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Community, cooperation and metropolitan democracy

Philip Booth


Le discours sur la gouvernance locale en Grande-Bretagne s’est centré sur le concept de «community» et sur les vertus de la coopération. Cet article considère les origines de ce discours au XIXe siècle et les raisons de sa renaissance à la fin du XXe siècle. Il défend l’idée qu’il y a une tension entre les structures formelles de représentation du gouvernement local et le désir de développer l’implication de la «community». Cependant,  l’article conclut sur une complexité croissante de la gouvernance comme conséquence inévitable de la complexité de la vie moderne en métropole et estime que le problème est de garantir la légitimité et l’imputabilité des nouvelles structures créées.

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1In his extended polemic on the evils of the French system, Le Mal français, Alain Peyrefitte contrasts what he saw as the défiance of French society with civic responsibility and involvement in Britain. In a curious anecdote drawn from his experience of a stage in Britain immediately after the end of the Second World War, he recounts how, at a time of power shortages, his English host fussed over the need to turn off electricity because of what the neighbours would think if he did not. For Peyrefitte, in so many ways the archetypical product of the system that he was criticising, this sense of civic involvement, this collectivité, was a profound strength and something that could only mature, like a well tended greensward, over many years. But there is no doubt that for him it contained the secret of success.

2It need not concern us whether what Peyrefitte observed in the late 1940s still obtained thirty years later, or whether what Peyrefitte wrote in the 1970s has much relevance for the early 21st century. It manifestly ignores the rigidities and tensions of British society. And there is in any case a certain ambiguity in the way in which he vaunts the superiority of British civisme and yet also quite clearly views Britain as a country in terminal decline. Yet underlying the simplifications, the virtues of cooperative behaviour and the importance of community which are implied by Peyrefitte’s anecdote do represent an important strain within British civil society. The word community in English carries very different resonances from communauté in French. It is used with sometimes exasperating imprecision, but signifies a democratic ideal that has been revived with particular insistence since the arrival in power of Tony Blair as Prime Minister in 1997.

3How then does this discourse of cooperative behaviour and community relate to the question of modern metropolitan democracy ? How far is democratic practice still influenced by notions of collaborative behaviour and community effort ? These are questions that merit exploration if only because of the insistence with which the British government has promoted this ideal in recent years. It can be understood in part as a reaction of the philosophy of the Conservative government under Margaret Thatcher, but its origins are a good deal older.

The cooperative tradition

4Certainly, the cooperative ideal has long roots in British history. In the 17th century, England’s – and Britain’s – century of revolution, the Levellers and the Diggers proposed egalitarian communities in which property was held in common, in effect an early form of communism. The Levellers and the Diggers may have left no long-term legacy. But the industrial revolution was to revive radical thinking about the nature of society, and it is to the person of the mill-owner, Robert Owen, that much of the current thinking can be traced. Owen was a Welshman, who in early adulthood took charge of a textile mill in Manchester before buying a mill in Scotland at the settlement of New Lanark, when he was still only 29.

5Owen was convinced that human character was not something innate and unchangeable and could be formed by through the processes of education. If adults and children alike could be educated, then not only would the evils of contemporary industrial society be avoided, but in fact productivity would also increase. Underlying such a philosophy was a view of the worth of human life and a rejection of the idea that, as he put it in a pamphlet, workers were «mere instruments of gain» (Butt, 1971). He was equally against individualism and competitiveness: the happiness of all would lead to the happiness of the individual. From New Lanark, he went on to advocate new forms of ideal settlement in which the cooperative ideal would be present and was involved in the creation of such communities both in Britain and America. Such communities were given precise physical form: housing would be in continuous terraces around a large courtyard, in which would be located communal services and, crucially, the school.

