The British democratic system is the most centralist in Europe. What is meant by that is that it is governed from Westminster through Whitehall, rather than by local government institutions. The public sector needs funding to pay for the services it provides and that funding comes from taxation. The majority of the public services you receive are provided by local government in the form of councils.
You may think that your council tax is what funds local government entirely, but the money raised in this way is not nearly enough to fund schools, police, local hospitals, etc. Local councils rely on funding from central government, the bulk of which comes in the form of a Revenue Support Grant (RSG). The level of RSG distributed to councils depends on their regional economy, so poorer councils receive higher RSG than the wealthier ones in the South East say.
Hierarchical Structure of Councils
The above graphic shows the council hierarchy. Hampshire County Council is an upper tier authority and provides services for the entire county of Hampshire with an annual budget in the region of £1.9 billion. Underneath Hampshire County Councils are 11 District Councils spread throughout Hampshire. These 11 District Councils are middle tier authorities. Under each of these District Councils will be a number of Town or parish Councils.
Up until around 1969, all councils outside of the metropolitan regions consisted of several tiers of government, with County Councils at the top; District Councils beneath them and at the bottom tier, some area had town and parish councils. However, from 1969 there was a move to simplify local government by replacing these tiers of bureaucracy with a single tier, known as Unitary Authorities. Unitary Authorities are easier for the public to understand since they do not need a degree in public services to know which council to call about what service or indeed which councillor to vote for at what tier of government. Today, relatively few Unitaries exist and you may wonder why that is if they are meant to simplify local democracy. It may be to do with who makes the rules and therefore who can change them. The majority of County Councils are in rural areas, where the Conservatives generally receive the highest vote share. Perhaps there has been a resistance to convert Counties to Unitaries, because there is a perception that they would lose this vote share since the majority of Unitaries are in urban areas such as Portsmouth and Southampton where other Parties tend to receive a higher proportion of the vote.
Hampshire County Council does not cover all of Hampshire as its name suggest, since in Hampshire there are the two Unitary Authorities of Portsmouth and Southampton. These are the only two Unitaries in Hampshire and they are not at all hierarchical in that they are single-tier local government. If you need to speak to a councillor about a particular issue, you do not first have to find out what that councillor’s responsibilities cover, since if it is a locally provided public service then the councillor will be responsible for it.
The rest of Hampshire is divided into 78 Divisions, meaning that there are 78 County councillors. There are more Conservative County councillors than from any other party, so the administration is Conservative run. That is to say, the Conservatives decide how to spend your taxes and therefore which public services to provide, bearing in mind that most services have a statutory minimum level of service that has to be provided. However, that is not necessarily the case for Libraries, Recycling, Youth Centres and numerous other public services.
County Council responsibilities (Turnover around £1.9bn)
- Social Services including public health scrutiny
- Youth Services
- Highways (not Motorways)
- Waste disposal
- Country Parks
The New Forest is a District Council as is Eastleigh, although Eastleigh received a royal warrant permitting it to be known as a Borough Council. New Forest District Council currently has its council district divided into 60 Wards and therefore has 60 councillors representing its residents. While neighbouring Eastleigh has 44 Seats and therefore 44 councillors representing its residents. In the New Forest, 58 of those councillors are Conservative; therefore, it has a Conservative administration with a Conservative leader. Eastleigh has 38 Liberal Democrat councillors, so therefore it has a Liberal Democrat administration with a Liberal Democrat leader.
District Council responsibilities (Turnover around £53m)
- Planning authority
- Waste collection
- Public open space maintenance
- Leisure Centres
Town & Parish Councils
Town and Parish Councils should be given more respect by the public since their councillors are frequently are given the responsibility for spending precepts in the order of £400,000 to £1m and yet it is common for councillors to be elected unopposed. This occurs when fewer councillors apply to serve the council than there are Seats available. This was precisely the case with West End Parish Council when during the period from 1995 to 2011 too few people wanted to serve the community. It was not until 2011 that this unbroken democratic deficit was halted.
Town & Parish Council responsibilities (Turnover under £1m)
- Remembrance Day event
- Community Centres
- Maintenance of cemeteries
- Open spaces devolved down from the District Council
The Department of Communities and Local Government (DCLG) has been in negotiation with Council leaders in Hampshire since the middle of 2015 about how best to structure the devolved powers. The leaders have agreed that they want to see a “Board of Leaders” model, but according to the BBC on 26 February 2016, Greg Clark, the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government seems to not only favour a “Metro Mayor” model. He wants to see areas based on Local Enterprise Partnership (LEP) regions instead of the countywide model preferred by the council leaders…
A history of 20 years of devolution in Eastleigh
Devolution to localities is a concept that has been practised by Liberal Democrats for a long time. It is well known that the Lib Dems want to see a fairer democracy by changing the electoral system to proportional representation and in particular the Single Transferable Vote. The Police and Crime Commissioner elections followed this principle, giving the electorate a second preference. The administrative District of Eastleigh Borough Council has been Lib Dem controlled for more than 20 years and has practised devolution to communities via the method of Local Area committees (LACs) during that time. LACs deal with the majority of issues in their direct community. For West End and Grange Park residents, the Local Area Committee is known as the Hedge End, West End & Botley Local Area Committee, or HEWEB LAC. This is very useful with respect to understanding the needs of residents on a very local basis, but especially useful when it comes to planning, since the 13 Hedge End, West End & Botley Borough councillors will know their area better than councillors from other parts of Eastleigh.