Make your own free website on
Local Government in Great Britain
Local Government as Representative

Wilson and Game define UK local government as: (direct quote, Wilson and Game, 27):

Though it has no power of general competence - it cannot carry out functions which are ultra vires the penalties in terms of surcharges on individual councillors are particularly severe if this is done. (Wilson and Game, 22)

Increasingly local government has asserted its rôle as a representative of local political interests as well as its rôle as service provider. A combination of politicisation and a local authority set-up which ich was increasingly dominated by opponents of the government saw this rôle dramatically increase in significance during the 1980s. Moreover, the decline of local authorities as agents in service provision saw them reduced to strategic planning bodies which, by definition, increased their representative rôle.

After re-organisation in 1973, local government became increasingly dominated by parties, with the independents in decline. (Budge et al, 456) As the Thatcher governments cut local government funding, central-local conflicts came to the fore.

The 1980s also witnessed the maturing of community politics as a political strategy by the Liberals, and combined with the Alliance wave, this turned local government into a three party system in many areas. The Alliance parties used success at local government level as a springboard for success at national level.

Labour too, excluded from power at national level, began to see the potential of local government as a campaigning base. The Tories too, since the 1997 General Election have claimed to see local government as providing political space to rebuild as an electoral force. The result is that councillors now tend to give much more time to the job, with both Labour and LibDem councillors averaging 30 hours per week, Tories somewhat less. (Budge et al, 464)

The politicisation of local government reached a head over the issue of local government finance in the 1980s and early 1990s.

Despite fears of the irrelevance of local government after two local elections in a row with record low turnouts, turnout throughout the ‘80s and most of the ‘90s has been higher than the historic average. Contestation has increased dramatically since the 1960s, when prior to reorganisation, Harrison and Norton found that less than 60% of seats were actually contested in the 1962-4 electoral cycle. (Wilson and Game, 206) In 1998 less than 1% of seats were uncontested (Rallings and Thrasher, 64), though this did not involve any rural Scottish or Welsh councils were contestation levels are notably lower.

Local Government as Service Provider

Despite the historically centralised nature of British government, the central government has no agent to implement legislation in the field. Therefore it must rely on local government to carry out this function. (Budge et al, 445)

The previous government was clear in both word and deed that it saw local government’s service provision rôle decreasing, and a ‘enabling’ model of local government emerging, "The Government’s model for local government in the 1990s and into the 21st century is that of the enabling authority.", was the stated objective in the keynote 1991 White Paper, Competing for Quality. (Wilson, 442) Wilson noted that the term ‘enabling’ was too open to interpretation to be a secure anchor for a new strategy for Local Government. "The Enabling Authority became the new vogue term - and sometimes , it seemed, the new vague term given the widely varying interpretations put upon it." (Wilson and Game, 18) Nonetheless the Government’s interpretation of the term was fairly clear.

Wilson and Game have likened the pattern of restriction of local government powers in the ‘80s and ‘90s to a funnel - still some room for manoeuvre after the end of the process for local authorities, but with notable tapering as time went on. (Wilson and Game, 17)

CCT proved hugely unpopular with the Local Authority lobby when first introduced. However, in most local authorities, most service provision remained with council direct labour.- in 1995 around 60% of council contracts in England and Wales, and around 90% in Scotland, remained with DLOs. (Wilson, 451) Jobs were shed and DLOs became leaner and fitter as a result. At the same time CCT has proved less controversial with the public than with local government itself. For example, Liberal Democrats in Liverpool cited their opposition to return of refuse collection to council control as a key factor in taking control of the Liverpool City Council in 1998. However, many local councillors of all persuasions are now fully steeped in the ‘contract culture’. The replacement of CCT with Best Value has not resulted in a significant number of services returning to DLOs - ‘the ‘contract culture’ ushered in by CCT will outlast its eventual abolition’. (Wilson and Game, 353) Moreover, many DLOs, particularly the successful ones, are now fully imbued with the ‘contract culture’ themselves (North Lanarkshire notwithstanding!!!).