6Owen, according to modern commentators, seems to be something of an enigma. Evidence about his early career is sparse and the origins of his ideas vague. But the later impact of his thinking is not in doubt. The cooperative movement in the 19th century and British socialism both claim Owenite roots. On the other hand, the 19th century and early 20th centuries abound with enlightened employers who sought to improve the lot their workforce by constructing settlements on principles that owe something of their form to New Lanark. The classic example is that of Saltaire in West Yorkshire, where the mill-owner, Titus Salt, created high quality housing for his workers from 1851, and provided them with facilities to promote their physical, moral and spiritual welfare. That story was repeated at the end of the century by the rather more famous workers’ villages created by the soap manufacturer, W. H. Lever at Port Sunlight, near Birkenhead, and the chocolate manufacturer, George Cadbury, at Bournville, outside Birmingham. The paternalism of all three settlements, and at least a hint of authoritarianism in the case of the first two, is inescapable. These were settlements which might be classed as democratic in a general way, in that they allowed for equality of opportunity and encouraged the improvement of the working man and his family. Moreover, the emphasis on cooperation itself suggested that individual involvement in the processes of social formation was essential to the creation of a «good» society. But however benevolent they may have been, there is no doubt that it was Salt and Lever who set the terms for that involvement.

7Cadbury’s ambitions at Bournville went further than simply housing his own workers comfortably. From the beginning he envisaged Bournville as a community that would in fact serve far more than just Cadbury employees. The other way in which it differed from Saltaire and Port Sunlight was that Cadbury himself relinquished direct personal control over the development and management of the village in favour of a trust, established in 1900, that would ensure both that there would be a certain distance between the village’s creator and his creation and a continuity beyond Cadbury’s lifetime. The fact that the trust was initially made up of Cadbury family members rather diminishes the distancing, but the trust both survived and adapted, and has continued to the present day (Harrison, 1999).

8The idea of relegating the management of Bournville to a trust was drawing upon a very ancient concept within English legal and societal relationships. The trust as an institution is not to be confused with the general concept of trust, or the confiance as Peyrefitte put it, that was observable in British society. Nevertheless the two ideas are related. The legal institution of trust is very ancient. Originally intended as a way of avoiding some of the restrictions of feudal land tenure, the concept of conferring real or personal property on someone who would act disinterestedly in favour of a third party came to be used for urban development from the 18th century onwards. Its use was destined to ensure that a long-term interest was not obscured by short-term ones and that objective evaluation of the long-term interest could be made. Trustees were therefore charged with achieving the objectives of the trust in a disinterested way and could see themselves as acting for the greater public good.

9Cooperative behaviour in which, by implication, everyone had an equal chance to be involved in the management of their community was in the practice of industrial settlements in the 19th century converted into something that was actually highly authoritarian. But another strand of thinking in the 19th century, particularly as manifested by the anarchists at the end of the century, was significantly more libertarian. Here, the cooperative ideal was taken to mean opposition to the established order and to capitalism. Here, cooperation meant common ownership and equal rights regardless of status or wealth. If the physical manifestations of such cooperative idealism were few and short-lived, the influence of the thinking was nevertheless profound. A key figure here was the writer and thinker Edward Carpenter, who was influenced by the anarchist movement and who advocated communal living, as well as the acceptance of homosexual relationships as equal to the conventional family unit (Rowbotham, 2007).

10These two strands of thinking about place and governance, which both emanate from a belief in the virtues of cooperative behaviour, come together in the ideal of the garden city at the very end of the 19th century. The Garden City Movement has had a profound effect on British thinking about the na­ture of urban places and has informed much of the practice of place-making in the 20th century. But it is important to recognise that the movement is always much more than just an attitude towards urbanisme – the physical manifestation of urban form. Its central tenet was that urban form would be the vehicle by which communities based on cooperative endeavour would be realised. The physical environment could shape behaviours in a positive way, and by extension, physical layout of urban areas would become expressive of the ideal community. That thinking was present in Ebenezer Howard’s great tract Garden Cities of Tomorrow (Howard, 1965) which had first been published in 1898 under the title Tomorrow: A Peaceful Path to Reform, and the title is suggestive of the fact that the garden city was not just a physical construct. It was equally present in the work of the architect Raymond Unwin, who more than anyone else was responsible for the physical realisation of the garden city ideal. And Unwin as a young man had been an associate of Carpenter.

11March (2004) has shown how Howard’s ideal of what could be described as participatory democracy based on common ownership was in practice skewed towards the kind of authoritarian model represented by Bournville or Port Sunlight, in which a board of directors took decisions on behalf of, but without necessarily the involvement of, the local population. A utopian vision was tempered by the imperious needs of capital, without which the two examples of garden cities, at Letchworth and Welwyn, would not have been created. March nevertheless argues that the success of the Garden City Movement was due to the very fact that Howard did manage to blend a utopian, libertarian, ideal with capitalism, in spite of the tensions that such a blend created.

