Notes taken from a lecture by Brian Thornton at Winchester University, 2013.
Local government consists of single-tier and two-tier systems.
Single-tier councils (or unitary authorities) are responsible for all local authority services and functions. There are 55 unitary authorities.
A two-tier system is one in which responsibility for services is divided between district and county councils.
Local authorities today
More than two million people are employed by local authorities (including school teachers, social services, the police, firefighters and many other office and manual workers).
The Local 2000 Government Act changed the running of councils so that they looked more like national politics.
Council meetings can be reported on thanks to privilege subject to contradiction or explanation.
Local Government in England Funding
Local authorities are funded by a combination of grants from central government, council tax and business rates.
Local authorities 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, known as capping, to ensure that increases in local authority budgets and council tax are not excessive. Since 2004, this has been set at around 5%.
Business rates are a property tax on businesses and other non-domestic properties. Their formal name is national non-domestic rates. The national rates are set by central government. The revenue is collected by local authorities, pooled by central government and then redistributed to local authorities.
Central government at Westminster provides specific and general grants to enable local authorities to deliver services. To divide up the funding, the Government uses a system that takes into account the number and value of properties in each area and how much it costs to provide services there.
Councillors are responsible for making decisions on behalf of their local community about local services such as land use, refuse collection and leisure facilities. They agree the local authority budget and set the policy framework, as well as appointing chief officers and making constitutional decisions.
Local people elect councillors for a four-year term from a ward. They are not paid a salary, but are entitled to allowances and expenses to cover the cost of carrying out their public duties. Councillors are not employees of the council. The elected councillors provide the policies and then the paid employees of the council put them into practice.
Local Authority Services in England
District councils, unitary authorities and county councils provide a variety of services. They are responsible for services such as bins, leisure, environmental heath, parking etc.
Education is the largest service provided by local authorities. The head and school governors (including the head, staff, parents and elected representatives) make decisions on how money is spent, including on equipment, and the recruitment and development of staff. Other services include adult education, the youth service and education for the under-fives.
Social services departments spend around half their budgets on support for the elderly. They are also responsible for children’s homes, fostering and adoptions, disability services and services for vulnerable people (including children).
The planning roles of local authorities are two-fold: strategic planning and development control (local planning). County, metropolitan and unitary councils are responsible for strategic planning, which sets out authority-wide policies for the location of developments such as housing, industry, shopping and leisure facilities, as well as transport to serve these. Metropolitan, district and unitary authorities look after local planning in their area. They are also responsible for protecting listed buildings, advertisement control and nature-conservation issues.
In two-tier areas, county councils are responsible for waste disposal and district councils for waste collection. In many other unitary authorities, the single authority is responsible for both disposal and collection. Waste disposal is regulated by the Environment Agency.
Roads, highways and transport
Around 96% of roads are built, maintained and managed by local authorities. Local authorities are also responsible for maintaining parts of the trunk road network for the Department of Transport. And they are responsible for traffic regulation and management, road safety and on-street parking.
Library services have been provided by local authorities in England since the 19th century. There are more than 3,000 libraries in England and Wales, with 22,000 staff at a cost of around £800 million per year.
Local authorities are responsible for the enforcement of trading standards legislation for the protection of individual and business consumers. Trading standards action ranges from offering advice and information to prosecution.
Fire and rescue
Fire services deal with fire, road traffic accidents, chemical spills, the enforcement of fire certificates for hotels, offices and factories.
Councils are responsible for about 50% of social housing across England and Wales, with housing associations responsible for the other half.
With environmental protection and health, local authorities take responsibility for tackling low-grade pollution such as litter and fly-tipping. If there is a risk to ‘water, soil or air’, the Environment Agency takes charge.