What services does Local Government provide compared to central government?
Local authorities are required by law to provide some 1200 services ranging from maintaining graveyards, to ensuring that asbestos is disposed of safely, to giving grants to disabled people to adapt their homes, to agreeing licences for pubs and clubs. These are called statutory services and the main ones are:-
- Running schools, although many schools have become academies or are free schools and central government is mainly responsible for these.
- Maintaining local roads and street lighting and the management of traffic and road safety.
- Caring for older people at home who have difficulty looking after themselves and for people with a disability or mental health needs.
- Dealing with people who are homeless.
- Waste collection and disposal, street cleaning and recycling.
- Protecting children from harm and organising adoption.
- Deciding planning applications and protecting trees and historic buildings.
- Running fire brigades.
- Providing a library service.
Local authorities have also traditionally provided a range of other services which they are not required to by law but which they have seen as important. These are called discretionary services. These include areas such as youth centres, maintaining parks, supporting sport and the arts and promoting tourism. In addition, local councils have generally tried to coordinate activities to deal with local problems, for example bringing together businesses and local organisations to regenerate town centres. The Coalition has drastically cut back the grant that it gives to local authorities and, as statutory services still have to be provided, it is discretionary services that have been most affected.
In contrast, Central Government is all the organisations that are controlled directly or indirectly by Government Ministers. There are a range of these and the main ones are:-
a) The Departments of State such as the Treasury, the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and the Department of Work and Pensions, each of which carries out an area of Government policy. They are headed by a prominent politician, the Secretary of State, who is a member of the Cabinet. Many areas of policy such as transport or agriculture are devolved to the governments in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland and so the Departments of State have only English responsibilities in these areas.
b) Departmental Agencies are responsible to the Departments of State but have been separated from them because they carry out detailed functions that do not require such detailed political control. The Secretary of State sets broad objectives but a Chief Executive is responsible for the running of the Agency and for its budget. Examples are the Highways Agency, which manages motorways and trunk roads for the Department of Transport, and the Legal Aid Agency, part of the Ministry of Justice, which provides help for people to fight their case in the courts.
c) There are a range of Non-Departmental Public Bodies, often referred to as Quangos, which are semi-independent and provide specialist services or advice, ranging from the Advisory Committee on Pesticides to the Bank of England. The government appoints the people who run them, such as the Governor of the Bank of England, and may set requirements such as the need for the Governor to write to the Chancellor of the Exchequer if inflation rises above 3%, explaining the reasons.
d) There are some Government Departments that need to be kept independent of political control so that their statements and decisions can be seen as independent such as the Food Standards Agency and Ofqual which supervises national examinations.
e) The National Health Service for England is effectively an Agency within the Department of Health and the NHS Trusts that run hospitals and the Clinical Commissioning Groups that run GP surgeries are responsible to it. The health services in other parts of the UK are run by the devolved governments.