12However the Garden City Movement may be regarded, there is no doubt that a significant part of its legacy to the early 21st century has been the emphasis on cooperation and community. For example, the concept of the neighbourhood, while not directly part of Howard’s thinking, is without doubt an extension of the garden city ideal, in which the nature and level of association between residents is related to the size of the population of a given area and the nature of public services available to that population. First developed as a formal concept in America by Perry (1939), it was enthusiastically adopted in Britain, not least, perhaps, because it related well to the strong anti-urban tendency of the 19th century that had increasingly idealised the rural village as a symbol of community life. The neighbourhood was not a rural settlement, but it replicated in town the characteristics of an older settlement pattern, in its scale and its self-sufficiency. Once again, there was a clear physical manifestation of the neighbourhood ideal, whose moment arrived with the British New Towns programme from the 1940s onwards, but it was always more than a mere physical organisation of urban space. Indeed, the physical determinism of much of the thinking about urban settlement in the mid-20th century became increasingly discredited, as it became clear that layout itself was nothing like enough to promote harmonious social relations. But the underlying belief in the virtues of cooperation and community did not die.

Local government

13How, then, does this strong adherence to an ideal of social behaviour that exalted cooperation and community relate to the formal mechanisms of local governance ? First, it is important to recognise the curiously ramshackle quality of British local government in contrast to the elegant rationalism (at least in theory) of the structures of governance in France. Historically, central government showed a marked reluctance to become involved in local affairs. In the 18th century, local government was in the hands of justices of the peace at county level, largely drawn from the landed gentry that dominated Parliament, and at parish level by more or less undemocratic vestry boards. The will to create a « modern » local government system in the early 19th century did not come from any desire of central government to ensure proper control of burgeoning settlements of the industrial revolution. It was, rather, another manifestation of the desire for cooperation that led to municipal reform: the will of – at least part – of a local population to take charge of its own affairs. It can be seen of course as a struggle between an older order, based on a landownership, and a newer, industrial elite. When larger cities finally acquired the possibility of forming municipal councils, the sense that municipal councillors saw themselves as trustees of the local public interest is strong, indeed not so very different from the bodies that managed Bournville or the first garden cities. The crucial difference was that they were directly elected. To start with, suffrage was limited. But by the later 19th century the working classes acquired the right to vote, and representative democracy at the local level had become an established fact (Hampton, 1987).

14Although we can argue that this municipal democracy was the product of the same kind of thinking about civic involvement and cooperative behaviour as had inspired both the industrialists’ model villages and the radical thinking about ideal settlement patterns, its legitimation was clearly different. Democracy would not be fulfilled by the ability to participate, but would be expressed by the freedom to vote. Municipal councils would indeed be acting, with presumably benign intention, in trust for the public interest of their locality. But unlike the industrial settlements, this public interest would be defined through the voting practice of the electorate. At the same time, this form of local democracy was a great deal more structured than that envisaged by the utopians. In the end we can see a dualism emerging. On the one hand, there was a local government «system» in which directly elected municipal councils acted on behalf of their electorate to provide services and, more fundamentally, to develop a policy to articulate long-term ambitions for their urban areas. On the other, there was the deeply ingrained belief in civic involvement, which by the 20th century had begun to express itself in the innumerable voluntary societies and local activism that characterise British urban life.

15Given that local democracy was an established fact by the beginning of the 20th century, the reason why the very end of the century should be witness to a revival of interest in the cooperative ideal and community involvement is not necessarily clear. The history of local representative democracy in Britain has become an increasingly troubled one, however.

16Local government in its modern form came into being because of pressure from the municipalities themselves, not because of a desire of central government to give the country a properly articulated system of government at the local level. Yet paradoxically, local government only exists in Britain by the will of Parliament as expressed in the Local Government Acts which give sets the characteristics of local government to which then Parliament has powers over a series of different local services. In time central government came to discover the convenience of devolving responsibilities to municipal councils that it had no appetite to exercise itself, and as a result local authorities became effectively agents of central government for many kinds of local service. Giving responsibilities effectively meant that central government was also obliged to assist in funding. As the range of powers granted by Act of Parliament increased so, too, did the funding. And as funding increased, so governments of both the right and the left became increasingly concerned about the efficacy of local government and the value for money that it represented.

