Current Public Administration Magazine (July - 2015) - Local Government in United Kingdom

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Local Government

Local Government in United Kingdom

Local government is the collective term for local councils. You may also sometimes hear them referred to as local authorities. Local councils are made up of councillors (members) who are voted for by the public in local elections and paid council staff (officers) who deliver services. There are currently 411 councils in the UK. 

Councils provide a wide range of services, either directly through their staff or by commissioning services from outside organisations. They also have responsibility for the economic, social and environmental ’wellbeing’ of their area.

Most council services are mandatory. This means that the council must do them because they are under a duty to do so by law. Some mandatory functions are tightly controlled by central government, resulting in a similar level of service across the country (eg payment of housing benefit). Other mandatory requirements (eg libraries) leave councils with some choice over the level and type of service they provide.

Other services and functions are discretionary. These are services a council can choose to provide but does not have to. They range from large economic regeneration projects, to the removal of wasp nests. Councils have a general power to charge for these services provided they are not prevented from doing so  by other legislation and the council does not make a profit. Councils can charge for arts and entertainment activities, sport and recreational facilities and some pest control services.

In the UK, there are several types of local council. Each of these has responsibility for a particular range of local services. The types of council in your area depend on where in the UK you live. Many parts of the country have two tiers of local government: county (or city) councils and district (or borough) councils. Larger towns and cities and some counties have just one council providing all the functions. Many areas also have parish or town councils. But what is most important is not the name given to each council but the services it provides for you.

County and city councils are responsible for services across the whole of a county or city, like education, transport, planning, fire and public safety, social care, libraries, waste management and trading standards.
District and borough councils cover a smaller area, often a town or rural area, and are usually responsible for services like rubbish collection and recycling, council tax, leisure services and housing.

Unitary authorities are councils that provide one tier of local government and provide all services. Confusingly, they can be called city councils or borough councils or just councils!

Parish and town councils operate at a level below district and borough councils. Parish or town councils are elected and can help on a number of local issues, like planning applications or running local sports grounds and community halls.

This can be confusing, but the best way to find out who provides what in your area is to visit your council’s website or contact their customer services. If you’re not sure who don’t know who to contact, you can get the information from

Local government spending is about a quarter of all public spending in the UK. Local councils are funded by a combination of grants from central government, Council Tax and business rates. (In Northern Ireland, district councils still raise money through a domestic rate and a business rate.) They also receive income from investments, council rents, sales and charges for aervices.

Central government (or the devolved government in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland) provides specific and general grants to enable local authorities to deliver all the necessary services. To divide up the funding, the government uses a system based on the number and value of properties in each area and how much it costs to provide services there.

Council Tax provides about a quarter of local funding. Local councils set the total Council Tax they need to raise, based on their overall budget for the year. Each household pays an amount depending on the value of their home. The government has powers to ensure that increases in local authority budgets and Council Tax are not excessive.

Business rates are a property tax on businesses and other properties that aren’t homes.

The national rates are set by central government

Councillors from different political parties make up the full council. The council is divided into individual groups called committees, which have responsibility for particular services such as education or planning. Many decisions are recommended by the committees, but have to be agreed by the full council. After decisions have been made by the elected members of the council, they are carried out by the officers whose job it is to deliver the particular service.

Every council must publish in advance when key decisions will be taken and publish meeting papers at least five working days beforehand. The minutes of the meeting, summarising decisions, must also be published. You can attend most meetings of the council, although usually you won’t be able to speak at them.

Most enquiries about services are usually made to council officers, by contacting the town hall or local customer enquiry office by phone, email or in person. The details will be found on their website.

Councillors are elected to represent a particular geographical area, which is called a ward. There will often be more than one councillor for your ward. Each councillor has to stand for re-election every four years. He or she is there to represent you and your community. They are not paid a wage, but can claim expenses to cover the cost of carrying out their duties. If you need to speak to them about a problem with a council service or to let them know what you think about a particular issue, you should be able to get their contact details – including the times and locations of their regular advice surgeries – from the council’s website.

Councils will also have a mayor or chairman of the council to undertake ceremonial duties. However, a few councils have elected mayors who responsible for the day-to-day running of local services. They are voted for by local people, and serve for four years. They provide political leadership to the council and the community, and carry out the local authority’s policies.

This varies from council to council, but many have introduced local committees (often referred to as neighbourhood forums or area committees) which are open to you to go along and express your views about where you live. Some will involve you in decisions about how money is spent or community action plans or give you the chance to have your say on planning applications. Your council office will be able to tell you if there is one in your area.

Councils are required to consult their residents about certain changes such as school closures or plans for redevelopment. If you are interested, find out how they carry out those consultations and how you can get involved. Some also carry out postal or online surveys to find out what people think of the services they receive and to get ideas for improvement. Look out for those. Finally, a number of councils invite residents to sit on panels concerned with a particular service – for instance, housing or adult care – to get the views of those who use the service. Again, ask if you are interested.

Of course there are a number of other public organisations that are responsible for the services you receive. These include the police service, fire and rescue service, Primary Care Trust (health services) and social housing landlords. They have a legal duty to you and your community and it is worth finding out how they work, where their budgets come from and how you can influence their decisions.


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