The 20th century saw huge advances in Londoners' health, education, welfare and cultural opportunities. A central driver of change was London's public services, which for most of the century were largely delivered through local and national government. The rise and fall of the public sector is a key strand in the story of 20th century London.
London's sheer size had always made it difficult to find a single model for delivering public services. Generally, in 20th century London, housing, welfare, fire-services and education were the responsibility of local councils. Transport came to be run by a semi-public body, the London Passenger Transport Board, formed in 1933. Electricity and water were delivered by semi- public companies or boards for most of the century. London's police force, the Metropolitan Police, remained the only police force in England to be run directly by national government through the Home Office.
All of these services saw huge changes over the century as Britain turned itself into what has been called 'a welfare state'. The process began early on in the century. National government introduced a rudimentary system of old age pensions in 1908 and a national insurance system in 1911 which offered workers some protection against sickness or unemployment. The idea that the State had a role in matters hitherto left to self-help and charities was novel but not especially controversial. London offered vivid examples of social problems that demanded government intervention.
London's housing and education had already started to be tackled. The London County Council (LCC) took over the responsibilities of the London School Boards in 1902 and began the mammoth task of raising standards and organizing the system. 'The day is not far distant' said the LCC in 1920, 'when we shall have one system of education, available for all, suitable for all, paid for by all the community in the Education Rate'.
Housing was another key area of activity . By the 1930s the London County Council and the metropolitan boroughs had between them built over 50,000 new houses or flats. New sorts of local amenities appeared: from public libraries and council-run bathhouses to maternity clinics and lidos. Some councils supplied electricity to their local ratepayers. Others ran trams or burial services. The LCC contemplated organising a municipal milk service for London.
The one area of welfare that remained outside the remit of government was health. London in 1900 had 127 hospitals, run as either voluntary charitable institutions or as part of the poor law system. Most districts had some sort of local doctor but medical care was patchy, particularly for those who could not afford to pay for it. Health care began to brought into the state system in the 1930s when the LCC took over the asylums and poor law hospitals. In 1946 the National Health Service Act of 1946 completed the process. This revolutionised the delivery of health care to Londoners by ensuring that every Londoner should be registered with a doctor and able to benefit from hospital care, free of charge, at the time care was required.
The 1940s also brought far-reaching changes to London's education. The 1944 education act required education authorities to reorganise schools into a single 'progressive' system of primary, secondary and further institutions. The act also raised the school leaving age to 16, and ushered in a massive programme of school building, in anticipation of a population boom. In 1939 the LCC ran 1,200 schools in London. By 1962 it had built an additional 163. It had also pioneered a new sort of school, the 'comprehensive' which brought together pupils of all abilities. London's pioneer comprehensive school was Kidbroke girls' school which opened in July 1954 in south London.
The 50 years following the welfare state reforms of the 1940s saw on-going organisational revolution as governments tried to keep pace with London's ever-changing social needs. The last quarter of the 20th century brought new ideas about the best way to deliver public services and many of London's council services were transferred to semi-public 'arm's length' organisations. Much council housing stock was passed to charitable housing associations, most dramatically in the London Borough of Bromley which in the 1990s divested itself of all its 16,000 council homes.
By the end of the 20th century London's public sector remained an important sector of employment in the capital. Education, health and social work accounted for 14.9% of London's jobs, which represented a lower figure than the national average of 18.7%; and a considerably lower figure than the 17.5% it had been ten years earlier in London.
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