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Seven Local Government Classics

There are a number of books on UK local government that can, I think, be regarded as classics.  While they can often get lost in the more management focused literature that tend to predominate today these older tomes still contain much of value despite being over 40 years old in some cases.  As Martin Laffin argued in Local Government Studies back in 2008 (vol 34, no. 1, p.122):
These earlier studies are refreshingly readable and give insights into the realities of local politics all too often missing from the more recent literature.  They do convey a sense of the realities of local politics and, influenced by the US community power debate of the time, pose issues of power and conflict – political versus professional – bureaucratic power, managers versus unions and party versus pressure group politics. 

Below is a list of the ones I own and count as classics.  It is often possible to get hold of ex library copies for pennies either via the internet or, more satisfyingly, from a second hand bookshop. 

I’d love to hear any comments on these or on any that I’ve missed.

1.  The Local State by Cynthia Cockburn (1977)

Probably my favourite.  A sometimes scathing account of Lambeth Council’s attempts in the 70s to get to grips with community development and public participation, Cockburn seeks to show how both of things ultimately flow from the Labour group’s need to manage both the organisation and the urban environment.  A very Marxist take but this is entirely explicit so you can draw your own conclusions.  In fact it would be great if everyone put their assumptions as clearly on the table as Cockburn does.

2.  Party Politics in English Local Government by Jim Bulpitt (1967)

This book is as old as me (ahem).  It is a study of how party politics played out in four north west councils in the 60s.  Bulpitt’s conclusion, that although ‘nationalised’, local politics is conditioned as much by local circumstances as by national party policy.  I love Bulpitt’s old school approach -  no computers or questionnaires were used in the research process.

3.  Second City Politics by Kenneth Newton (1976)

Newton’s book, published in the mid 70s, provides a theoretically rich case study of the whole system of local politics in Birmingham.  One the many valuable discussions is of the role orientations of councillors which provides a nice framework for thinking about the different attitudes that councillors have to their roles beyond simply party affiliation.

4.  The Politics of Policy in Local Government by John Dearlove (1973)

Dearlove’s interest is in the local policy process and he uses a case study of Kensington and Chelsea to illustrate his attempt to tackle orthodox theories on this subject.  Essentially Dearlove is arguing for the importance of internal and psychological factors in deciding how the local policy process operates and for creating a system which is not about innovation and progress but rather ‘maintaining commitment’ and ‘controlling disturbance’.  

5.  Urban Politics:  A Sociological Interpretation by Peter Saunders (1979)

Covering many of the same theoretical themes as Cockburn, albeit in more depth and detail, Saunders provides a case study of Croydon sat alongside a critical analysis of urban sociology at the time.  If you are put off by the theory Saunders has written the case study to be a stand alone empirical section – pretty much a book in its own right.

6.  Borough Politics: A Study of the Wolverhampton Town Council, 1988-1964 by George Jones (1969)

In a wonderfully readable and remarkably thorough study, Jones argues, contrary to many contemporary observers, that 'the growing involvement of political parties in local government has had good results'. It is certainly one the most highly regarded accounts of local politics 'in the round'.  One particularly intriguing aspect is Jones' assessment and grading of the 'calibre' of each of the councillors in the period covered by the book.  My one regret is that I don't have a picture of the original cover - I would love to see what it looks like.

7.  Democracy and Community:  A Study of Politics in Sheffield by William Hampton (1970)

Although the scope of this book is politics in the broadest sense it has a major focus on local government.  Hampton has some useful things to say about the 'efficiency vs democracy' debate which is one that is still very much with us.  His discussions of participation and of individuals and groups contributing to the delivery of the services they receive (a.k.a. co-production) serve as a reminder that these concerns are not new. There is also a wonderfully philosophical introduction by Bernard Crick - don't be put off by the disturbing cover! 


sibadd said...

This list needed to be made - especially Ken Newton's from my home town. I've spent a long time, while at Inlogov, University of Birmingham, (I remain at 70 a visiting lecturer there) studying the working relationship between politicians and administrators, the tension Weber described between bureaucracy and democracy. I have been privileged to accrue a wealth of video material on the nature of the political-management 'conversation'. Because it's on film rather than textual it has always been a little tricky - for me as well as colleagues - to place this work but I've enjoyed their interest and support over many years and done many hours of work in local councils across the UK and Australia, Canada and Sweden, using this material to share my interest in the ideal of political-management leadership and local democracy. Recently with the encouragement of Prof Tony Bovaird and others I've completed the many permissions required both by the university and the participants (or their estates) to make this work more accessible.
While texts of a more conventional kind describing these films and how they are or may be used appears at:

dissertation proofreading uk general tips for all of us said...

Thank you, very useful information. I read only one book from your list - Kenneth Newton (# 3). 10 years ago I studied his work in college. By the way, it was in college that I met my wife.

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