Audit 2017: How democratic is local government in England?

England (outside Greater London) is one of the largest areas in the liberal democratic world that still lack any form of regional governance. Here, local authorities are the only other tier of elected government and they play a key role in the democratic life of cities, towns and regions. As part of the 2017 Audit of UK DemocracyColin Copus and the Democratic Audit team explore how democratically local councils have operated.

paul dennett

Paul Dennett, City Mayor of Salford, at a bake-off event in 2016. Photo: KeithJustKeith via a CC-BY 2.0 licence

This article was published as part of our 2017 Audit of UK democracy. We have now published: The UK’s Changing Democracy: The 2018 Democratic Audit with LSE Press, available in all ebook formats. You can download the whole book for free, and individual chapters, including a fully revised version of this article.

What does democracy require of England’s local governments?


  • Local governments should engage the wide participation of local citizens in their governance via voting in regular elections, and an open interest group and local consultation process.
  • Local voting systems should accurately convert parties’ vote shares into seats on councils, and should be open to new parties entering into competition.
  • As far as possible, consistent with the need for efficient scales of operation, local government areas and institutions should provide an effective expression of local and community identities that are important in civil society (and not just in administrative terms).
  • Local governments should be genuinely independent centres of decision-making, with sufficient own financial revenues and policy autonomy to be able to make meaningful choices on behalf of their citizens.
  • Within councils the key decision-makers should be clearly identifiable by the public and media. They should be subject to regular and effective scrutiny from the council members as a whole, and publicly answerable to local citizens and media.
  • Local governments are typically subject to some supervision on key aspects of their conduct and policies, in England directly by UK government in Whitehall. But they should enjoy a degree of constitutional protection (or ‘entrenchment’) for key roles, and an assurance that cannot simply be abolished, bypassed or fully programmed by their supervisory tier of government.
  • The principle of subsidiarity says that policy issues that can be effectively handled in decentralised ways should be allocated to the lowest tier of government, closest to citizens.

In 2004, the Blair government was worried that its devolution changes in Scotland and Wales could be seen as a basis for reducing their number of MPs in the House of Commons, hurting its fortunes. In a bid to forestall that, a schema for implementing a very weak form of regional devolution for England was devised, and a pilot version was put to a referendum of voters in the heartland Labour region of the north east. Voters there decisively rejected it, and all progress on the subject was halted for a decade. This left England (outside London) being directly run by UK departments and quasi-governmental agencies (like the NHS), plus Whitehall-supervised local councils.

The weakness of English regionalism may also be partly due to local loyalties to their existing councils. But local authorities have no constitutional protection from Whitehall interference, and depend heavily on central government grants. Their relative weakness as a tier of government  has been compounded by the ‘nationalisation’ of the UK press and media system and the decline of the local press, plus the dominance of UK national parties in ‘first past the post’ local elections that only weakly relate parties’ seats to their vote share.

Recent developments

The May 2017 local elections across England and Scotland took place in the early part of the ‘snap’ General Election campaign triggered by Theresa May, at a point when the Conservatives still enjoyed a massive opinion poll lead over Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour, and with the Liberal Democrats trailing at just 8 per cent national support. The party vote shares at local level across Great Britain turned out rather differently. The Conservatives gained many seats on 38% support; Labour was on a historic low of 27%; and the Liberal Democrats defending their local ‘community’ bases secured 18%, more than double their eventual general election vote share a month later.

 The same elections also saw the May government delivering on previous coalition and Cameron government promises of more localism by creating elected executive mayors to operate on a sub-regional level. These would end the decade-long stasis on devolution within England and the new mayors would take on functions previously run from Whitehall or quasi-government agencies. The first regional mayor elections were successfully held in six areas: turnouts were low, although this might be expected for brand new roles unfamiliar to voters. These developments revived the somewhat flagging momentum towards more use of elected mayors (see below).

