City service shuffle in London carries political overtones

Seven million Londoners awakened Tuesday to find the sun still shone (a little), the double-decker buses were still running, the garbage was being collected as usual, and the lights had not gone off in the South Bank concert halls. London services on April 1 were much the same as they have been.

The critical difference was that on this day Londoners became residents of the only major European city which functions without a central authority to oversee city services. To the relief of the government, and to the dismay of the opposition and many London citizens, the Greater London Council has gone out of business. More accurately, it was put out of business by the government of Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, which felt that this form of local authority served no useful purpose.

The demise of the council is one of the most sweeping and controversial changes made in British local government in recent years. The abolition order extends to six other metropolitan councils. The councils handled such matters as fire services, refuse disposal, and highway planning.

Significantly, the GLC, as the Greater London Council is commonly called, as well as the other metropolitan councils eliminated, were all Labor Party-controlled councils. In many cases they were led by left-wing politicians hostile to the Conservative government.

The nucleus of anti-government opposition these days is no longer the trade unions, but young Labor Party leaders such as London's Ken Livingstone.

Not surprisingly, those affected by the abolition of the councils regard the government's move as an act of political spite and vengeance by the Thatcher government.

Taking the place of the GLC and other metropolitan councils are a plethora of borough councils and local boards, which former Prime Minister Edward Heath, a Conservative and stern opponent of the abolition, has called a ``dog's breakfast.''

The government, which has attempted to keep a tight lid on public expenditure, has dismissed the GLC and its sister metropolitan councils as an extravagant and unnecessary tier of government.

But the government has not had an easy time with abolition, even though passage through Parliament was assured because of the hefty Conservative majority in the House of Commons. A number of Conservatives, including Mr. Heath and former Foreign Secretary Francis Pym, rebelled against abolition on the grounds it was undemocratic. The bill ran into trouble in the upper chamber, the House of Lords, which forced through several amendments.

The government's answer is that there will now be much greater accountability through representatives at a much more local level.

But the government's contention that removal of the GLC and the other metropolitan councils will result in considerable savings and job reductions is open to debate. In the case of London, the 24,200 who were on the GLC payroll have almost entirely been absorbed into other local government bodies.

Government estimates of overall savings from the elminiation of all the councils -- initially put at 100 million ($148 million) -- has been steadily revised downwards.

Leaders of the former metropolitan councils insist that abolition will lead to deterioration in services and in some cases will be accompanied by higher costs. Bus service in South Yorkshire, for instance, have been heavily subsidized.

With the government finding it increasingly difficult to show that abolition will bring about real savings, there is growing suspicion that government strategy was dictated by political motives.

The GLC, in particular, is viewed by many of Thatcher's supporters as a breeding ground for radical left wing politicians.

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