HOLDING MAYORS TO ACCOUNT: Lessons from two English cities in the Middle Ages
- 29 Mar 2016
Over centuries, the main constitutional issues in urban governance have concerned the accountability of the mayor and the diversity of resources in different cities. Research by Dave Postles, to be presented at the Economic History Society’s 2016 annual conference in Cambridge, looks at two cities in the later Middle Ages to illustrate these developments. While the financial income of Leicester was slender, Exeter exulted in massive fiscal resources. The infrastructure of the two places thus differed accordingly.
Cities and big towns are at the centre of issues about local government, not least the establishment of city regions as in the ‘Northern Powerhouse’. Yet the financial settlement for cities and large towns is both uneven between cities and large towns and between urban and rural local government. Since 1856, the intention has been to ensure a standard of service across cities and towns through the Treasury Grant system.
The persistent problem of local government had been the different levels of service – unacceptable standards. Two issues particularly lay at the heart of that matter: accountability; and unequal resources.
The current preoccupation of central government is to impose elected mayors on city regions, which raises once again the question of direct and indirect accountability. The predilection of the government is also to devolve fiscal powers onto local authorities with no or little central government equalisation of resources. The risk is of unequal resources across different authorities.
Over centuries, the main constitutional issues in urban governance have concerned the accountability of the mayor and his (sic) immediate advisers and councillors and the diversity of resources of different urban places.
Two urban places illustrate these developments in the later Middle Ages (in the fourteenth century). While the financial income of Leicester was slender, Exeter exulted in massive fiscal resources. The infrastructure of the two places thus differed accordingly.
In both places, authority was vested in the mayor as head of the corporate body. Although the financial resources of the urban authority of Leicester were derisory, the mayor was responsible for collecting high-impact taxes for the Crown. The mayor was thus responsible for the collection, administering and transmission of large amounts of money, up to £80 in any one year.
There was a corresponding and tortuous process of holding the mayor to account for his accounts. The result was various stages of audit commission selected from the other eminent townsfolk, ultimately replaced by two special financial officers, the chamberlains, when the urban finances were reorganised. The audit convolutions persisted over three-quarters of a century.
In contrast, Exeter had its own resources, discounting royal taxation, which often exceeded £100 and once £140. Here, however, the city authorities established from an early time a different solution for accountability. Although the head of the city was again the mayor, financial responsibility was divested from the mayor and placed in the hands of specialist financial officers, the stewards and receivers.
Whatever their levels of income, financial organisation – accountability – endured as a constitutional issue in these urban places. The question persisted of how to administer finances satisfactorily when a single person held principal corporate authority. As significant, however, was the different level of resources of urban places. Exeter had permanent income from property and trade, while Leicester had much poorer corporate income, with precious little corporate property.
Back to the future? Local government finance in an historical perspective