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After the passing of the 1832 Reform Act the next logical step in the reform of the constitution was that of the Municipal Corporations. There were about 250 of these towns, each of which had received a Royal Charter at some time in the past to have its own council or corporation. There were great variations in how the corporations were chosen and how they functioned but in over 180 of them, only the members of the Corporation were allowed to vote. Normally they re-elected themselves or brought friends and relatives onto the council. The Commission found generally that power was held by a small number of people because so few townsfolk could vote. They also found evidence of corruption with the council members becoming rich at the expense of the town's inhabitants.
Corporation funds are frequently expended in feasting and in paying the salaries of unimportant officers. In some cases, in which the funds are expended on public works, an expense has been incurred beyond what would be necessary if due care had been taken. These abuses often originate in negligence ... in the opportunity afforded of obliging members of their own body, or the friends and relations of such members.
Parliamentary Papers (1835) XXIII. Royal Commission on Municipal Corporations
The corporations fixed the local bye-laws and taxes and it was impossible for the majority of rate-payers to remove unpopular councils because they could not be voted out. Most of the corporations used their privileges for personal and party advantage: the majority were Tory. Councils ignored matters like water supplies, drainage and street cleansing which they were supposed to oversee.
Even worse than this, most of the new industrial towns had not been recognised as boroughs and had no corporation at all. In these towns, living conditions deteriorated and the overcrowded slums were a threat to public health. In October 1831 the first cholera epidemic broke out in Sunderland and spread rapidly throughout the country. By January 1832 cholera had broken out both in Edinburgh and London.
Following the same procedures that had been adopted for the investigation of the Poor Laws, in July 1833 the Whig government set up a Royal Commission was to investigate the working of local councils. The Commission's secretary was Joseph Parkes, a radical lawyer. 285 towns were investigated, most of which were found to be unsatisfactory. As a result of the Commission's findings, a Bill was drawn up and brought to the House of Commons by Lord John Russell in June 1835.
The Bill went through the House of Commons without too much difficulty but the House of Lords proved more difficult. Most of the closed corporations were controlled by Tories and the Tory peers claimed that the Bill was an attack on privileges and property. They had used the same reasons to oppose the abolition of rotten boroughs during the 1832 Reform Act campaign. The Lords made some amendments to the Bill but, thanks to the efforts of the Duke of Wellington and Sir Robert Peel, the Tory Lords were restrained from throwing out the Bill altogether. The legislation went onto the Statute Book in September 1835.
The Act provided a vast improvement over the previous system, which was haphazard and disorganised. It also established the principal of elected town councils. Progress was very slow but the Act at least established the machinery that would enable future reforms to be carried out in the towns. However, the legislation did have several failings:
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