17The tendency of reform in after World War II was to find ways of making local government more efficient, not more democratic. Major reform in the early 1970s focused on the appropriate size of local authorities to deliver the services that the local population required. As there was no constitutional right of existence for local authorities to exist in any form at all, change was achieved relatively swiftly through new legislation in Parliament. As a result, reform of local government resulted in a structure in which the base units of local authority, the districts, were mainly very large both in population and territory. Given the size and the scale of their responsibilities it is perhaps not surprising that they came to seem impersonal and remote from the population they served. From the outset, experiments in bringing centralised, town hall functions closer to the people have been tried. But the general tendency seems to have been a growing disaffection with local authorities and the participation rate in local elections has declined steadily.

18To the general concern about efficiency and the increasing size of local authorities as a reason for the increasingly problematic character of representative local democracy, must be added the political difficulties of the 1980s. If it was clear that local authorities were strongly interlocked with central government, it was nevertheless still true that local authorities considered themselves a world apart from that of Parliament and Whitehall. During the 1980s the divide between central and local government became acute, largely as a result of a right-wing government in power nationally finding itself in opposition to left-wing local councils in all the major conurbations. The Conservative government’s preferred option for urban administration was to place heavy emphasis upon partnership with the private sector both in the delivery of services and in the formulation of policy itself. The net effect of this sometimes bruising confrontation was to downgrade the significance of local government and make effective, locally determined, action increasingly difficult. In fact the Conservative government of the early 1990s had something of a change of heart and returned to local government control over aspects of urban policy that had been removed from it. But local government was by the last decade of the 20th century profoundly demoralised (Dabinett, 2004).

19The New Labour government of Tony Blair elected in 1997 came to power with the reform and revitalisation of local government as part of its agenda. In part, there was a desire to make a decisive break with the policies and practices of the Conservatives. What emerged after 1997 was, as Dabinett (2004), puts it «a collaborative discourse» that placed an emphasis on the involvement of the community as a whole. And yet there were clear continuities with the past. Private sector interests were not excluded from the collaborative effort, but rather encouraged, alongside representatives of other facets of urban society. From 2000, for example, local authorities were required to put in place what were called local strategic partnerships which would bring together the municipal council with industrial and commercial interests, but also representatives of the health and education sectors and community and faith groups. These partnerships were not just to be consultative bodies. They were given the specific task of preparing a community strategy which would develop a vision for the future development of the area.

20Quite apart from the Local Strategic Partnerships, New Labour created new structures to deal with the problems of urban regeneration in which it would involve the private sector. Urban Regeneration Companies (URC), which had been recommended by the report of the Urban Task Force (the Rogers report) in 1999 (DETR, 1999), were not wholly new: the Conservative government had in 1981 created Urban Development Corporations (UDC) also with a view to regenerating industrial areas worst hit by recession. But there was an important. The UDCs were created by statute and the mem­bers of the board were nominated by government in a way that marginalised the local authority within whose area the UDC worked. Urban Regeneration Companies, on the other hand, were created under private company law and had three shareholders, of whom the local authority was one. Even if the other two shareholders were government agencies, the consent and involvement of the local authority was crucial to the operation of URC (Booth, 2005).

21New Labour’s vision of collaboration in these terms was about involving what were increasingly termed «stakeholders» – those who defined roles in the public and semi-public life of cities – in the policy processes of local democracy. There was also a desire to engage the «community» at large, however, which was expressed particularly in the field of spatial planning and urban policy. Although the reform of the planning system was not in fact a priority in 1997, by 2001 the government had become concerned to that planning was standing in the way of economic development and that at least part of the problem was obstruction by objectors to proposals for development. The Green Paper that announced the reform (DTLR, 2001) made play of wanting to encourage community participation but restrict selfish objection. In this, the government was consciously evoking the spirit of cooperation, and the use of terms like community involvement carried immediate resonance. That such a distinction between «good» and «bad» community participation is distinctly problematic, as McClymont and O’Hare (2008) have argued, seems not to have been recognised in official thinking. But it does draw upon the longstanding belief that a cohesive community view that was motivated by more than self-interest could be articulated. That has been formalised in spatial planning by the requirement that local authorities draw up a Statement of Community Involvement that will set out how the public are to be engaged in the process of plan-making.


