ELECTIONS are almost upon us and local government descends more and more into a vortex controlled by Westminster-cum-Brussles in its determination to be ringmaster of district councils and town halls.
March has a unique history in urban management. It began with the advent of medieval gilds in the 14th Century. There were seven guilds, the oldest founded in 1347 in honour of the town’s very own Saint Wendreda,
Central to its interests was the well-being of pilgrims. Each gild had an altar in the parish church and leaders acted in the interest of the town.
March was eminently wealthy, sustained by trade via the Hanseatic League, traders involved in exports and imports at home and abroad. The League was England’s first Common Market without the politics and it enjoyed a life of more than 400 years.
Medieval guilds set the patterns in development of local government. Church wardens had large rates and organised the town’s treasury, paying wages to officers and assuring that vagrants entering March were given a penny and shown the way to Wisbech!
Town monies were stored in the ancient chest still kept in the church. In the 19th Century, March elected two citizens from each of its five wards. The ten “just men” formed the “vestry” (council with church connections).
A chairman was appointed and members determined local rates and improvements to the town.
The vestry failed abysmally in 1849 when March lost 441 inhabitants to cholera and other diseases, the highest mortality rate recorded for its size.
This was a wake-up call at Westminster and leaflets based on March’s horrific experiences were distributed to cities and towns all over the country.
Urban District councils, like the proverbial toothless tiger, have lost their bite and district council authorities enjoy supremacy above them. In turn, the crack of the whip wielded by Westminster is heard in the corridors of the district councils.
In the old days, politics had no place in local administration, independent representation the general rule.
Even the days of county council chairmanship have changed and the chief citizen formerly chairman elevated to the role of mayoral status.
A fitting mayoral status exists at Wisbech which once boasted a Royal Charter of Corporation founded in the 14th Century with alderman and a string of achieved mayors to match.
Nowadays, urban councils operate with diminished power and the Harris Tweed jackets and gravel of the farming class have transformed into gaudy robes and glinting chains of office.
On May 3 thousands of councillors will be elected and hundreds disappointed.
Those elected will have control of hundreds of millions of pounds of cash as well as community grants usually favouring those who helped them gain power. Will we better off?
The medieval guilds and local vestry devoid of expenses, golden handshakes and gain simply and practically conducted on a far less grandiose scale, achieved far more in local terms.