In education too, opting out proved less popular than the government had hoped. By 1995, only 5% of schools had opted for Grant Maintained status. (Wilson, 452) Nonetheless the removal of tertiary education and adult training from council remits greatly reduced councils’ rôle in education provision, as did the increasing number of council homes which were transferred to independent housing trusts. (loc cit) Peter John notes further that the Education Act 1993 still provides for a significant local authority rôle in Grant Maintained schools - most importantly the powers of life (the ability to set the schools’ budget formula) and death (the power to close schools). (John, 265)

John Stewart noted three trends in changes to a less elective system of local governance: the removal of councillors from boards which had previously had council representations; the transfer of responsibilities to a board; the hiving off of functions previously under the remit of a single body. (Stewart, 227)

Stewart noted that the system in the mid-1990s appeared to be out of control with a series of multiple appointments which contravened regulations. (Stewart, 229) This is, in my view, only to be expected when a system undergoes such bacterial growth in so short a time as the quango state did.

Despite the optimism of some on the Left previous to the 1997 General Election, Labour have not shown any great willingness to give an increased service provision rôle to local authorities; rather what it has developed a new buzzword - ‘partnership’. What little increased powers there are for local government are to be exercised in collaboration with the private and/or voluntary sectors. The extension of the rôle of District Partnership Boards in Northern Ireland beyond the mere dispensation of European Peace and Reconciliation Fund cash (e.g. through the ‘visioning’ process in Belfast, Derry and Craigavon) is a classic example of this.

Increasingly Councils are learning to co-exist with rather than confront with quangos. As Wilson and Game state, "While continuing to argue the case for quangos operating for openly, democratically and accountably, councils nowadays are increasingly working with and through these organisations." (Wilson and Game, 15)

However, this all leaves a fundamental problem of accountability. While I agree with David Wilson that the level of accountability in pre-Thatcher local government has now been grossly romanticised, it remains the case that at least local councillors can be voted out of office. Those on the many self-appointed bodies are immune to any accountability. With those on ministerially appointed bodies, the chain of accountability can be so convoluted as to negate its value. (Wilson, 232-3) Whatever noises are made about greater democracy at local level, the playing field has fundamentally changed from 1979 - "local government has been transformed from being the dominant legitimate local public institution to just being one body which participates in a more complex framework of governing. In short, local government has been succeeded by local governance." (John, 253)

John notes that quangos now look after 1/3 of public expenditure. (John, 267) The number of quangocrats at 50,000 exceeds that of elected councillors by a factor of more than 2 to 1. (Wilson and Game, 262; John, 267)

What have been largely untouched are powers in which councils have a limited discretionary rôle - its regulatory and monitoring powers. (Wilson and Game, 25) Here, it is more perhaps than in any other field little more than an agency of central government, though it is in carrying out these functions that a significant amount of revenue is raised.

Problems of Duality - Central/Local Conflicts

This duality, of on the one hand representing a community while at the same time functioning as an agency of central government on some issues creates tension within the local government system. (Budge et al, 444) When central government wishes conflict with those of local government, Budge suggests a number of strategies are available to central government to ensure compliance: force compliance for example by rate capping, abolish or transfer powers or set up quangos. (Budge et al, 445) These strategies became increasingly used during the last period of Conservative rule. Wilson is quite clear on the matter of the increase in quangoism, "This has been a central government initiative - a political device involving the by-passing of elected local government with its increasingly distinctive political outlook from that at the centre." (Wilson, 445)

The most instructive case study in centre/local conflict is, unsurprisingly, that of finance. In response to cuts in central support and extension of central control through the GRE system, many Labour authorities simply set higher rates. The Conservative government introduced rate capping to compensate. After the capping of then Tory controlled Portsmouth in 1983, and the Tories’ subsequent defeat at the Portsmouth South by-election, the system was reformed again in a blatantly partisan way. This ensured that no Tory authority was subsequently capped, but equally ensured that the system was thoroughly discredited. (Budge et al, 458)

The Tories sought a solution to the increasingly embarrassing rows between local and central government. At one level, they stripped local government of many of its functions, greatly increased the number of quangos and introduced CCT and other controls. Local government over, most notably, education, housing and technical service provision decreased rapidly.

At the same time the sought a new type of local tax which would cause less controversy and not penalise home owners in the same way as rates did.

Ironically, they chose the poll tax. That local government finance became a ‘sexy’ issue and effectively brought down a government is a wonder in itself. Thatcher was strongly advised not to implement the poll tax from senior cabinet colleagues, but went ahead anyway, arguing that the poll tax would increase transparency and be no more regressive than VAT already was. (Budge et al, 460) She was wrong.

The systems which have replaced the poll tax, the Uniform Business Rate and the Council Tax have had mixed records. While the Council Tax had proved as popular as local government finance provision ever can be, reintroduced a degree of fairness into the system, and effectively taken local finance off the agenda, the UBR has proved less popular. It has brought accusations of severely damaging the politically important small business sector (particularly in rural areas) and does not allow local accountability.

