The Brighter Borough: Lessons from Wandsworth, London

Wandsworth is a United Kingdom success story. An inner-city London borough of 260,000 people, it has prospered because its leading council members have retained a clear and focused vision of what good local government means. (American readers should recall that in the U.K., there is no separation of powers for legislative/executive functions. In the Wandsworth context, this means that executive authority is exercised from within the council. It should also be noted that since the abolition of the Greater London Council, the city’s umbrella local-government authority, London’s local government has been entirely devolved to the borough level. By way of an American analogy, this would be as though New York City’s government were terminated, with the borough authorities of the Bronx, Brooklyn, Manhattan, Queen’s and Staten Island left to function as independent ” mini-cities.” )

For many years we were, in our own country, prophets in the wilderness – lone voices. Today, the language of Wandsworth has been learned by councils of every political hue in the U.K.

The Labour Party’s socialists used to run Wandsworth. They saddled residents with high property taxes. They pursued a philosophy of dependency and patronage. For them, good government meant big government. Up to half the population lived in homes owned by the borough. One in seven of the working population was on the borough payroll. The socialists stifled enterprise and destroyed efforts to improve the quality of life.

We changed all that. We changed it in Wandsworth and we changed it throughout the whole of British local government. Today, it hardly seems revolutionary. But it was at the time.

The Conservative Party took control of Wandsworth in 1978, a year before the ” Thatcher revolution” started. We had two main objectives: to lift the crippling burden of local property taxes from residents and to make the borough an attractive place for people to live and work. Before we could begin our task, we had to serve notice to the town hall bureaucrats that things had to change. They had to learn new ways. They had to unlearn everything their previous, socialist masters had drummed into them over the years. They had to learn a new culture.

Graph 1

Savings Every Year

Instead of constantly looking for new ways to spend more of their residents’ money, they had to take on a businessman’s perspective. We began a year-on-year budget review that would change the entire focus for local-government services. Now, every year there is a new savings round. Every year, departmental managers are required to find new ways of delivering their services at reduced cost. It works. In the last 18 years we have achieved cumulative annual savings of around

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