Last weekend our daughter Catrin got married, in Islington Town Hall.
It was a fine choice for a wedding. The Town Hall is a large neoclassical building facing the main street, opened in the mid-1920s. The exterior is plain and conventional enough, though its unusually large, long windows suggest an open and welcoming attitude. It’s the interior that catches the eye: a broad staircase with handsome balustrades; columns with Egyptian capitals; a circular Council Chamber whose dark furnishings and deep red carpet are set against the light, bright dome above; a large statue of the Welshman Sir Hugh Myddelton (1560-1631), who brought fresh water to London; and everywhere, cream and lime green paint, and spare ornamentation. They all combine to suggest grace and dignity, and human warmth.
Despite the veneer of smartness in the boutiques of its main street Islington still isn’t a rich part of London, and it certainly wasn’t in the 1920s. The new Town Hall must have made a big impact: a sign not just of local pride and tradition, but also of a public determination to stand up for all the people of the borough and help improve their condition. It’s hard now to conceive how local democracy, in the 1920s and early 1930s, was both new – all women aged 21 and over were finally given the vote only in 1928 – and also dynamic. Urban councils, many of them much more representative of their constituencies than before the First World War, felt that they had the mandate, the powers and even some of the resources to make a difference to the way people lived, to their health, education and housing . More than that, many councillors were spurred by an ideological desire to shift power towards those who had never possessed any.
When I was growing up in south Yorkshire I always wondered at the size and magnificence of the Town Hall in my local town, Barnsley. So did George Orwell, when the building was opened in 1933. In The road to Wigan Pier (1937) he wrote,
The town of Barnsley, for instance, recently spent close on £150,000 on a new town hall, although admittedly needing at least 2000 new working-class houses, not to mention public baths… For £150,000 it could have built 350 Corporation houses and still had £10,000 to spend on a town hall.
But maybe Barnsley actually needed a building at the time that signalled to all, through the architectural authority of its Portland stone facade and grand tower, that a new age of public power and local democracy had arrived. Today, alas, Barnsley Town Hall is no longer a seat of government but a museum of local history.
Islington Town Hall still stands, and so does Islington Council. But how shunken are its capacities! Its budgets are capped and its functions curtailed or quasi-privatised. Take education. Instead of a coherent and publicly accountable system of local schools London and the rest of England present a random mishmash of local authority schools and free-floating ‘academies’ and ‘free schools’. In the case of the last two, accountability to the people is either absent or concentrated in the hands of a single man, the Secretary of State for Education. Or take housing. Between the wars London was famous for the energy of its councils in building new houses, in large quantities, for people who had never been adequately housed before. Now the rate of new affordable house-building is at its lowest level since the 1920s, while prices and rents of existing housing stock continue to rise rapidly, and councils are reduced to being bystanders.
Little wonder that local public office offers few attractions, when the ability of local councils to make a difference is so confined. Simon Jenkins and others have argued for many years that what’s needed is a massive change in favour of local power, restoring capacity and resources to councils, in part with the intention of giving back to local people the incentive to take responsibility for directing their own affairs and revivifying local government.
As it is, the symbol that comes most readily to mind when you think of local democracy in London is not Islington Town Hall, but London City Hall, with its absurd ‘shaking jelly’ building, its pathetically small range of duties, and its comic Mayor. A few months ago I tried to enter the building, but was shooed away on the grounds that it was not open to the public.
One thing you can get in Islington Town Hall, though, is an excellent marriage ceremony. If you’re thinking of arranging a wedding, I can warmly recommend the Mayor’s Parlour, and the Register Officer officials: like their building, they combine dignity with friendliness.