How should Britain's big cities be governed? If Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher gets her way, they will not be run as they are now - by huge umbrella authorities with massive budgets.
The Greater London Council (GLC) seems virtually certain to be wiped out of existence under new legislation being prepared by the Thatcher government. So will six other metropolitan authorities which levy high rates (local taxes) but do not give citizens the civic services they need.
By far the most controversial step is the plan to abolish the GLC, currently run by a leftist council under a radical leader, Ken Livingstone.
By 1986 Mrs. Thatcher hopes, the governments of London and other major population centers such as Manchester and Merseyside will have been decentralized, leaving their administration in the hands of borough and local councils.
Mr. Livingstone (known as ''Red Ken'' to his adversaries and even some of his supporters) has denounced the Thatcher plan as a Conservative Party assault on left-wing urban authorities.
The prime minister and her environment secretary, Patrick Jenkin, defend the decentralization plans as vital if Britain's cities are to be governed more effectively.
British cities face many of the problems that have complicated the running of cities in many parts of the developed world.
City centers have decayed, persuading people to move to the fringes. The local tax base has therefore eroded, making city government uneconomic.
In London, the idea behind the creation of the GLC was to find a way around these problems. For example, London Transport, the organization responsible for the capital's buses and tube train service, was placed under the GLC umbrella.
But some parts of London were not served by London Transport even though they paid GLC rates. In any case, bus and tube services began to be excessively costly to run as fuel and labor charges soared.
It seems likely that when the GLC disappears and local councils take up the slack, the central government in Whitehall will administer London's transport.
Mr. Livingstone and council leaders in the centers affected by the government's decentralization plans say Mrs. Thatcher will create chaos.
The prime minister, however, says more efficient government will result.
It is hard to deny that some of the stimulus for abolishing the GLC came from Mr. Livingstone's assertive anti-Thatcher style.
For example, on the walls of the GLC headquarters across the Thames from the Palace of Westminster the GLC leadership displays a huge poster giving the total of unemployed in greater London. Some observers say Mrs. Thatcher is determined to get her own back.
Tension between the central government and big city authorities is running high because of another policy by Mrs. Thatcher: reducing the subsidies paid by Whitehall to councils to provide enough money to run local government.
The policy is known as ''rate capping.'' Leaders of Liverpool City Council, faced with massive cuts in Whitehall-supplied subsidies, are threatening to pass an illegal budget.
Their aim is to challenge Whitehall policies and force Mrs. Thatcher to change them.
At present Liverpool's finances have reached crisis point, following a council vote to suspend local tax collection.
Livingstone and even some local Conservative Party leaders around Britain deplore the thinking behind the Thatcher policies. They are supposed to produce more autonomy for local and borough councils, but the critics say they will give the central government vastly enhanced powers over the administration of cities and counties.
There is a centuries-old tradition of fostering local government in Britain, and Mrs. Thatcher's critics say she is destroying the work of hundreds of years.
Some city planners also note that in big cities overseas - Paris, New York, and Tokyo, for example - the trend is toward more power for the authorities that run them, not less.
But it seems that Mrs. Thatcher and Mr. Jenkin are not listening.
Legislation is pending before Parliament to cancel metropolitan elections due to be held next year. This is intended as a prelude to the abolition of the GLC and other big-spending local authorities.