice.

There was no doubt, though, in my second encounter, a couple of days later. State Governor, Pat Quinn, was there on my TV, explaining his new law allowing the Illinois Tollway to post public lists naming and shaming the ‘Top Toll Scofflaws’ and the amount of fines and unpaid tolls owed by each violator.

It’s to such traffic law violations and similar comparatively minor offences that the scofflaw tag seems mainly applied nowadays – but clearly not exclusively.  For, immediately upon returning home, I heard a US diplomat explain on Radio 4’s The World Tonight how, if President Obama were to launch a military attack on Syria without Congressional and/or UN authorisation, it would not only constitute an impeachable offence, but “would bolster the already widely held view that America is a scofflaw nation that acts impetuously and unilaterally outside the framework of international law”. You can see his point: first you’re defying liquor laws, then evading traffic fines, and, before you know it, you’re attacking Syria.

Another word you hear much more of in Chicago City government than over here is perhaps more surprising: ALDERMAN – an office that, except for the City of London, we abolished in the 1970s. Chicago, however, is, one of several US cities that retains them and so, a little oddly, has a 50-member legislative city council comprising entirely elected aldermen (unlike ours, who were indirectly elected) – and that includes the 16 women, who presumably feel they have better things to do than argue about whether they should be alderwomen or even alderpersons.

They almost certainly do, for the contrast between the range of the actual and potential powers of Chicago aldermen and those of the 120 members of Birmingham City Council – with which Chicago is twinned – is hard to overstate. First, some numbers.  The US has nearly 39,000 ‘general purpose’ local governments, compared to the UK’s 434 principal local authorities – but its council memberships are much smaller. While Birmingham’s councillors represent wards with populations averaging 27,000, making them the largest in the country, Chicago’s aldermen represent districts of roughly 57,000, which are easily the smallest of any major US city. New York’s 51 city councillors represent an average of 165,000; Los Angeles’ 15 councillors over 250,000.

As large-scale representatives, but even more so as legislators, Chicago’s aldermen are far better financially compensated and administratively supported than our councillors: an average salary of around $115,000 (£74,000); a staffing budget of some $200,000, to employ typically a chief of staff, a couple of ward services staff, plus maybe a receptionist and a ‘scheduler’; and an additional general office budget of $75,000. And yes, there is a ‘Better Government Association’ that, like our TaxPayers’ Alliance, monitors all this and campaigns for the council to be cut by up to a half.

In truth, though, for aldermen to perform effectively even their legislative role, there would need to be more, rather than fewer, of them, with better, rather than reduced, support. Since Rahm Emanuel became mayor in May 2011, there have been around 30,000 measures introduced to the City Council. Even taking only the 2,000+ proposals flagged by the City Clerk’s office as ‘key’ legislation with a city-wide impact, aldermen lack the time, staff and expertise either to contribute significantly to the shaping of these measures or to scrutinise their implementation.

In practice, then, the mayor drives the city-wide agenda, largely unchallenged, but leaves the aldermen a similarly free rein – in fact, almost a free reign – over what happens in their wards. I noted recently in another blog how US municipalities’ zoning powers enabled them to limit the spread of payday loan stores in a way that many of our councils would like to. Well, in Chicago – far more, I believe, than in most cities – that power is exercised as a kind of unwritten aldermanic prerogative, with the alderman having almost a de facto veto power over any development project in their ward. Which pretty obviously, even without all their other powers, makes them both extremely influential, but also potentially extremely influenceable – and brings us back where we started, to scofflaws.


Chris Game is a Visiting Lecturer at INLOGOV interested in the politics of local government; local elections, electoral reform and other electoral behaviour; party politics; political leadership and management; member-officer relations; central-local relations; use of consumer and opinion research in local government; the modernisation agenda and the implementation of executive local government.