22There is little doubt that metropolitan democracy in Britain has become a considerably more complicated affair in the early 21st century. What is clearly evident is that two competing visions of that democracy are being acted out. On the one hand, there is the classic form of representative democracy present in the formal local government system. On the other, is a vision of participatory democracy in which community involvement is privileged. It is far from evident that the tension between these two competing visions or their effects in practice has been understood. There is an unanswered question to do with the balance of power between elected local authorities and the other structures that are now centrally involved in policy making. Equally unclear is the extent to which community involvement really does engage the community at large, or whether in fact new local government confirms the power of an elite, that does indeed now include community leaders as well as more traditional power brokers.

23Behind those very real questions remains the reality of a belief, however imperfect, in the virtues of public involvement whose origins, as we have seen, are ancient. Quite apart from the tension between competing forms of democracy and the problem of power, the belief carries two further dangers. One is the tendency to sentimentalise community involvement.  The very use of the word «community» can serve to obscure the fractures and discords that exist in urban society and to assume that people will speak with one voice on the issues that concern them. And communities, however defined, can act in ways that do not serve a wider public interest. There is a further problem with the tendency to conflate community with place. If the crude determinism of some garden city thinking, or the concept of the neighbourhood unit, has gone, the idea that community is always identified with locality is problematic. In a given locality, different communities may co-exist and understand and use the place in which they live in wholly different ways. Increasingly, too, urban populations are not stable and a «community» in a given area may be in a constant state of mutation.

24The second danger, paradoxically in view of a criticism that communities may act selfishly, is the idea, already alluded to, that it is possible to distinguish between «good» and «bad» community involvement. As McClymont and O’Hare (2008) and Booth (2003) have argued, people become involved because of the perception that their own interests are at stake in decision-making. But a selfish interest may indeed represent a wider problem, and people need to be heard, even if in the event a public view cannot or should not prevail.

25Local government may not have been revived by the reforms of the Labour government since 1997, but there is no doubt that local governance has become increasingly complex and the ways in which people may become involved has increased. This may not have delivered all the benefits that have been claimed for the ideal of community and cooperative behaviour, though it is arguable that public life has been enriched. That apart, however, the old model of representative democracy acting on its own in the interest of the welfare of citizens has almost certainly been overtaken by the complexity of the tasks that face urban areas today. The creation of new arenas for debate and policy making, as well as new structures for implementing policy, should not be surprising. The problem must be to ensure the legitimacy and accountability of the decision making process.

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Booth, P., (2005), « Partnerships and networks : the governance of urban regeneration in Britain », Journal of Housing and the Built Environment, n°20.

Butt, J. (ed.), (1971), Robert Owen : prince of cotton spinners, David & Charles, Newton Abbot.

Dabinett, G., (2004), « Les partenariats et la transformation de l’État en Grande-Bretagne », in Booth, P., Jouve, B. (dir.), Démocraties métropolitaines, Presses de l’Université du Québec, Sainte-Foy.

Department of Environment, Transport and the Regions (DETR), (1999), Towards an urban renaissance, Report of the Urban Task Force, Spon, London.

Department of Transport, Local Government and the Regions (DTLR),(2001), Planning : delivering a fundamental change, Green Paper, The Stationery Office, London.

Hampton, W., (1987), Local government and urban politics, Longman, London.

Harrison, M., (1999), Bournville : model village to garden suburb, Phillimore, Chichester.

Howard, E., (1965), Garden cities of tomorrow, Faber & Faber, London.

March, A., (2004), « Democratic dilemmas, planning and Ebenezer Howard’s Garden City », Planning Perspectives, n° 19.

McClymont, K, O’Hare, P., (2008), « “We’re not NIMBYs !” Contrasting local protest groups with idealised conceptions of sustainable communities», Local Environment, vol. 13, n° 4.

Perry, C., (1939), Housing for the machine age, Russell Sage Foundation, New York.

Peyrefitte, A., (1976), Le mal français, Plon, Paris.

Rowbotham, S., (2008), Edward Carpenter : a life of liberty and love, Verso, London.

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Philip Booth, « Community, cooperation and metropolitan democracy »Métropoles [En ligne], 7 | 2010, mis en ligne le 09 juillet 2010, consulté le 27 janvier 2023. URL : ; DOI :

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Philip Booth

University of Sheffield, Department of Town & Regional Planning

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