County | Politics | Local government

Malcolm Duncan

In 1950, the county of East Lothian and that part of the county of Midlothian which covered Musselburgh, Wallyford and Whitecraig which from 1975 constituted East Lothian, were represented and governed by one county council and a part of another, eight separate burgh or town councils and six small district councils essentially based on the local registrars, but which also dealt with some minor local matters (eg parks, rights of way). The county council had 46 councillors, and the burghs and small districts between eight and twelve apiece. This added up to around 185 locally elected representatives or councillors, in a population of something over 70,000, although there were overlaps, as 20 of the elected burgh councillors also sat as burgh representatives on the East Lothian County Council and many county councillors also sat on their small district council.

By 2000, at least two reorganisations of local government later, there was one unitary council for East Lothian with 23 councillors (but only 19 councillors when first elected in 1995) serving a population of over 91,000. The relevance of the existence of the devolved Scottish Parliament was that it had the potential to create tensions for the future representation and organisation of public services in Scotland, and yet another reorganisation of local government looked to be looming somewhere along the road. The drastic reduction since the 1950s in the number of local councils and councillors, was a remarkable change in that timescale. With the abolition of burghs and counties in May 1975, the attempt at two-tier region and district local government between 1974 and 1996 and the unitary council system from 1996 on, plus tinkering at the edges along the way, there were at least three systems in 50 years. However, changes to the system had been evolving pre 1945, and were likely to continue after 2000.

In the entrance of the County Buildings, Haddington, hangs a board listing the county convenors of East Lothian. This list tells a story of social and political change, hastened by the first world war and completed in the period of this statistical account.

Convenors of East Lothian County Council
The 10th Marquess of Tweeddale 31 October 1890
The 10th Earl of Wemyss & March 13 July 1891
Sir Alexander Kinloch, Bart 18 December 1900
Sir Archibald Buchan-Hepburn, Bart 13 January 1906
The 9th Baron Polwarth 8 October 1928
Major Humphrey M Broun Lindsay 8 December 1941
Provost George Ross 8 October 1951
John Rattray JP 9 April 1956
James B Miller DL JP 13 October 1969-75

East Lothian County Council ended in May 1975, when the East Lothian District Council, with 17 councillors, succeeded as part of the regional system. There was early discussion about where the new council should sit and serious lobbying for Musselburgh. The majority Labour group and the new council finally settled for the county town of Haddington. Its chairmen successively were all labour party politicians and were elected as such. Tom White (Musselburgh) was appointed on 22 May 1974; he had town council service going back to the twenties, and had twice been provost of Musselburgh. In May 1977, Tom Wilson (Macmerry) took over; he had served on the county council. Finally, George Wanless (Musselburgh) appointed 11 May 1988, had served on Musselburgh Town Council and earlier in Glenrothes, and had been on the East Lothian District Council from 1974. He served as chairman until the district council’s demise in 1996. The new unitary East Lothian Council took over in May 1996; its chairman (or provost – an historical link to the burghs) was Pat O’Brien (Prestonpans). He was first elected to the district council in 1977 and, as leader of the Labour group on that council, was the longest serving Labour group leader in Scotland.

The county convenors’ list indicates the shift in less than 100 years from local landowners who took a leading role in county administration and a continuation of the medieval feudal tradition, to a new political reality in local government. East Lothian was never part of the central Scotland industrial heartland, but had strong labour roots in the coal mining areas around Ormiston, Tranent and Prestonpans. Labour could represent the town councils and local areas there, but never achieved a majority in the county council, even counting burgh representatives on the county council. From 1974-75 the Labour Party was in control of the district council, party organisation was disciplined and explicit, political ‘groups’ were the reality. It was not a one-party change. The elections to the new districts and regions in 1974 were the first elections in East Lothian when Conservative local government candidates all stood as such under that Conservative name. The balance was ten Labour to seven Conservative after that first election and although once as close as nine to eight, Labour maintained a majority in all six elections held. In 2001, the East Lothian Council stood at 17 Labour, four Conservative and two Scottish National Party representatives. Local continuity has not been entirely lost. Major Broun Lindsay of Colstoun served as county convenor, 1941-51. In 1972, Lady Broun Lindsay still served as a county councillor, Chairman of its Health Committee; and in 2000, Ludovic Broun Lindsay was serving on the East Lothian Council. Continuity amid change.

