Election 2015

Why local government matters in this election

Manchester Town Hall Image copyright Getty Images

Town halls across England will be looking to Westminster for news of how much money they will get to maintain local services - as well as how much power they get to take their own decisions.

Westminster MPs only have legislative powers and responsibilities for local government in England.

What's at stake?

Child and adult social care, housing, High Street businesses, parking and transport, recycling and rubbish collection, parks and libraries.

They're all services managed to a large extent by local authorities, and funded in part by one-off grants and the likes of council tax, business rates and other fees and charges.

For English local authorities, the rest of the money comes in the form of an annual direct grant from the Treasury.

The current government has cut local government funding overall in real terms but at the same time, it's getting more expensive to dispose of waste, provide social care to an ageing population and employ staff, despite capped pay rises.

Over the past five years there has also been a push for more decisions to be taken locally, particularly on planning and building.

What are the numbers?

English local government is expected to spend more than £114bn this year - around a quarter of all public spending, according to the government.

The average Band D council tax set by local authorities in England for 2014-15 was £1,468, an increase of 0.9% on the previous year.

Housing starts in 2014 in England were up 10% on 2014 on the previous year - but this figure is 25% below the house-building peak reached in 2007.

From April 2016 the cost of adult social care in England will be capped at £72,000, from the age of 65 onwards. But £230 a week of the costs charged by a care home will not count.

What won't the politicians be saying?

Squaring the circle is only going to get harder - that is, keeping the cost of local government down while the social care bill rises and demand for housing grows, at least in urban areas.

Alongside balancing the books, the next government will be faced with a myriad of options on further devolution to English local authorities.

Options discussed so far include more city mayors, "super-councils" made up of five or six local authorities as in Greater Manchester, and even the revival of the idea of elected regional assemblies.

It's been suggested these bodies could oversee policies such as transport, social care and housing as well as police budgets.

But it's not clear how much of an appetite exists for these changes, earlier versions of which were rejected under Labour in 2004 and under the coalition in 2011.

What has happened since 2010?

  • Localism Act 2011 placed onus on local authorities to take responsibility for decisions about housing, services and commercial development via "neighbourhood plans"
  • Also introduced a "power of competence" for councils - the right to do "anything apart from that which is specifically prohibited" without Whitehall approval
  • The National Audit Office estimates funding in 2016 will have dropped 37% since 2010 in real terms

What the experts say

"Individuals have paid the price of funding reductions, whether it is through seeing their local library close, roads deteriorate or support for young people and families scaled back. These local services need to be adequately funded in the next parliament if they are going to survive the next few years" - Cllr David Sparks, chair of the Local Government Association

"The idea of becoming self-sufficient would in the short term create a far more stable environment - even if the government did a deal with local government that accepted that local resources would decline more than they have up to now" - Professor Tony Travers, London School of Economics