Local Government

system, central, control, highly, centralization, century, autonomy and hands

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With the decline.and breakup of the Roman Empire, the highly centralized system disap peared; and the feudal system which prevailed through western Europe during the Middle Ages was largely one of decentralized local government, where power was largely in the hands of the feudal lords. This system was modified by the development of cities, which also gained a large measure of local autonomy, exercised mainly by the merchant classes, and leading to another form of local oligarchy. Beginning in the latter part of the mediaeval period, principalities and kingdoms arose, the rulers of which steadily gained power, reducing the autonomy of the local communities and minor nobles on the one hand, and at the same time weakening the central authority of the mediaeval empire and the Roman Church.

Local institutions in Anglo-Saxon England were highly decentralized, in the hands of shire or county courts, composed of representatives of the hundreds and presided over by the sheriffs, appointed by the Crown. After the Norman Conquest the power of the sheriffs in creased; and the central control of the Crown was still more strengthened by the develop ment of law courts held by judges appointed by the Crown. But the movement toward complete centralization was affected by the de velopment of iustices of the peace and Parlia ment. The unsalaried justices were appointed from property-owners and were thus more in dependent and were also not subject to active central control. In Parliament, the more im portant local districts — counties and boroughs — as well as the local nobility, were represented. The result was a system of legislative rather than executive centralization, with the control over both central and local government in the hands of the well-to-do classes.

During the 19th century, the English system of local government was extensively altered. It has been made much more democratic by the establishment of popularly elected local coun cils. The scope of local functions has been radically enlarged. At the same time, the local authorities have been made subject to a large degree of central administrative control, exer cised by the Local Government Board and other departments of the central government. The fundamental legal basis of ultimate legis lative centralization in the hands of Parlia ment remains; but Parliament has been reor ganized on a more democratic basis, and with a more equitable representation of the local districts.

On the continent of Europe the tendencies toward centralization in each country continued to the end of the 18th century. These were most marked in France, where, after a brief in terruption in the early years of the Revolution, a new and completely centralized system was established under Napoleon I, with prefects, sub-prefects, mayors and local councils, all ap pointed by and subject to the control of the central government. Since 1830, however, there has been some relaxation. Locally elected councils have been established; and the munic ipal councils elect the mayors of the communes, except in Paris. But the system of local gov ernment remains more highly centralized in form than in any other important country.

In Italy, Spain, Holland and Belgium the local government systems have been largely in fluenced by the French system; but with some what more local autonomy.

German local institutions have also been re organized during the 19th century; and the recent system showed the influence of both French and English factors, as well as distinctly German elements. The general tendency has been toward an increase of local autonomy; and the expansion of local functions has been much more marked than in France and in some respects more than in England. Administra tive control by the central governments of the several states over the local authorities has been less intensively organized than in France, but more highly developed than in England. On the other hand, with the comparative ness of popular control and the importance of professional officials, the local government has operated much as a highly centralized sys tem.

What will be the permanent result of the changes following the great war cannot be definitely predicted.

Local government as developed in the Ameri can colonies followed the main lines of the English system of the 17th century; and until the middle of the 19th century the tendencies toward legislative centralization and adminis trative decentralization continued to develop. Since about 1850 there has been some move ment in the opposite direction. The power of the State legislatures has been limited to some extent; and State officials have been established with supervision over local authorities and in some fields with powers of direct administra tion.

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