The Winding Stair: half a century of local government

Sir Rodney Brooke


My memoir, The Winding Stair, chronicles over half a century of my service in local government, a period which coincided with the decline in the importance and independence of local government as well as the biggest social changes since the industrial revolution. As a local authority chief executive, I experienced these changes at first hand.

Post-war local government attempted to tackle the problems of deprivation. Increasingly the emphasis shifted to the problems of affluence. The three post-war decades saw rising living standards, falling inequality, greater freedom and expanding welfare provision. The following decades saw the opposite. The belief that problems would be solved by spending more money evaporated.

Public expectations rose with the decline of faith in post-war remedies, such as urban motorways, multi-storey flats and town centre redevelopments. Communal services were privatised. Ministers introduced innovations before any assessment could be made about the effectiveness of their precursors. Rather than tackle a problem, governments changed the structure of the agency dealing with it. Responsibilities of the state were transferred to the private sector. An underclass of casual workers was created. My local government career placed me in the middle of these changes and my memoir chronicles them.

In my youth local authority chief executives were great men. Among them knighthoods were ten-a-penny. [Not one serving local government officer now has a knighthood]. The London train would be held for the county chief executives, who traced their authority to the Courts of Quarter Sessions for which they were responsible until 1972. They would expect the Permanent Secretary of the Ministry to call on them when they went to London.

The Councils they ran were fundamental in the life of their residents. During my service I was central to some of the most newsworthy issues of the day. I

  • prosecuted for riot;
  • was the last person ever to be responsible for reading the Riot Act;
  • was responsible for the construction of the last municipal reservoir before water supply was stripped from local government in 1974;
  • warned Bradford City football club of the danger before 56 fans burnt to death in front of the TV cameras;
  • enabled the inquest into the notorious death of Helen Smith in Jeddah;
  • challenged the police belief in Wearside Jack’s claim to be the Yorkshire Ripper;
  • refused Willie Whitelaw’s secret request to sack the West Yorkshire Chief Constable over his failure to catch the Yorkshire Ripper;
  • as emergency controller for Yorkshire in the event of nuclear war, was to shelter in an underground bunker in the Pennines before emerging when Geiger counters showed that it was safe;
  • discovered that three Westminster cemeteries had been sold for 15p;
  • found the press camped on the lawn of our house when I resigned before Dame Shirley Porter began her Homes for Votes gerrymandering – which resulted in her being surcharged £42.5m.
  • acquired a knighthood, a CBE and decorations from France, Germany and three other countries.

Sir Rodney Brooke worked for Morley Council (1955-62); Rochdale Council (1962-63); Stockport Council 1963-73; West Yorkshire County Council 1973-1984 (Chief Executive 1980-84); Chief Executive of Westminster City Council (1984-89); Secretary of the London Boroughs’ Association 1984-90; and Secretary of the Association of Metropolitan Authorities (1990-1997). He remains involved with local government on a non-executive basis.

The Winding Stair is available online or from booksellers at £13.99. ISBN 9781838489977

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