Date of Award


Degree Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)




Dr. R.A. Rempel


The Special Areas legislation was an attempt to alleviate the social and political problems resulting from regional industrial decline. Though historians are well aware of the legislation, it has not been subject to detailed investigation, and until recently it has concerned mainly economic historians. This emphasis is slightly misplaced, for although the Special Areas Acts were overtly economic, they were introduced, continued and amended for political reasons. This thesis examines the local and national pressures which shaped the Acts and in doing so demonstrates some of the constraints on policy formulation in the 1930's.

The Special Areas Acts were national legislation designed to deal with the particular problems of specific areas. This dissertation focusses on the individual experience of West Cumberland, the least known of the Special Areas. It describes the effect of depression and of the legislation on the society and economy of the area. The legislation stimulated the development of a new local leadership which in itself became a force for change. The study of one locality demonstrates the conflicts inherent in any regional legislation between local desires and official intentions for development.

National rather than regional outcry forced a reluctant Cabinet to agree to the passage of the first Special Areas Act in 1934. The reluctance derived from the Cabinet's adherence to the traditional view that efficient operation of the economy required the free play of market forces. Consequently the first Act was little more than window dressing, offering no real opportunity for industrial development. But the Commissioners and their aides, who were appointed to implement the legislation, were sincere in their efforts to help the Areas. They tried to circumvent the restrictions imposed on them by official policy and formed an internal pressure group pushing the government towards assuming greater responsibility for the conditions of the Areas.

From 1936, the government became increasingly preoccupied with foreign affairs, a focus which has been shared by most subsequent historians. But important changes were occurring in domestic policy. However timid the measures may seem today, the Special Areas legislation of 1936 and 1937, and the Loans Facilities Bill of 1939, all marked an increasing government commitment to stimulating economic recovery. These developments must be seen in the context of a government preparing unwillingly for war. The rearmament programme and the influx of refugees from Europe helped the Areas. They became more attractive industrial centres as awareness of London's vulnerability grew. On the negative side, the escalating cost of rearmament strengthened the government's and the Treasury's determination to rid themselves of legislation that had become increasingly expensive. Their failure to do so, in the face of local and national opposition, displays the limits that can be imposed even on the power of a government with a large majority.

The 1934 Act is unique in the history of regional legislation in that it emphasised the social as well as the economic rehabilitation of the depressed areas. The social measures were palliative, aimed at softening the impact of unemployment and poverty. This field had previously been dominated by private philanthropy. Increasingly under the Special Areas Acts and other legislation passed during the decade, the state assumed wider social responsibilities. The experience of the Special Areas reflects the tensions engendered by this transition.

The evolution of the Special Areas policy followed a pattern of public outcry forcing hesitant government concession. It was the experience of World War II which caused a major change in official attitudes towards intervention in the economy. The experience of full employment brought about by massive government expenditure made the efforts to help the Special Areas in the 1930's look puny indeed. It was partly the memory of the Special Areas which provoked the change to more interventionist policies in Britain after 1945.

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