North Berwick | Local Government

In 1945, the governance of the parish had not changed for many years, but the next 55 years were to see many changes. Then the royal burgh was controlled by a town council with East Lothian County Council supervising some functions in the town as well as being the controlling body for all local government functions in the landward area of the parish and other landward areas in the county.

At this time the parliamentary constituency was Berwickshire & East Lothian with the Scottish Office administering most central government functions on behalf of Westminster and having an overview of local government as well as determining the central financing of councils. Later of course Musselburgh was added to the parliamentary constituency and Berwickshire went to Borders. This change did not make much impact on local government at the time but was to be a catalyst for changes in local government boundaries later making a major difference to what might have been had the parliamentary boundary not changed. Indeed the retention of the Berwickshire & East Lothian parliamentary constituency boundary was fought at the Selkirk Sheriff Court and the recorder supported the retention but the Boundary Commission overturned his views and voted for their own proposals – so much for local democracy. Many other changes were also to occur detailed below which changed the whole character of local government.

In 1945, the town council took a very local view of its responsibilities and the staff knew all the idiosyncrasies of the services and resources they managed.

The town council was of course elected but the councillors were almost all local traders of one kind or another. The county council was a non-political body made up of elected councillors from landward areas and nominees from the burghs. The county council appointed chairs of committees on a merit basis regardless of their individual political views; that made for good governance. The county council when it did meet as a body, leaving most of the work to the committees, had if anything a conservative with a small c attitude to issues but it did not meet very often.

However, what was important was that in the town council and to a greater extent the county council, the councillors decided policy and the officials implemented policy and managed services and resources. The town clerks and the county clerk to an extent ‘ruled’ the councils and informed the councillors what decisions were appropriate and insisted that they also had a role in deciding what was in the interests of ratepayers.

The other important aspect of councils in the period up to the first reorganisation and before the community charge debacle was that the local rates represented more that 50% of council revenues, that is both domestic and business rates and all rates were paid to the councils, not in part to central government. This meant that central government had not so much influence on how councils spent their funds and councillors had to rely of the support of local ratepayers. Ratepayers in this sense as funders often taking views unrelated to their political allegiances but concerned about the rates paid out of their pockets and how the council was spending their money.

The community charge, regionalisation and all-purpose authorities were to change local government radically. The effect was to take the local out of local government, to reduce the rates paid locally to under 15% of council revenue, and to remove business rates altogether from the funding stream by them being paid to the chancellor of the exchequer, and thus rate support grant from central government through the Scottish Executive now being 85% of council revenues.

The whole focus of local government has altered away from local ratepayers and interest in business issues is limited. For the limited period, governance by the region while the local had been reduced at least the region had the financial muscle to execute some major projects. But all the while even to this day more and more functions are being delegated to local government with more complex regulations resulting in more staff, more reports and less action. It is of course wrong to suggest that all was better prior to regionalisation, but it was certainly different with the split in functions between East Lothian District Council and Lothian Regional Council not always a harmonious arrangement.

The present structure of East Lothian Council as an all-purpose authority very nearly did not happen only machinations at the House of Lords stage of the Local Government Bill created the East Lothian Council. East Lothian District Council did not have the same birth pangs but unfortunately, against advice, opted for the ‘large council structure’ for its officers and staff and spent the next 18 years undoing this error.

The other changes, the joining of the EEC and Scottish devolution have had much less impact than the two reorganisations and the change in financing and need no specific comment. What is more useful is to detail the history of the town council, which was the driving force of the parish up until 1974.

In 1945, North Berwick Town Council was the most significant part of the system governance as far as the Royal Burgh of North Berwick was concerned, with provost George C. Gilbert as leader, town clerk J.W. Menzies of lawyers Wallace & Menzies, Andrew Robertson as burgh surveyor and pond master, J. McCracken. Local traders dominated the council, and the council was striving to keep the economy of the town strong by supporting tourism with a considerable degree of success.

Schools, roads, planning and other functions were controlled by the county council, otherwise the town council dealt with functions from housing to gas supply, decisions on extension of council housing, electrification of street lighting, heating the pool, supporting the retention of the railway and Harbour Terrace together with demolition of Tantallon Hotel and creation of the council caravan site, and running events to support tourists were the bread and butter of council business. The tower of strength in all the minor as well as major issues was the burgh surveyor, Andrew Robertson, and later Jimmy Dalgleish. It was this ‘local’ force and leadership that was swept away in 1974 by regionalisation. Control went to Haddington and Edinburgh where staff had neither the knowledge nor incentive to make things happen in the same way. There were however two mitigating factors. Tourism by this date had reduced in importance and commuting with employment in Edinburgh was more dominant. Nevertheless the local had gone out of local government despite the efforts of the community council under its first chairman, Ben Miller and has not returned by the end of the millennium.

The same of course happened with the post of town clerk, with Robin Wotherspoon seeing out the old structure. There was however in 1974, at the initiative of the last provost John MacNair, the town treasurer Norman Hall and the town clerk, one last act of significance of the parish council – the formation of the North Berwick Trust (see Land Ownership) which was given control of 103 acres of land adjacent to the high school, with a limit on the repayment to the succeeding local authority, any surplus on the later sale of the land to go to the benefit of the town.

Equally the town lost its other servant William Simpson as chamberlain whose responsibility was financial control of the town’s affairs and the control of expenditure based on rates set by the town council with few problems about non-payment.

East Lothian Council has made some efforts to recreate a degree of local initiative through the North Berwick Community Council formed at the demise of the town council in 1974, and the community council has the statutory power of consultation on some issues and developed its own role as protector of local interests. Most of these changes have not been to the benefit of identity or governance of burghs like North Berwick, though it has to be said that the increasing functions and regulations would have put a small burgh under considerable pressure.

It was said that North Berwick Town Council set the highest council house rents in the county but used the additional revenue prudently to maintain and upgrade the town’s amenities. Other burgh councils such as Prestonpans and Tranent set their rents much lower and therefore had fewer amenities. When the burgh councils were disbanded in 1975 the new East Lothian District Council spent large sums of money bringing the other areas up to the standard of North Berwick and the town suffered through lack of investment.

Douglas Seaton

Regionalisation (1975) meant the demise of the old and well-tried town and East Lothian county councils to be replaced by North Berwick Community Council, East Lothian District Council and Lothian Regional Council. The latter handled heavy expenditure departments such police, highways, health etc. while the more minor departments fell under the control of ELDC. This 1975 change was, in retrospect, not a good one and a constant problem was sewerage availability and to a lesser extent water supplies. In addition we now had to change many rules and regulations to satisfy the EEC. These caused planning problems for the developers, which continued for some time.

Yet another local government change came along in the late 1990s when the regional councils were to go with all departments passing to a new East Lothian Council. 1998 brought about the change so East Lothian Council Planning Department have now permitted more houses to be built of a more expensive nature with still no consideration for the first time buyer. As a result our population must now be approaching 7000! [ELC settlement figures suggest a figure of 6223 in 2001]. Although this must mean additional taxes from the town to ELC there is still no appreciable sign of improvements to our roads, parts etc. although it has to be said, our high school had additions built, but all in all rather sad.

Anne Cowie