Sunday, 24 October 2010

God's own council

One of the great shames of modern life is the absence of the West Riding county council, which was probably the best local authority ever known. Its combination of Labour members from what is now South Yorkshire, Liberals from the textile belt and Tories from around Ripon made for an atmosphere of vigorous but co-operative debate; a sort of coalition atmosphere before its time. As mentioned several times already on this blog, it also employed the greatest local authority education officer ever known in the UK, Sir Alec Clegg. I was reassured (with justification as it later turned out) when my two sons went to our local high school, Benton Park, and I read that it was originally commissioned by Clegg (who, typically, used a leading firm of architects, Sir John Burnet, Tait and Partners. In Sheffield, he commissioned a comprehensive from Sir Basil Spence. Shades of Zaha Hadid designing the new Evelyn and Grace Academy in Brixton; trying to raise everyone's game).

I read anything I can about the WRCC, and declaim at talks, to the point of tedium, my nostrum about schooldays when I was proud to come not only from England's biggest county (Yorkshire, of course) but also its second biggest (the West Riding, which was larger on its own than rivals such as Lincolnshire or Devon). The West Riding County Council 1889-1974 by Brendan Barber and Maurice Beresford (published by the successor West Yorks Met County Council in 1979) is a concise introduction. Its cover may inspire you to go to Wakefield where the original County Hall is well-maintained, down to the proud stone collars carved with WRCC which hold in place its mighty drainpipes. Meanwhile publications such as Leeds Archives 1938-1988 (West Yorkshire Archive Service 1988) show the continuing lively existence of some services which the WRCC ran so well. The splendid Headingley Test ground lawnmower and other ancient material shown in the picture at the top come from that.

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