Strengths, weakness, opportunities and threats

Current strengthsCurrent weaknesses
The development of multi-party politics has reduced the number of completely on-party councils, and cut the number of ‘safe’ councils. When councils are ‘no overall control’, cross-party coalitions are needed. This may increase the range of views being considered beyond those of a single party.Local council elections in England use plurality rule ('first past the post') voting. It often produces severely disproportional election outcomes, especially over-representing the largest party in a local area with. Some councils become completely one-party for long periods, and others are dominant party systems, where the same party holds power for decades. First-past the post sometimes provides for a clear winning party but it does not adequately reflect a wide range of political views. If local policymaking is to be a deliberative process where debate take place in public a more proportionate electoral system would strengthen local democracy.
The voting system used for all executive mayors is the Supplementary Vote, a system that gives citizens first and second choice votes. It ensures that the person elected gains majority support amongst ‘eligible’ votes in each contest. To win, candidates normally must ‘reach out’ beyond their own party’s supporters to draw in second vote backing from the supporters of other parties.The Supplementary Vote does not guarantee majority support amongst all those voting. If people cannot identify the top two candidates, or decide to vote twice for smaller parties, then their votes may not count at the second stage.
Councils are democratically elected, representative bodies. They provide an opportunity for over 18,000 people across England to take part in holding elected office. Local government provides avenues for participation in politics and for allowing for a wider range of people to hold elected office than simply the 650 elected to parliament.Currently approximately 60 per cent of local government funding comes from the centre in the form of grants many of which, such as grants received for schools, are ringfenced and therefore cannot be used for purposes other than those set by the government. Central control leaves little discretion for local spending priorities to be realised thus undermining the democratic legitimacy of local government.
Local government is an institution that is able to provide a barrier between a powerful central state and local citizens and to at least attempt to attenuate the worst excesses of central policy.Local electoral turnout in England is among the lowest across Europe and bumps uncomfortably along in the mid to high 30% bracket – although turnout does increase when local elections are held on the same day as a general election.
As locally elected representatives, councillors are located close to the public in small wards. Hence they are able to make policy decisions, or decisions about the provision of public services, in ways that closely reflect local needs and priorities.Research shows that many voters in council elections are choosing parties to support on national lines. Hence local results may be influenced by the popularity of the government of the day in Westminster, rather than by local policies. Local elections are often reported in the media chiefly for what they can tell us about the national fortunes of the main political parties. These traits weaken the purpose of local elections, and the accountability of councillors to local voters.
Councillors - and the council as an organisation - are easily accessible to the public and provide channels into local political decision-making.The large size of English local government – again compared to much of Europe – makes it remote from local citizens and undermines it as a truly local institution.
Councils provide for a set of electorally legitimised processes for arbitrating and deciding between competing local views and issues, and resolving them.Local government can be re-shaped, re-structured, re-organised at the whim of the centre and its boundaries altered and reshaped or particular councils abolished or merged, with little regard to the wishes of local communities. Thus, local government, as a democratic component of the state is constitutionally weak.
Functions, powers, responsibilities and tasks of local government can be removed by the centre in Whitehall and placed with other agencies or bodies. UK ministers have interfered extensively and freely in local policy-making, removing whole functions (like education) and limited councils’ tax-raising powers.

Future opportunitiesFuture threats
A central government policy of devolution has seen major public service responsibility and some budgets devolved from the centre to new combined authorities, and in May 2017 voters in six such combined authorities directly elected a mayor to head the combined authority. It is likely after the 2017 general election that further devolution to local government, through combined authorities, will form a part of government thinking.Local government, as a creature of statute and with no independent right to exist is under constant threat of centralising governments or the centralising tendencies of the civil service.
The Brexit negotiations designed to ensure the repatriation of powers, responsibilities, finance and sovereignty lost as a result of EU centralisation can be used to accelerate devolution to local government. A strong local government voice at, or around the negotiations could make sure that repatriated powers do not stop at Westminster and Whitehall, but flow down to local government and to parish-level government.Local government operates in an environment where it competes with a wide range of external agencies and bodies, which spend public money, make public policy decisions and affect the well-being of local communities but do so without a democratic mandate. Local government is open to the centre removing its responsibilities and functions and placing them with unelected bodies.
Local government’s experiences and practices of citizen engagement and devolution to local communities can bolster its support, and engage citizens in policy making and local decisions far more effectively than similar attempts by central government.The low fiscal discretion available to local government will continue to hinder its ability to respond to economic change and austerity policies implemented by the centre.
There may be scope in the Brexit negotiations for improvements in how councils achieve funding. Currently English local authorities receive 70 different forms of EU funding managed by multiple different local government departments. So the processes involved can be confusing, slow and bureaucratic. Taking back control within the UK might speed things up and produce simplified ways forward, assuming that the UK government continues funding the same kinds of scheme.There are no guarantees that the UK government will pick up and replace EU funding to local councils as part of the Brexit process. The two stage process envisaged by ministers, of first repatriating powers within the UK, and only thereafter considering whether any of them should be delegated down to local authorities, is likely to re-centralise controls in Whitehall, certainly for the short term. ‘Henry VIII’ powers in Brexit legislation will also give ministers far more discretion in how they implement executive powers.