Finance will inevitably be marked by centre/local tensions given the massive level of central grant in the British system. In 1991, this peaked at 85%, and still stands at a projected 75½% for the fiscal year 1999-2000. (John, 258)

The period since 1989 has been marked by local government slipping down the news agenda, and a greater consensus between Labour and Conservatives, if not Liberal Democrats, regarding local government. (John, 257) At the same time, the slow process of centralisation has continued (loc cit), and deep tensions still marred relations between the Local Government Association and predecessors and central government.

Some commentators expected a better relationship between Lib/Lab dominated local government and central government in the aftermath of a Labour General Election victory. (Budge et al, 446) However, this has not proved to be the case. Local government financial settlements have not been any more generous since Labour’s election. Capping has continued, most notably in Oxfordshire (NOC - run by a Lib/Lab coalition) and Somerset (LibDem majority control).

Territory and Tiering

For almost a century until the mid 1980s, there was general consensus that two tier local government performed best. (Budge et al, 447) After the 1894 Local Government Act (and the corresponding 1929 Act in Scotland) the two tier system existed throughout the UK except in the larger cities which were, to use anachronistic current parlance, Unitary Authorities. After the 1972 (1973 Scotland) Act, the whole of the UK was governed at communal level by a two tier system, except for the Scottish Islands and Northern Ireland.

In 1984 the consensus was broken by the abolition of the GLC and in 1987 the Metropolitan Counties. This was done for purely political reasons. All the Mets were solid Labour bastions, though all had suburban areas which were truest blue. The Tories were therefore able to sever more Conservative areas from the control of left-wing councils, which proved popular with their own supporters.

The consensus was further broken by reform in Scotland and Wales in the early 1990s. A change to unitary system with a vastly reduced number of councillors was taken despite massive local opposition. Accusations of gerrymandering also followed this reform, most notably in East Dunbartonshire, whose geographical composition was curious to say the least, and conveniently managed to include all the middle-class northern suburbs of Glasgow but little else.

The creation of ‘super-authorities’ in sparsely populated parts of Scotland and Wales for bulk supply of services reasons was also highly unpopular as there was no lower tier. Some of the new authorities were over 100 miles long! Powys, Highlands, Dumfries and Galloway and Borders proved particularly controversial, with whole regions becoming Unitary Authorities.

In England, where the Tories were much stronger, they were much more cautious in overriding local objections to redrawing boundaries. (Budge et al, 450) The decision whether or not to go for Unitary Authorities was seemingly haphazard. The ‘artificial’ post-1973 counties were abolished (i.e. Avon, Cleveland, Humberside); Rutland and Herefordshire gained ‘independence’ from the larger counties to which they were tacked on. At the same Berkshire was also abolished and many county towns (e.g. Derby, Nottingham, Swindon, Bournemoth, York, Luton, Stoke) were hived off from their counties.

At the same time, most of England, especially rural England, was left with a two-tier system. The general logic seems to have been that where it was both financially feasible in terms of service provision and politically neutral or better, the decision was taken to create Unitary Authorities. Where either criterion failed to be met, a two-tier system was retained. All the same, many of the decisions were taken for reasons of political advantage rather than to ensure best performance. David Wilson noted at the time that, "Inconsistencies, even contradictions, characterised both the outcomes of the Local Government Commission’s consultative process and the government’s response to its proposals." (Wilson, 442) Although some are quite happy with a ‘horses for courses’ approach, Thrasher and Rallings note that it is often the confusion among both the media and the general public regarding the exact scope and function.

Peter John notes the similarity between the current English situation and that before 1973, with major cities and urban areas using a single-tier system, and rural areas using a two-tier one. (John, 262) A slight case of back to the future!

Post-Blair, the situation seems even more confused. The directly elected Mayor of London and new London Authority is being used as a possible model for other large cities, while at the same time the London arrangements seem to have more in common with a devolved body than a communal one. Greater London is more than six times bigger in population than any other currently authority, and itself is composed of 32 Boroughs. This makes comparison difficult.

David Wilson sharply criticised this focus on structural review, seeing this as a minor issue compared with many others which, he felt, had the potential to threaten the very of survival of elected local government as a significant actor. Citing work by Travers et al he claims that there is no optimum size for local authorities. Therefore much of the work on producing authorities of optimum size was a waste of time. (Wilson, 444) He further comments(446), "Is it not a more pressing priority to search for new forms of accountability for those non-elected bodies which are delivering services at the local level, rather than simply lamenting the demise of an often idealised elected element."

