History teaches us many things, not least for those of us in communications. This reflective new post takes us back in time to the 1870s and the transformation of civic society. Some of it still rings true today.
by Will Mapplebeck
Radicalism and councils, there are two words you don’t often hear together.
But local government, particularly in our great cities, has a proud heritage of innovative thinking and once drove great social and economic change.
The other day the organisation I work for, Core Cities UK, held our cabinet meeting at Highbury Hall, in Birmingham, the former home of Joseph Chamberlain.
Despite its scale, Highbury Hall still has the feel of a middle-class Victorian family home. Portraits of all the Chamberlains, including Joseph’s sons Austen and Neville stare down from the walls.
But it was Joe Chamberlain who defined the concept of civic leadership, becoming one of our most dynamic and pragmatic politicians.
Chamberlain became mayor of Birmingham in 1873 and had powers and freedoms that today’s local government leaders can barely dream of.
In three years as mayor he transformed the UK’s second city. He cleared slums, took over inefficient water and gas companies turning them into profitable corporations and used that money – as well as additional finance, to build libraries, parks and swimming pools.
This was a time before our great cities were dependent on central government funding, before the centralised mechanisms of state spending we have today. As a result, city leaders had no choice – they had to think differently to get things done.
Chamberlain wasn’t the only one. At the same time, in cities across the UK, a generation of stern looking frock coated and mustachioed men thought differently and effectively built the cities we recognise today, turning them into engine rooms of the British empire.
Let’s not pretend that those cities were perfect – the gaps between rich and poor were shocking by today’s standards and many of the services we take for granted just didn’t exist.
But these city leaders had far more freedom to solve problems using their own initiative. They transformed their skylines, their transport and the health of their citizens. Figures like Joe Chamberlain actively swam against established thought and made change happen.
Today, he continues to be admired and his thinking around a smaller, more active, state drives some of Theresa May’s Shared Society agenda.
Communications has a role in portraying local government as an innovative champion for reform and creating a narrative that reverses the perception some have of slow, bloated bureaucracy.
As we approach the end of a decade of austerity, I’d argue it is time for us to remember and broadcast our radical roots and do what Joe Chamberlain did – take control and make radical change.
Will Mapplebeck is strategic communications manager for Core Cities UK. He blogs at https://atleastwegettheburglarvote.wordpress.com and follow him on Twitter @wimapp.