This week, Westminster Wednesday’s is on the UK’s system of local government. This is a complex component of the UK’s politics, and also an incredibly important one. UK local government employs well over 2 million people, and is responsible for 23% of all government spending (around £95 billion in 2015-16). Whilst in three of the nations of the UK – Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland – it is relatively simple in structure, in England it remains a perplexing mix of structures and powers. This post aims to try and provide an outline of local government, especially in England – by looking at its structure, and its powers.
The structure of British local government, as indicated above, varies between the various home nations. In three of them, the structure is relatively simple. In Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, there is a single (principle) level of local government – 32 councils in Scotland, 22 in Wales, and 11 in Northern Ireland. In two of these – Scotland and Northern Ireland – councillors are elected using the Single Transferrable Vote system; whilst in Wales, the First Past the Post system is used (the same as is used for the House of Commons).
In England, the situation is more complex. To understand why, we need to recall a principle from the very first posts in this series – that of parliamentary sovereignty. Because Parliament has the ability to make or unmake any law, Parliament alone is responsible for the creation, redesigning, or removal of local authorities. Their boundaries, responsibilities, and financing is designed or set centrally. If Parliament wished to do so, it could remove all local government – but, given the important role that it plays in the running of the UK, that would be extremely unlikely! What Parliament has done, over many years, is continually give force to large-scale and repeated redesigns of UK local government. It was the Conservative government in the 1980s that gave Scotland and Wales their single-tier system of councils, for example. In England, however, the process has resulted in that more complicated picture.
In 1931, for example, England’s local government looked like this – a mass of local authorities, some very small, (very) broadly divided into two categories; boroughs, and counties. This was the result of a considerable reform process in the 19th Century, but after the war this system was under growing strain. It took until 1974 for a comprehensive review to be pushed forwards, resulting in these boundaries. The 1974 review was extremely comprehensive – everything that had existed before was swept away, and replaced with two levels of local government. At the top, there were counties, and below them were districts (in rural areas) and boroughs (in urban areas).
Unfortunately for people seeking to understand English local government, but perhaps fortunately for people such as myself and Jonn Elledge, this simple two-level system has not lasted to the present day. There were a myriad of problems created by the 1974 boundaries, summarised in two key ways – where the lines were drawn, and what the new authorities were called. For example, Humberside was regarded as a monstrous creation by the people on the north bank of the Humber – who considered themselves part of Yorkshire – and on the south bank, who considered themselves part of Lincolnshire. Other unpopular authorities included Cleveland and Avon – these were done away with in the 1990s. What replaced them, and other bodies such as Wiltshire County Council and all of its districts, were unitary authorities. These are single-tier councils which have all the powers previously divided between two. There are periodic pushes to create more of these, but they aren’t always popular – take, for example, the Coalition’s decision to prevent Norfolk from becoming a unitary authority in 2010.
Things become even more confusing in urban areas. Here, the Conservative government of the 1980s did away with the county councils that had been created, turning metropolitan boroughs into a single level authority; but with formal structures to help them co-operate on issues such as transport. Then there’s London – which until 1986 was divided into 32 boroughs (which had only existed since 1965) – and a Greater London Council, in a similar structure to other urban areas. When the GLC was abolished, along with all the other urban county councils, there was created instead a variety of bodies to try and carry on co-ordination among the 32 boroughs – an unpopular choice, which was ultimately overturned in the late 1990s by the Labour government. They created a new Greater London Authority, with a Mayor (the position currently held by Sadiq Khan) and an Assembly, who have a variety of powers over the London region as a whole. Similarly, since 2010, the Coalition sought to grant more powers to urban regions throughout the UK – creating combined authorities for regions such as Greater Manchester, Teesside and the West Midlands. These, in many cases, share boundaries with abolished councils, and hold a variety of powers. It is the heads of many of these that will be elected for the first time this May.
Therefore, there are broadly 6 flavours of council in England – counties, which are divided into districts; unitary authorities, metropolitan boroughs, combined authorities, and London boroughs. This is to say nothing of smaller, much more local authorities – parish and town councils – and the total anomaly that is the City of London. Today, when we map them out, it looks something like this. Each of them has a different set of powers and responsibilities, to which we will now turn.
As we’ve already clearly established, the structure of local government is determined by Parliament, and so (traditionally) have been its powers. Local government does not get involved in such issues as defence or foreign policy, but instead focuses on delivering a variety of more immediate services to the communities within its area. Each different type of authority will, naturally, deliver slightly different services to another – perhaps the easiest way to lay this out is to begin by considering the county/district divide set up in 1974, and seeing what each half of that equation does.
County councils are broadly responsible for; education, social services, transport, strategic planning, fire services, consumer protection, refuse disposal, smallholdings, and libraries. District councils cover local planning, housing, local highways, building regulation, environmental health, and refuse collection. Unitary authorities, or metropolitan boroughs, combine all these responsibilities into a single authority. The new combined authorities combine all these powers, and in some cases considerably more – Greater Manchester’s new regional mayor will have control over the healthcare budget for the region, for example.
But these powers come at a cost – quite literally, in some cases. The majority of funding for local government comes from grants from central government; money handed out by the government to cover the provision of important services. In this, there will be requirements attached as to how to spend the money, whether particular programmes should be prioritised, and so on. Local government can raise its own money, principally through two key taxes (council tax, and business rates) but these raise relatively small amounts of money for councils, compared to their needs, and what they receive from central government.
There have, however, been some positive changes here for local government – perhaps the largest of which was the Localism Act of 2011. The key provision here was what’s called the “general power of competence”. Briefly put, prior to this point, local government could only do what Parliament specifically authorised it to do – this power allows local government to do anything that is not explicitly forbidden. If retained, and coupled with a less tight financial situation, this could give councils considerable scope to experiment in future.
Broadly, though, local government is responsible for delivering a variety of services that can often seem almost invisible to us – or have relatively small levels of awareness. We generally only consider them when they impact directly on us – when our bins fail to be emptied, or the pothole outside our home grows ever larger. But councils are responsible for almost a quarter of all government spending in the UK, and their services are vitally important to our communities.