Teaching Comparative Government and Politics

Friday, February 10, 2017

Local government in a unitary system

When a regime is described as unitary, the important feature is that there is only one sovereign center of power. But does that mean that the national government exercises all government power?

Well, we probably would find it unreasonable for the British Parliament to run garbage collection throughout the country.

Council (public) housing
The key is that Parliament delegates to local authorities certain powers. According to Wikipedia, there are 418 major local councils and a larger number of town councils. In cities, the councils serve thousands of people. In rural areas they perform services for communities of less than 2,500 people. One of the best known services is public housing (council housing). The town councils also do things like operating play grounds, providing public toilets, maintaining bridal paths, and cleaning war memorials.

As Parliament deals with public spending and deficits, the local councils face criticism for profligate spending.

Britain’s local councils face financial crisis
Britain is in the middle of a painful fiscal squeeze. Since 2010 the budget deficit has been reduced from 10% to 4% of GDP; by 2020 it is forecast to be almost eliminated. To achieve this, the government has slashed spending. Hardest hit has been the Department for Communities and Local Government, which provides councils with most of their funding. And so local authorities have been forced to embark on an epic economy drive. Their spending on public services will be 22% lower this year than in 2010… What do Britain’s cities look like after such a crash diet?

Councils’ biggest area of spending is adult social care, which makes up about a third of their budget… Liverpool’s spending on adult social-care has fallen from £222m in 2010 to £130m, even as an ageing population has increased demand…

Local authorities have come up with various ruses to save money. Several… are economising by collecting rubbish only every other week, for instance. Liverpool has shed 3,000 staff and handed some of its libraries over to community organisations to run…

There is little scope for councils to raise taxes. Although they disburse about a quarter of all government spending, they are responsible for raising less than 10% of taxes, making England one of Europe’s most centralised countries. But this is changing. In some places, things have become dire enough for local politicians to propose special referendums to increase council tax, a levy on property…

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