Greater London only came into existence in 1965, but it had been some centuries in the making, and to an extent it still is.
The City of London’s corporation dates back to Anglo-Saxon times – so far back in fact that no-one knows exactly when it was created. Certainly it was long before one-person-one-vote democracy, which is why it has such an arcane system of representation. But it doesn’t of course cover most of London.
In the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, big English landowners started enclosing more and more common land, displacing anyone who farmed or lived on it. Many of these displaced refugees made their way to London in the hope of finding work. In 1637, freaked out by the number of poor people moving into its suburbs, the City’s corporation flatly refused to extend its jurisdiction over them, leaving most of what had become London outside of the City and under the jurisdiction of Middlesex or Surrey.
Increasingly however, it became clear that London needed a single authority to look after the needs of all its residents, notably housing regulation and sewage disposal. London had the rudiments of a transport system after George Shillibeer brought over from Paris the new-fangled French idea of running horse-drawn omnibuses, starting with a service from Paddington to Bank in 1829. The same year, Robert Peel set up the Metropolitan Police. But the area covered by the buses and the police was a metropolis which had no governing body.
In 1837, a report by a Royal Commission on Municipal Corporations recommended setting up an elected London-wide authority, but wealthy neighbourhoods objected, and so the idea was shelved. Despite this, a Metropolitan Buildings Office was established in 1845 to regulate building standards across town, and three years after that, a Metropolitan Commission of Sewers was created to deal with the increasingly stinky problem of sewage disposal. Slowly, London was edging towards having its own government.
Finally, in 1855, Britain’s parliament set up a Metropolitan Board of Works to take over the functions of the Buildings Office and Sewers Commission (giving London a sewer system in response to the Great Stink of 1858), as well as things like street building and slum clearance. It was the Board of Works that commissioned its chief engineer Joseph Bazalgette to create the Victoria and Albert Embankments. It also took over most of the Thames Bridges, and ran the London Fire Brigade after that was formed in 1865. Rather than being elected, however, the Board’s members were appointed by local vestries – parish councils run by the local great and good. As a result, the Board was dogged throughout its existence by cronyism and corruption.
The resulting scandals, plus the nuisance of having to split its power with Middlesex, Surrey and Kent county councils, eventually led the UK government in 1889 to abolish the Board of Works and create a County of London with an elected council (the LCC) and authority over what we now call Inner London. The county was divided into twenty-eight metropolitan boroughs, and we’ve looked at each of those elsewhere in this blog (see below for the links).
Yet even by that time London’s metropolitan area was continuing to expand well beyond the borders of the LCC to cover pretty much all of Middlesex, plus large chunks of Surrey, Kent and Essex, and even bits of Hertfordshire. London’s omnibus and tram routes extended way out into the suburbs, and the tube took “Metroland” deep into rural Buckinghamshire, before being curtailed back to Aylesbury and then Amersham. Meanwhile, London’s postal area, as defined by the post office, extended far into Middlesex, Essex, Kent and Surrey, taking in places like Wimbledon (SW19), Hornsey (N8), Chingford (E4) and Thamesmead (SE28), which increasingly thought and acted like parts of the Big Smoke, even though they were still outside the County of London.
Eventually, in 1965, the government bowed to the inevitable and brought the whole of the metropolitan area into a new Greater London, with its own Greater London Council, the GLC, based in the old LCC HQ at County Hall, on the south (actually east) side of Westminster Bridge, while the boroughs and urban districts inside it were amalgamated to form thirty-two new London Boroughs, after a bit of squabbling over names and borders.
The creation of Greater London was not without controversy. Posh places like Epsom, originally included, lobbied successfully to stay out. Watford, despite being on both the Metropolitan Line and the London Overground (in those days the Bakerloo Line), was considered enough of a separate town to be excluded, whereas Croydon wasn’t. Places that felt themselves part of Kent (such as Orpington) or Essex (such as Romford) were also added into the mix, not always happily. Even since the 2016 EU referendum, which so starkly exposed the divide between London and England, the far right in the Borough of Havering have made moves to be part of Brexity Essex rather than liberal London.
They weren’t the only ones who found London too “woke” for their tastes. Margaret Thatcher’s Tory regime frequently came to blows with “Red Ken” Livingstone’s Labour-run GLC. The Tory press ran a hate campaign against Ken’s administration, but Londoners proved too savvy for Thatcher and the press barons, and when it was clear that they were unlikely to throw Livingstone out, Thatcher simply abolished the GLC, splitting its functions between boroughs and non-elected quangos.
But Greater London lived on, and its need for a governing body became more and more apparent. In 2000, Tony Blair’s New Labour administration gave way and created a Greater London Authority (GLA), with a mayor and a few token powers over housing strategy and transport. London wasted no time in re-electing Ken Livingstone, even though Labour refused to make him their candidate, and he had to run as an independent against all three main parties. Meanwhile, the GLA’s miniscule powers fell far short of those given to Scotland and Wales, despite Greater London having more people than both of those combined.
The opening of the M25 in 1986 gave London a new border, but of course not everywhere inside the M25 is in Greater London. Watford and Epsom, for example, are still outside it. And there are other anomalies: North Ockendon, in the Borough of Havering, is outside the M25, while Sewardstone, between Chingford and Waltham Abbey, despite having an E4 London postcode, is outside Greater London, and London’s port is no longer the traditional Port of London, on the Thames in town, but the new London Gateway out at Thurrock in Essex. Meanwhile, London still awaits a proper devolution settlement, while England’s latest regime tries to snatch away the few token powers the GLA has, and the divide between London and England continues to grow.