Urban-based unit of local government in the UK and USA. It existed in the UK from the 8th century until 1974, when it continued as an honorary status granted by royal charter to a district council, entitling its leader to the title of mayor. In England in 2007 there were 32 London borough councils and 36 metropolitan borough councils. The name is sometimes encountered in the USA: New York City has five administrative boroughs, Alaska has local government boroughs, and in other states some smaller towns use the name.
History The genesis of the burg is not to be found in any Roman source, and all the evidence at hand goes to show that the development of English boroughs is exclusively related to the peculiar conditions of English life. Burghal life in England grew slowly, originating in charters of incorporation or grants of liberties, bought from the overlord or king at a heavy price, and then developing through the powerful organization of merchant and craft guilds.
Finally, the term ‘borough’ became almost synonymous with the statutory creation of the municipal borough, denoting a place to which certain wide powers of self-government were accorded and exercised through the characteristic hierarchy of mayor, aldermen, and burgesses. The township, the smallest unit in the political system, consisting merely of a group of allodial landowners (see allodium) held together by a community of interests, was undoubtedly the origin of many of our boroughs. Others grew out of a collection of such townships, and most of the remainder had their beginnings in the neighbourhood of a castle or under the walls of a monastery.
The chief magistrate of the burg was the town-reeve, or, in ports, the port-reeve. The men of the burg met together both for the purposes of commerce and defence, and by a system of mutual pledges (called frankpledge ) answered for the good behaviour of every man in the burg. The paramount control of the great feudal lords was preserved by their power to appoint the reeve and the exaction of an arbitrary tax called a tallage. The king's supreme power was secured through the jurisdiction of the hundred, from which the burgs soon obtained exemption, and the shire- gemot, to which they remained more or less subject until the evolution of that body into the county council and county court of today.
Even before the Norman Conquest a few big towns had acquired the privilege of compounding for the arbitrary tallages of the king's sheriff by paying a fixed rent. After the Conquest boroughs or towns became divided into those which were included in the royal demesne and those which were held by barons, and soon rose into greater importance through the grant by the king or overlord (as the case might be) of charters of incorporation and privileges.
Medieval privileges These privileges generally comprised a right of independent jurisdiction called ‘selfment’, the right to have a hanse (a merchant guild), the free election of reeves, local jurisdiction over thieves, exemption from tolls, and the commutation of the profits of fairs and markets. More towns also acquired the privilege of compounding the tallages of individual burgesses for a perpetual fixed rent from the whole borough, called the ‘firma burgi’. Those contributing towards the firma burgi were said to hold their tenements by ‘burgage tenure’.
By the time of Henry III most of the large towns had obtained a distinct recognition by the king of their privileges and immunities. Charters were granted to the ‘fully qualified members of the township’, and from having no powers of self-government, boroughs soon became especially adapted, through the organization of the guild system, to the functions of municipal government. Separate jurisdictions and the obligations of feudal tenures, which bound so many of the burgesses to a great baron, disappeared after incorporation, and the substitution of the mayor for the reeve heralded the advent of an independent local community.
The period of power From the middle of the 13th century the general tendency in the development of boroughs was to vest the governing powers in a mayor chosen by the whole body of burgesses, a group of aldermen, and a larger body of councillors. The aldermen and councillors, who soon acquired the power to elect the mayor themselves, united into a close corporation, and managed to get charters of incorporation granted to themselves to the exclusion of their fellow burgesses. This restrictive tendency increased, and after the close of the 15th century freemen were excluded by the close corporation from elections. The corporation then assumed the ownership of the borough property and even controlled the election of members of Parliament, a power which was found especially useful to the Crown.
This state of things came to an end with the passing of the Municipal Corporations Act of 1835. That act, which introduced the term municipal borough, reformed the larger corporations and gave new powers of self- government to such places, whether parliamentary boroughs or not, as were deemed municipal boroughs. In connection with parliamentary representation, constitutional historians observe that the word ‘borough’ became for a time associated with a place, whether incorporated or not, which usually returned a member to Parliament. Where the borough had no charter, that distinctive feature of boroughs was preserved by the assumption that every parliamentary borough must have had a charter at some former time, or was entitled to the privileges of incorporation by prescription (usage).
19th-century developments The 1832 Reform Act, by disfranchising the rotten boroughs, in which parliamentary elections were determined by bribery and corruption, and pocket boroughs, in which the nomination of the candidate lay in the hands of one or a few individuals, restored the meaning of ‘borough’ to its previous signification. The Local Government Act 1888 created county boroughs, which combined the powers of a municipal borough and a county council, and this status was normally conferred upon the larger urban authorities in England and Wales.
20th-century developments County and non-county boroughs, however, disappeared in the reorganization which took place in 1974. Existing boroughs lost their status, but the newly created district councils were allowed to petition for a charter conferring the status of borough and many did so. Prior to the reorganization of local government in 1974 there were 83 county boroughs and, excluding the 32 London boroughs, 259 non-county boroughs.
The 1990s saw a major reorganization of local government in the UK. In England the Local Government Commission created single-tier unitary boroughs functioning alongside a two-tier system of counties, with district councils within them. In Wales the Local Government (Wales) Act 1994 set up 22 unitary authorities, while in Scotland the Local Government (Scotland) Act 1994 established 29 unitary authorities, operating alongside three existing Island authorities. The provision in London is of unitary boroughs, with an elected overall strategic authority – the Greater London Authority – headed by a mayor, which assumed its responsibilities from 2000.
See also local government.
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