How has Parliament defined Local Government?
Parliament, generally as a result of the policy of the Government in power at the time, has passed legislation which has defined many aspects of local government. In Scotland and Wales the devolved Parliaments have taken over responsibility for their local authorities. Government legislation has determined:-
The boundaries and types of local authorities. The overall pattern has been changed several times since the UK first had a complete coverage of elected local authorities in 1885. For example, the Conservative Government abolished the top tier of authorities in metropolitan areas, normally Labour controlled, in 1986, arguing that they duplicated work of the lower tier borough councils. Labour restored a London wide authority in 1999.
The method of election of councillors. In Wales and in England this is First Past the Post, except for the Greater London Authority where a proportional system was introduced. In Scotland, the Scottish Parliament changed the system to the Single Transferable Vote and this is also used in Northern Ireland to ensure that the two communities there are fairly represented.
The services that local authorities are required to provide, such as a fire brigade and child protection. These are called statutory services and through the 20th century local government was gradually required to take on more of these. Local authorities may choose to do other things such as the promotion of tourism or economic development and these are called discretionary services.
The method of taxation that local authorities can use to raise money, although most of the money that local authorities spend comes in the form of grants from central government. This has always been a tax on property, except between 1989 and 1993, after Mrs Thatcher had forced her Government to change to the Poll Tax, called the Community Charge, which was a tax on every adult, with only some reduction for those on lower incomes. The tax was highly unpopular and helped to bring about Mrs Thatcher’s fall from office. There is currently the Council Tax which is a tax based on the value of residential property and the Business Rate which is a tax on commercial property which the Government sets and then redistributes back to local authorities.
To some degree Governments have set rules for the internal operation of local authorities. For example, in 2000, all but the smallest councils were required to move from a system of committees, in which all councillors took decisions, to either an elected mayor or a cabinet who would have the power to take decisions and other councillors could only monitor these executive decisions.