What has been lost and changed in 55 years should not be underestimated. The burgh system was still going strong in the 1950s, and survived to 1975. The pattern in East Lothian reflected the bigger Scottish picture: four royal burghs – Haddington (created 1153); Musselburgh (early 14th century); Dunbar (1369), and North Berwick (from 1425). From the 19th century came the municipalized ‘police’ burghs: the burghs of barony of Tranent (1542) and Prestonpans (1552) became police burghs in 1860 and 1862 respectively; East Linton in 1863; and Cockenzie & Port Seton in 1885. By 1975, the royal burghs were a shadow of their medieval originals. The terms large and small burgh had specific statutory meaning for the functions carried out by them, and all East Lothian burghs were ‘small’. East Linton for example, proudly elected its council and provost along with the rest, had its own council houses, looked after its pavements and drains but had a population of less than 1000. It relied on a Dunbar solicitor to be part time-town clerk and a county council official to be part-time sanitary inspector. Some will regard that as a democratic strength. So though the actual size varied hugely, the burghs all had elected councils that then chose their provost. In all burghs there was some local pomp, a bit of red cloak and ermine and a chain of office, matched today perhaps by the council chauffeur-driven Mercedes car. It gave a real sense to ‘local’ government when councillors knew their people and the citizens knew their councillors, not to mention their town clerk or their burgh surveyor; ‘knew’ in the sense of being accosted along the High Street of a Saturday and to be reminded of an outstanding roof or drain repair.

Civic Charity Ball at Brunton Hall, Dec 1970 - In their robes from l to r: Provost Bill Caird, Baillie Alex Napier, Jessie Burns and James Ford

With county councils on top, there were 980+ civic administrations throughout Scotland, and the Scottish Office had to deal individually with all these authorities for legal, administrative and financial purposes. This then led to local government review, the appointment of the Wheatley Commission in the late 1960s, its Report and finally the Local Government (Scotland) Act 1973, that created districts and regions and enacted that the ancient burghs of Scotland ceased to exist on 15 May 1975 (see Douglas Buttenshaw, this volume).

East Lothian County Council also disappeared. Since 1890, council functions had been added and lost; medical officers of health went elsewhere as did water supply and water boards. In the ‘landward‘ areas, the county council did the things the burghs did inside their boundaries – housing, roads, drainage, building regulation. Throughout the whole county, including the burghs, the county councils eventually ran education and those growth areas of the second half of the 20th century, planning and social work.

The Local Government (Scotland) Act 1947 had sought to arrange various improvements in the local administration of Scotland, but the Town & Country Planning (Scotland) Act 1947 (following some pre-war legislation) really began the move to the planning and control of the environment which became such a key function of local government by the end of the period. The Social Work (Scotland) Act 1968 opened a new era in social services organisation. The increasing importance of these two strands of social organisation and the resources they required were significant factors in the move to reorganise local government.

The other part of the 1975 reorganisation was the creation of the regions, eight covering Scotland plus three all-purpose islands councils. It was said at the time that these last were the only sensible creation of the 1973 Act. The creation of the mainland unitary councils at the end of the 20th century perhaps lent some credibility of hindsight to that view, but the issue was not settled. East Lothian became part of the Lothian Region (with the city of Edinburgh, Midlothian and West Lothian). While East Lothian District Council had taken over housing, environmental health, local planning and leisure and recreation, the region had responsibility for education, social work, roads and transport and, in many ways that raison d’etre of the regional system, regional or strategic planning. It was a fundamental concept that a district did not exist in isolation, particularly city districts. Cities had hinterlands and there was interdependence of jobs, transport, money, and services. The people around Edinburgh travelling in to work or shop or play there were part of the planning for the region, and they had to pay their share. So the two-tier system of government had a two-tier funding or taxation system to match. The tried and tested rating system based on property value was adapted to yield a two-part rate; a regional rate set by the regional council and within each district, a district rate. Later in the 1980s there was to be the temporary aberration of the community charge or ‘poll tax’, upon which Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher insisted, and which contributed to her downfall.

