40 years on … changing face of local government in North Yorkshire

This week sees the 40th anniversary of the demise of the County Council of the North Riding of Yorkshire, and its replacement by North Yorkshire County Council.

The year 1974 was marked by an inflation rate of more than 17%, two general elections, the disappearance of Lord Lucan, the final episode of Monty Python’s Flying Circus … and the wholesale reorganisation of local government in England and Wales.

The new North Yorkshire County Council replaced most of the former North Riding, along with parts of the West Riding, and the city of York, previously a county borough in its own right, was absorbed into the county of North Yorkshire. And on April 1st, 93 newly-elected councillors assumed democratic responsibility for the administration of the largest county in England.

County Councillor John Weighell, the current Leader of North Yorkshire County Council said: People forget what huge changes we have seen in the intervening forty years.

Back then, there were no desktop computers, no mobile phones; most of the work of administration was carried out by hand or on typewriters. It is only when one looks back on what was then the everyday, that one fully realises the huge advances in technology, working practices, efficiency and so on that have taken place not just in local government, but in society as a whole.

Changes in social attitudes are evident in the changing make-up of the authority. Of the 93 Members of North Yorkshire County Council in 1974, 84 were men and only nine – just under 10 per cent – were women. Today there are 72 Members – 15 of them (21 per cent) women.

In 1974, Members included Sir Charles Frederick Richmond-Brown, Bt (Kirkbymoorside); Lord Middleton (Norton); The Earl of Swinton (Ripon and Pateley Bridge); Sir Meredith Whittaker (Scalby); and Viscount Downe (Scarborough Rural). In addition, six Members held or had held senior ranks in the Army. They included Colonel Philip Turner van Straubenzee (Leyburn), Lt Col Herbrand Vavasour Dawson Bott (Nidderdale), and Lt Col Maurice Brownless Burnett (Reeth).

County Councillor John Weighell said:The authority which came into being in 1974 was very much a continution of what went before, certainly in terms of its make-up” said Councillor Weighell. “The North Yorkshire County Council of today is a very different proposition … things like the somewhat lavish refreshments, the County Club where Members could enjoy a drink, and so on, are long gone.

 

Veteran Independent Councillor Robert Heseltine added: It was a very different place in those days. Council meetings were often attended by the wives of Members wearing all their finery, ready for an afternoon at the races after the meeting.

One man who has seen all the changes is Peter Yates, the County Council’s Assistant Director (Corporate Accountancy Services), who joined the authority on its first day.

Peter Yates said: Although the authority was very much bigger in terms of responsibility in 1974, the pace of work was much less frantic.

We were responsible for the police, the fire service, the two national parks, the probation service – a large number of things which over the years have been removed from the county council’s remit, not least the City of York.

Perhaps the fact that we had no PCs to work with was partly responsible. All work was done by hand or on typewriters, except complex accountancy and arithmetical processes which were looked after by a roomful of ladies who worked the comptometers, or mechanical calculators.

I well remember the first electronic calculator arriving at County Hall. It was an enormous thing, called Anita, and occupied the chief accountant’s office. You had almost to make an appointment to go in and use it.

Peter’s first jobs as an office junior were to check all the incoming mail for unfranked stamps which could be re-used (“and any others of an interesting kind which the chief cashier wanted for his stamp collection”), and to empty the coins from the public phone kiosks around County Hall from which, before the availability of mobile phones, members of staff were expected to make personal calls.

Councillor Weighell added: The past 40 years have seen great changes in local government. But I think the developments we are likely to see in the next four or five years, driven by increasing demand and steadily decreasing funding, will come to be seen as constituting a period of much greater and very much more fundamental change.