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About Levels of Government

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How do UK Local Authorities work?

UK Local Authorities are run by:-

Elected councillors 

The number per council varies from under 30 in some smaller district councils to 120 for Birmingham and Cornwall.

They are elected for wards, sometimes one councillor per ward but sometimes two or three.

An independent Boundary Commission looks at these and redraws them periodically to take account of population changes and local views.

The size of wards also varies from under 2000 voters in rural areas to nearer 10,000 in large authorities.  

Council officers

These are the full-time employees of the local authority who make day to day decisions and advise councillors.

Although there is normally a Chief Executive who is an administrator and organise the council as a whole, local authority officers are professionals with an expertise in areas such as highway engineering, town planning or environmental health, unlike civil servants in central government whose expertise is in administration in general.

The role of Councillors in Local Government raises the issue of control by Elected Representatives.

We have a Representative Democracy and decisions are taken by elected politicians.

By electing Local Councillors, as with MPs, we are entrusting someone else to take decisions on our behalf.

One problem with this is that not everyone has voted for the person who gets elected and so minorities may not feel that they are really represented.  This may be more serious at the local level as control nationally tends to alternate between the parties but many local councils are safely Conservative or Labour for long periods of time.

The first post system that we have in English and Welsh (but not Scottish and Northern Irish elections) elections means that the person elected to be our representative may only have got there by the support of a small proportion of the voters, especially as only around 35% of people vote in local elections.

There is also the question of whether Local Councillors act for all groups in society and whether they are socially representative of these groups, although a large percentage of Councillors are female or from the ethnic minorities than has been the case with MPs.

Nevertheless, Local Councillors do take up the issues that their constituents present to them and Local Councils carry out a range of public consultations.

Local councils were traditionally organised by means of a meeting of all councillors every month or so and Committees for policy areas such as Planning or Education on which a smaller number of councillors would sit, generally with a majority for the controlling political party.

The Chair would run the policy area on a day-to-day basis with officers and final decisions would be taken by the Council meeting.

Each year one councillor would be chosen to chair the meetings and carry out ceremonial duties, normally with the title of Mayor and the largest party would elect one of its members to be the leader of the council.

Streamlining under New Labour

The Labour Government after 1997 argued that this system needed streamlining and developed two different ways in which councils could be run:-

Councils could decide to hold a local referendum so that voters would decide if they wanted an elected Mayor.

This was modelled on elected mayors in American and French cities where the Mayor would be in overall control of the running of all aspects of the Council.

It was also felt that this would attract more dynamic personalities to run local government and that these people would become better known to the voters thus enhancing local democracy.

They would be elected by means of an alternative vote system so that the winning candidate would have to get majority support from the voters.

Councillors would still be elected to represent smaller areas but their role would be to look at what the Mayor was doing and ask questions and criticise if necessary. They can reject the mayor’s budget proposals.

The legislation restoring a London-wide local authority in 2000 created the post of Mayor of London, which has been held by Ken Livingstone, Boris Johnson and Sadiq Khan.

The legislation to create elected mayors elsewhere only applied to England and Wales and the Scottish Government has shown little interest in the idea.

The Coalition Government required the largest cities in England to decide whether to have an elected mayor.  Liverpool, Leicester and Bristol decided to do so but the rest rejected the idea in referendums.

The advantages of an elected mayor are that there is one person clearly responsible and, perhaps, in a celebrity driven era it is easier for voters to identify with an individual.

A good mayor will give clear leadership and is freer from the party machine than council leaders were.

The alternative vote system has allowed some independent candidates to get elected.

On the other hand, turnout in mayoral elections is no higher than in other local government elections, perhaps because central government has not decentralised powers to elected mayors, except to a degree in London.

There is potential for conflict between the mayor and the council and power is taken away from individual councillors who are elected at the neighbourhood level.

The vast majority of the nearly 400 councils in England and Wales opted for the other alternative which the Labour Government proposed because it kept control with the leading group of councillors of the ruling party.

This was the Cabinet system which involved Councillors taking on responsibility for policy areas and meeting as a group to decide key issues.

The influence of other Councillors was reduced as they were no longer on Committees, except for a few areas such as Licensing or Planning where Committees are still legally required.

The Cabinet can still be overruled by a meeting of the whole Council and, as with the Mayoral system, an Overview and Scrutiny Committee was set up to investigate and question Cabinet proposals.

In many Councils no party has a majority and so some or all of the parties may share the Cabinet positions.

Small local councils were able to keep the previous committee system.