Payment and planning on a regional basis remained contentious to 2000 (and beyond). East Lothian County Council Education Committee had had a rolling programme of primary school building in hand when 1975 came along. Primary schools at Pencaitland and Gullane were the last to be built pre-1975, because Lothian Region stopped the programme immediately to consider its own priorities. Only East Linton and East Saltoun were to see any substantial work on their primary schools in the next 20 years. It was difficult to explain or to understand if you were affected, why North Berwick High School or Dunbar Grammar School for example did not benefit from regional council investment when perhaps Leith or Livingstone or Bathgate Secondary Schools were being renewed or refurbished. Some looked to the representational and political structure and considered that there were only six regional constituencies covering East Lothian in a regional council of 49 and so even in the majority Labour Party there was a weighting towards Edinburgh and West Lothian. On the other hand, supporters of social work pointed to the resources in depth which were available on a regional basis – for example in children’s accommodation or special support services. This commentary reappeared in reverse following the creation of the unitary East Lothian Council in 1996, that its resources and choices were too limited. Even in the days of the county councils there had been joint operations, and the Midlothian, East Lothian and Peebles Joint Children’s Committee was a good example. Unitary councils brought local government back to a more understandable human scale geographically, but the question of resources continued to vex; joint operations continued in various fields such as valuation, police and fire. Transport planning on a regional basis showed tangible results. Lothian Region planned and built the Edinburgh by-pass, and in East Lothian, funded the electrification of the Drem/North Berwick rail line when the east coast mainline was being electrified.

There have been major local government acts every 25 years or so for over a hundred years – 1889, 1929, 1947, 1995 with many minor ones along the way. The East Lothian Council introduced under the 1995 Act took office in 1996, and did much in the few years to 2000. It invested in East Lothian schools that fared badly in the regional period, although it struggled to come to terms with the legacy of the scale of road maintenance required. With only 23 councillors it also tried to support the community councils by giving them small local budget choices to make, such as local priority schemes. Community councils were local government in the sense that they were created under local government legislation, originally by district councils, under the 1973 Act. The East Lothian scheme had 19 community council areas but their functions were limited to the co-ordination and representation of their community’s views to councils and other bodies (which, arguably, councillors were elected to do), so their impact was limited.

In 2000, the future for local government in East Lothian and elsewhere in Scotland seemed to hinge on the new Scottish Parliament. Some pointers had already appeared. The Executive contracted main road maintenance to the private sector; social housing or council housing (that great power base of Labour councils and councillors in the ’50s and ’60s, eroded from 1980 with the Conservatives’ introduction of council house sales to sitting tenants) was in the process of moving out of local government to tenants’ associations both for management and funding reasons, thus relieving councils of the debt burden. Health boards were being reduced in number, and more were coming under Scottish Executive directive as to priorities and standards. In education, national standards and direction on the one hand, and increasing fund-holding and management at school level, were bringing the role and function of elected, political education authorities into question. And again, that raison d’etre of regional organisation, regional planning had raised its head again. By 2000, the Scottish Executive review of all the cities of Scotland and their surroundings was re-igniting issues long thought resolved. Fife, which fought and won in the 1973 Act the right to be a region on its own and not be divided horizontally between Dundee in the north and Edinburgh in the south, had maintained its position as a unitary council in the 1995 Act. Under review again, its strategic planning decision mechanism was again under discussion.

It was hard to imagine local government moving back up to a regional or city-based level when immediately above it was the Scottish Parliament. There did not seem to be room for both. But if housing was not a local government matter, and education became the application of national policies; if police and fire became national services; if planning decisions were made strategically on a regional basis, and everything was publicly and democratically accountable to the Scottish Parliament or its committees, and supervised by a National Audit office and a National Ombudsman office, then the next statistical account may need to comment only on local administration and not local government.