Labour show little interest in tinkering with authority boundaries or tiering, and seem content to let the present (confused) arrangements stand for some time. Labour seem (rightly) to wish to concentrate on much delayed re-warding, particularly in large cities were substantial numbers inner-city wards can have as little as a tenth of the electorate of those in the ‘middle-city’. Ironically this is likely to increase the LibDem threat to Labour in many major cities. Labour are also increasingly happy with LibDem proposals for area committees.

Experimentation is focused on ‘cabinet systems’ and direct election rather than changing boundaries or powers.

The Changing System - Direct Election of Mayors and Cabinet Style Government

The Government’s July 1998 White Paper, Modern Local Government: In Touch With the People, underlined the Government’s commitment to radical local government reform with introduction of directly elected mayors and cabinet style government. (Leach, 77)

Traditionally, local government has been run by a committee system. How this functioned in practice depended upon whether the council was in single party or coalition control. In any case, the ruling party or parties supply the Chairs of important committees. The full meeting of the council is the main committee of the council with final power to make all decisions. In practice other committees, most notably the Policy and Resources committee, make the decisions. In cases where the council is in single party control, particularly when that party has an overwhelming majority of seats, the group meeting of that party is in de facto control of the council.

In many Council’s this will not be a radical step; this has been de facto the case in many politicised councils for decades, with an informal meeting of committee chairs deciding council policy. (Leach, 77-) For other, particularly less politicised councils, it will be a radical departure from the norm. However both legally and psychologically, Leach argues, it will radically change the situation on all councils. Hitherto, it has been an axiom of local government that all councillors are equal. This will now be changed with the direct election of committee chairs, who will now have executive responsibility, a thing of the past. (Leach, 79) Although this has been on the agenda of Labour and Conservative governments since the 1986 Widdecombe Report, there has consistently been a lack of enthusiasm for change form local authorities. (Leach, 81)

The Cabinet/Leader model is that most likely to be implemented by councils, as it requires the minimum change and does not involve a directly elected mayor, the concept of which is still regarded with extreme suspicion by the local government establishment. (Leach, 83) It has a number of inherent problems. Members may well be reluctant to give up a job to become a full time cabinet member, only to be thrown out of office by annual elections a year after (Leach, 84), although this problem is exaggerated; many senior councillors, especially in larger authorities, are already de facto full time councillors. A third of local authorities are in no overall control, and here minority cabinets may find it difficult to operate, while no solution exists if formal coalitions break down, given that local authorities have no powers of dissolution. There is also a potential problem if discipline in the majority party breaks down, and the assembly consistently rejects proposals from the executive, particularly financial proposals. (Leach, 84-85)

The directly elected Mayoral model as one possible option for local councils. In one option, the Mayor would have to select a cabinet from among Councillors only. (Leach, 82) While this has the advantage of somewhere for the buck to stop, and the government feels will increase local election participation, there is a danger that it will result in an Americanised personalisation of politics in which real issues are hidden behind a quadrennial beauty contest.

The third option proposed by the government, that of a powerful council manager, has, IMO, serious accountability problems. It tends towards a situation where power is in the hands of council officers. While the mayor may be directly responsible to voters, there is a danger of a lack of accountability in the middle of the election cycle. Both directly elected models are faced with the problem of deadlock, if a mayor of one persuasion was elected alongside a council of as different persuasion. (Leach, 91)

In conclusion, the current system vests de jure supreme authority with the councillor. Any change will involve a major reduction in the powers and status of the bulk of local representatives, and in order to win support for any reform the government must be able to overcome this. Rallings and Thrasher note that the turnout in the London Mayoral referendum was appalling, particularly compared with Scotland and Wales, and this bodes ill not only for the Government’s proposals for greater use of local referendums, but also for the very idea of directly elected mayors. (Rallings and Thrasher, 74)

The other major proposal in the Government’s White Paper is a proposed move to annual elections, all over England (the other UK states’ local government now being under control of their respective Assemblies). While Wilson and Game see this as being to Labour’s ‘democratic credit’ (Wilson and Game, xvi), I am more inclined to agree with Rallings and Thrasher who note that councils with quadrennial all out elections tend to have substantially higher turnouts. (Rallings and Thrasher, 73) Annual elections introduce a real danger of voter fatigue, and risk creating a culture in which administrations are constantly in ‘election mode’, and fostering short-termism.

Back to revision notes | Back to essays | Back to Gerry Lynch's homepage