Man on the moor
PUBLISHED: 09:00 16 April 2014
Philip Dalling recalls the battle 40 years ago to keep government as local as possible in Exmoor's twin towns
"The agreement we won in 1974 is, I believe, quite unique "
Local hero: Exmoor’s battle to defeat Mr R.E Mote
The chief villain in the eyes of Exmoor residents forty years ago was not the notorious but colourful Carver Doone, robbing and killing travellers at will, but a grey caricature of an insensitive bureaucrat, threatening to seriously damage local democracy.
Just as novelist RD Blackmore’s fictional character John Ridd eventually disposed of the outlawed Doone, a real life Exmoor hero played the leading role in making sure that the twin towns of Lynton and Lynmouth held on to their long tradition of local decision-making.
A Whitehall scheme to re-organise local government, set in motion by Labour Prime Minister Harold Wilson and broadly backed by his Conservative successor Edward Heath, raised hackles across Exmoor.
Councillors, led by local businessman John Pedder, whose family had a long tradition of community service, launched a spirited campaign for independence.
Their defiance was sparked by the realisation that the small North Devon councils that had served the area well for decades would be replaced from April 1 1974 (the date was considered by local people to be significant) by a much larger district council, based 20 miles away in Barnstaple.
The death knell was tolling for Lynton and Ilfracombe urban district councils and South Molton and Barnstaple rural district councils, which had administered parishes across the Devon portion of Exmoor.
Lynton Urban District is believed to have been the smallest autonomous local authority in England, serving a population of less than 1,800, compared to some urban districts with 30,000-plus residents.
The UDC set its own rate (now council tax) figure, and was responsible for planning, housing, public health, parks and playing fields, car parks and many other functions. Staff included a town clerk and finance officer, surveyor and a Medical Officer of Health, together with clerical and manual employees.
There was support from the national bodies which represented tried and tested councils. They created a bogyman figure called ‘Mr R. E .Mote’, to hammer home the message that the decisions that counted would no longer be solely in the hands of local people.
Councils were urged to stamp the caricature of ‘R. E. Mote’ on the envelope with every letter sent out.
The national campaign was largely a failure, with Whitehall mandarins determined to favour ‘increased efficiency’ over local control. Nevertheless, Lynton’s own campaign for the right to manage its own affairs brought substantial and long-lasting success.
In a good old English compromise, Whitehall and the new North Devon Council agreed to an agency agreement under which the new Lynton Town Council (which under re-organisation had the same status as a parish council) won the right to retain control of properties and certain essential services.
Today, 40 years on, it is widely regarded as the greatest ever victory in local government terms for David over Goliath. On Exmoor the agreement, still in force today, was and still is regarded as a triumph for true local democracy.
In 2014, just as in 1974, John Pedder lives and breathes Lynton and Lynmouth, recognised by the fact that he is the only person to date to be made an Alderman of the twin towns.
Both his grandfathers were members of the Urban District Council in its early days (it was founded in 1895). His father, E J Pedder was chairman from 1942-49, and John himself was, fittingly, the final person to chair the authority, from 1972 to the end in 1974.
Back in 1974 John recognised the enormous potential damage local government re-organisation could inflict upon the isolated Exmoor towns, situated more than 20 miles from Barnstaple along winding country roads.
He urged his colleagues to strike while the iron was hot and negotiate with the fledgling North Devon Council for the right to retain property and powers.
He told a meeting at Lynton Town Hall: “Lynton Urban District owns vast areas of recreational lands, public halls and other public service and recreational properties, some of which produce income. These properties were acquired over the years to foster the only source of livelihood for the resorts – the holiday industry.
“The properties form the ‘stock in trade’ of Lynton and Lynmouth and it is a disturbing thought to imagine the transfer of control and of the future development of the towns to an indirectly concerned district council, and away from those whose livelihood depends on these assets.”
Speaking at his Lynton home 40 years on, John looks back on a job well done. “The old UDC may have been the smallest local authority in the country, but it certainly punched above its weight. We managed our own affairs in most respects and could not be faulted for the quality of that management.
“When the UDC was abolished we had to fight hard to keep control of our important buildings and our car parks, together with the harbour, beaches and parks and open spaces, such as the Manor Green. The agreement we won in 1974 is, I believe, quite unique.”
John is sure that the agreement has helped to maintain good relations across the local government board in North Devon. He also served as a district councillor and chaired North Devon Council. He served too on the new Lynton Town Council and was town major from 1988-90.
Today’s councillors and officials in Lynton and Lynmouth recognise the scale of John Pedder’s achievement. Kevin Harris, clerk to the present-day Town Council, said: “The agreement to retain property and functions that John engineered 40 years ago is seen today as a major achievement.”