How much do you know about your local council – what it does, how it’s spending the council tax you pay each month, and how you can affect the decisions it makes?
As if often the case with politics, the answer isn’t straightforward. In England there is a complex of web of different types of councils, meaning that while in some areas one authority will provide all services, in others there are multiple tiers of councils which have differing responsibilities.
But whichever structure exists where you live, voting in local elections is your chance to decide who you want to be setting local priorities and making the tough spending choices which all councils face.
Depending on where you live it could be that elections are being held next week, on Thursday, May 3.
In case you are on the fence about casting your vote, here are some of the key services delivered by councils and which are shaped by the way we vote.
1 – Major business, housing, retail and leisure developments
Admittedly, this heading covers several distinct and important things. But it serves to prove the breadth and scale of what council leaders and their cabinets are making decision on.
In recent years the buzzwords coming from council press offices have been ‘regeneration’ and ‘masterplan’ – this is authorities allocating huge amounts of resources to new building projects or the transformation of existing development sites.
Put either of these words into Google and the name of your council and you will likely find they are spending millions of pounds of giant housing estates, new shopping centres, huge office buildings and on converting former industrial spaces.
Exactly where the money is allocated, and who is awarded contracts to carry out the building work, is all up to elected councillors.
2 – Trading Standards
When you buy food or drink from a shop or restaurant, you hope that what you are told you are getting, is in fact what you receive.
But that isn’t always the case. Sometimes rogue traders sell dodgy products to increase their margins. And certain dodgy products – principally alcohol and cigarettes – can have serious health risks.
Whose job is it to ensure products being sold to the public are legitimate? Yep, you’ve guessed it, it’s your local councils. Teams of trading standards officers react to tip-offs and pro-actively seek out cases where the law is being broken and then seek to prosecute those responsible.
This activity is likely to happen whichever political party holds sway on the council, but, like every other council service, whether or not it is prioritised is decided by politicians.
3 – Bin collections
How often your bins are collected and exactly which kinds of waste and recycling are accepted in any given area is determined by its elected councillors.
A poor service can be anything from a minor inconvenience to a nauseating nightmare. Just ask residents in Birmingham where last year bags of rubbish were left to pile up in the summer heat as bin workers went on strike over possible job cuts.
Next week the entire city will vote for its representatives on the council following a restructure – and issues surrounding bins have been top of people’s agenda.
4 – Social care
In 2017-18 more than a half of English councils’ total budget was spent on social care.
Mostly this covers services required to meet the needs of adults arising from illness, disability or old age.
But a good portion is also spent on protecting and caring for the most vulnerable children in our society today.
Vital strategy choices are made by the people elected to office on polling day.
5 – Cemeteries
Perhaps surprisingly, bereavement services are also a local authority’s domain.
Crucially they decide how much to charge for everything from burials to memorial benches – often known collectively as the cost of dying.
Such decisions are by their very nature hugely sensitive. And councillors more than ever are having to weigh up a desperate need for income with ensuring good services are delivered at a reasonable price.
6 – Transport
Feel like you’re always getting stuck in roadworks traffic on your way home? Annoyed there’s a new main road but no safe cycling space?
Transport and highways takes up a huge chunk of a council’s budget and like refuse is one area people are not shy of criticising strategic decisions made by councillors.
Having a good ward councillor can be vital in that they can place pressure on a council’s leadership and its officers to prioritise a particular road for repairs or a troublesome junction for a revamp.
Still on the fence about whether or not to vote?
These are just some of the things your council is responsible for – the full list goes on and on.
It’s why the Electoral Reform Society encourages people to take part in local democracy and vote when given the opportunity.
It’s also why we are campaigning for changes to how local elections operate: currently millions of votes cast in one-party dominated local authorities are being wasted because of how the voting system works.
Parties are frequently rewarded with a disproportionate number of councillors, resulting in ‘single-party states’ where scrutiny is desperately lacking.
The solution? Vote if there are elections near you and join us to campaign for a better democracy that puts voters at the centre.
Picture credit: Albert Bridge – geograph.org.uk/p/5740533