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War Economy

Local Authority Services

Local Authority Services

A general impression of the reduction in local authority activities during the war is given by the fall in numbers engaged. By March 1943, the numbers employed by the various local authorities had fallen to well under two-thirds of the March 1939 totals. Particularly hard hit were counties, which lost over half page 438 their staff in this four-year period. Boroughs lost over a third of theirs. Much of the county and borough staff had been required for road work, which tended to be deferred during the war.

Counties and boroughs were the most voracious users of government subsidies before the war and were, in consequence, most seriously affected by the Government's determination to divert a maximum of funds and manpower to the war effort. In 1938–39 local authorities received £2·4 million from employment promotion funds: £0·6 million of this went to counties and £1·4 million to boroughs. By 1943–44 only £110,000 was paid over to all local authorities, and, though counties and boroughs received the lion's share, their expenditures had to be severely pruned.

Commenting on these changes, a Local Government Committee wrote in 1944: 1 ‘The very large amount of these subsidies, particularly to territorial local authorities, is evident…. The falling off in recent years is due to war conditions. During this latter period, however, local authority capital works and much maintenance work have been at a standstill. The question of finance will emerge when the time arrives for recommencement both of capital and maintenance works.’

From another angle, this change in subsidy payments has already been discussed in Chapter 5. As was noted there, men previously in subsidised employment were absorbed into the armed forces or into normal employment; and there was a certain amount of criticism from those who thought the process was too slow.

Counties were also very dependent on main highways funds from motor spirits taxation, of which they received well over 90 per cent. Payments were by way of subsidy, normally at the rate of £3 for each £1 spent by the local authority. Receipts from this source fell from £884,000 in 1939–40 to £399,000 in 1943–44.

For development work on back-country roads, grants had been made from the Public Works Fund. Here again curtailment was severe. £1·3 million was paid over in 1938–39, mostly to counties; only £128,000 in 1942–43.

Chart 74 shows changes in local authority employment.

Compared with counties and boroughs, most other local authorities were comparatively well off for staff during the war. Electric power boards, for example, had 86 per cent of their 1939 staff still with them in 1943, and 82 per cent in March 1944, which was their lowest point. Power boards, however, carried an increasing load as the demand for power increased and it became necessary to administer rationing schemes to consumers.

Urban transport boards also carried an increasing load, as petrol page 439 rationing restricted the use of the private motor car and forced more people to use public transport. Their staffs had been reduced by only 7 per cent at their lowest point, in 1942.

Harbour boards, by 1943, had just a little over three-quarters of their pre-war staffs. Some of the effects of this on the supervision of waterfront work were discussed in Chapter 15.

chart of employment statistics

Chart 74

1 Parliamentary Paper I–15, Report of the Local Government Committee, p. 131.