Sophie Stowers reflects on the UK’s system of local government, highlighting how its complexity and incoherence inhibits the responsiveness of local authorities and the ability of electors to hold their representatives to account. For more on how local government works and is structured, see our explainer.
As we head towards this year’s set of local elections, most chatter is focusing on their political implications. How will the Conservatives do, and what will a poor result mean for Rishi Sunak? Might Labour make headway in the areas they fumbled in the 2019 general election? Does a poor set of results for Reform and UKIP mean we’re finally moving on from Brexit divisions?
There is less discussion about what these elections mean for local areas themselves. Understandably, debates about what the results mean for council tax rates or bus timetables is slightly less exciting. But our continued lack of focus on councils, counties and mayoralties has meant that we have overlooked just what a mess local government in the UK is in.
To prove my point, answer me this: what type of council do you live under? If you know, congratulations for being a local government nerd. But it’s more likely that you won’t know, or perhaps assumed that there’s not that much variation across the country.
Maybe this is an easier question: who takes your bins out? Even that’s a tricky one. If you live under a two-tier local authority, your district council may collect the bin, but the county council actually disposes of the rubbish.
A series of piecemeal, incoherent reforms to local government, stretching back to the seventies, has made these questions so difficult to answer. Central government of all colours has shied away from wholesale, wide-ranging reform in favour of a series of council mergers and layering of structures, avoiding alienating local councillors by abolishing their jobs.
The result has been a jumble of thousands of local authorities, ranging from tiny parish councils to combined authorities which cover the UK’s bustling cities and towns, all with different models of leadership, responsibilities and electoral cycles. It’s no wonder that voters so often are left confused or misinformed about who to hold accountable for local services, particularly where they have councillor(s), a local mayor (elected or non-elected), police and crime commissioner or metro mayor to choose from. And it’s no wonder that so many people turn to their MP to help sort local problems rather than try to work out who is in charge themselves.
Local governance is now much more than just potholes and planning applications. Authorities have power and responsibility over important public services which affect people’s daily lives, from social care to the environment.
Yet the entanglement of mayors and councils makes it incredibly difficult to put this across to voters in a clear way. In fact, it’s further complicated by the addition of combined mayoral authorities and specific bespoke settlements which means devolved powers in each region of the country vary and have changed over time.
And so, turnout at local elections remains low, stagnating at just over 30% in recent years. This turnout rate isn’t be helped by variation e across the country in the way local elections work. Some areas hold elections every year, some do every four years. Some councils have multimember wards. Some use proportional representation. Some areas have additional, separate elections for mayors, metro mayors and maybe police and crime commissioners In Scotland and Wales, 16 and 17 your olds can vote and you don’t need to produce voter ID to participate in local elections. The opposite is true in England.
This feeling of disjointedness applies to councils’ financial arrangements too. Understanding quite how local authorities are funded is a difficult (and frankly, a bit of a boring) process. But it’s key, as data on council resources can be confusing: the amount of money councils actually receive is often more than they have the power to spend, ascertained pots of money from central government are ‘ringfenced’ and by-pass councils completely, going straight to public services such as schools or police.
The ‘pots’ of money councils do keep hold of are often targeted to a specific service, will last for different (often short) amounts of time and may have to be competitively bid for. This makes it difficult for local councils to plan ahead when it comes to spending. And, despite devolution, many elements of local finance are centrally controlled, with local authorities unable to challenge exemptions or discounts from council tax or business rates, amend council tax bands, or increase or decrease taxes in response to local pressures.
Furthermore, though most people will be aware that local authorities have faced cuts to their budgets, how this has manifested in practice is more complicated. Grants from central to local government have been reduced most, which has led councils to increase business rates and council tax to try and cover the resulting shortfall in funding. But for local authorities where property values were lower, or simply fewer people pay council tax due to higher rates of deprivation, the loss of central funding has been harder to counteract. Certain councils – particularly those in London and other urban centres – have therefore struggled to counter the shortfall.
Local government reform won’t be a key issue in next month’s council elections. And given it’s not as sexy as levelling up, it probably won’t be major focus for either of the two main parties as we head towards the next general election.
But at a time when we’re talking about the powers of local regions more than ever before, why isn’t the state of our local governance system part of the conversation? The current system of tiered authorities, bespoke agreements and electoral cycles and multiple mayors is confusing, disjointed and inhibits both the ability of authorities to be responsive to the needs of their constituencies, and electors to hold their representatives accountable. And of course, it makes it much more difficult to figure who to write to when your bins are late being picked up…
By Sophie Stowers, researcher, UK in a Changing Europe.
For a comprehensive overview of the different structures of local government in England, Scotland and Wales, how local councils work, what services they provide, how they are funded, and when they are elected see our local government explainer here.