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Central and Local Government

Some countries, such as the USA and Canada, are federal. They are made up of a number of states, each of which has its own government with its own powers to make laws and collect taxes. In these countries the central governments have powers only because the states have given diem powers. In Britain it is the other way around. Local gov­ernment authorities (generally known as 'councils') only have powers because the central government: has given diem powers. Indeed, they only exist because the central government allows them to exist. Several times in the last hundred years British governments have reorganized local government, abolishing some local councils and bringing new ones into existence.

The system of local government is very similar to the system of national government. There are elected representatives, called coun­cillors (the equivalent of MPs). They meet in a council chamber in the Town Hal! or County Hall (the equivalent of Parliament), where they make policy which is implemented by local government officers (the equivalent of civil servants).

Most British people have far more direct dealings with local gov­ernment than they do with national government. Local councils traditionally manage nearly all public services. Taken together, they employ three times as many people as the national government does. In addition, there is no system in Britain whereby a national govern­ment official has responsibility for a particular geographical area. (There is no one like a 'prefect' or 'governor'). In practice, therefore, local councils have traditionally been fairly free from constant central interference in their day to day work.

Local councils are allowed to collect one kind of tax. This is a tax based on property. (All other kinds are collected by central government.) It used to be called 'rates' and was paid only by those who owned property. Its amount varied according to the size and location of the property. In the early 1990s it was replaced by the 'community charge' (known as the 'poll tax'). This charge was the same for everybody who lived in the area covered by a council. It was very unpopular and was quickly replaced by the ‘council tax’, which is based on the estimated value of a property and the number of people living in it. Local councils are unable to raise enough money in this way for them to provide the services which central government has told them to provide. In addition, recent governments have imposed upper limits on the amount of council tax that councils can charge and now collect the taxes on business properties themselves (and then share the money out between local councils). As a result, well over half of a local council’s income is now given to it by central government.

The modern trend has been towards greater and greater control by central government. This is not just a matter of controlling the way local government raises money. There are now more laws governing the way councils can conduct their affairs. On top of this, schools and hospitals can now ‘opt out’ of local-government control. Perhaps this trend is inevitable now that national party politics dominates local politics. Successful independent candidates (candidates who do not belong to a political party) at local elections according to their national party preferences, if they bother to vote at all, so that these elections become a kind of opinion poll on the performance of the national government.



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