Elected mayors

Throughout the 20th century, English mayors were simply honorific office holders, chairing council meetings and opening events, but otherwise devoid of power. All power instead lay with the majority party group on the council (or coalition), whose leadership typically formed a ‘submerged executive’ little known to citizens and not very visible even to local media.

The Blair government changed this historic pattern in 1998 by introducing a powerful executive mayor for Greater London, directly elected by citizens using the Supplementary Vote (SV) method in 2000. The perceived success of this innovation lead to local citizens anywhere in England gaining the power in 2002 to petition to hold a binding referendum on whether to create an elected mayor with executive powers for their area, and thus be able to directly choose the political head of the council, again using SV. Table 1 shows that eight main towns and London boroughs adopted the system straightaway, but further developments lagged. A legislative change in 2007 allowed councils to resolve to move to a mayoral system of governance and thus avoid a referendum. Three main cities adopted the reform in 2012. So far there have been 53 referendums and currently there are only 16 directly elected mayors outside of London. Two authorities that tried out elected mayors (Hartlepool and Stoke-on-Trent) subsequently scrapped them.

Table 1: The spread of elected executive mayors in England outside London

Conventional local authoritiesEstablished
Bedford, Doncaster, Hackney LB, Lewisham LD, Tower Hamlets LB, Middlesbrough, North Tyneside, Watford2002
Bristol, Liverpool, Salford2012

Regional city mayorsEstablished
Cambridgeshire and Peterborough; Greater Manchester; Liverpool City Region; Tees Valley; West of England; West Midlands2017

Direct election of local office-holders was adopted by the coalition government for Police and Crime Commissioners (PCCs0, introduced across England and Wales in a disastrous November 2012 set of elections. Held out of sequence in the chilly autumn, these SV elections attracted only 15% turnout, but SV produced useful results carrying some legitimacy. In May 2016 the second PCC elections were run at the normal May time, producing 21 Conservatives, 16 Labour, three Independents and two Plaid Cymru commissioners.

From May 2017 a new type of mayor and a new type of sub-national political institution: the combined authority was introduced in the six areas shown above, with directly elected metro-mayors. This devolution initiative stemmed from the Local Democracy, Economic Development and Construction Act 2009 and Cities and Local Government Devolution Act 2016. As the name suggest, the combined authorities are groupings together of existing local authorities that have negotiated a devolution deal with the government. The key consequence of each deal was that the councils acting together received devolved responsibilities for a range of different services and devolved budgets. Several metro-Mayors (including Manchester) will take over the role previously filled by Police and Crime Commissioners in their area, and some will seek to better integrate social care with regional NHS provision – giving them substantial roles.

The significance of these new types of sub-national combination of authorities and the directly elected mayors that head them cannot be overstated. They are a new way of the centre attempting to devolve powers and function, and early developments were promising. Some mayoral contests attracted ‘big hitter’ politicians as candidates. The former Cabinet minister Andy Burnham won the Greater Manchester contest for Labour against the run of polls, and was quickly prominent in the response to the Manchester terror bombing shortly afterwards). And the former John Lewis executive Andy Street won the West Midlands for the Conservatives.

But as with all sub-national bodies within England, they exist at the behest of the centre, so Whitehall’s willingness to devolve effective powers remain to be tested. Interference from Westminster is also an ever-present threat. For instance, the Conservatives’ ill-fated 2017 general election manifesto unexpectedly proposed to scrap SV elections for police commissioners and all elected mayors, and replace it with first past the post, a move that would dramatically impair these office-holders’ legitimacy. The advent of a hung Parliament may mean that such a partisan and destructive move (without support from any other party) is scrapped, but that the threat came so close to implementation is disturbing.

Local cabinets and scrutiny committees

The historic patterns of running local councils in England have also changed in the last decade. Once all councillors were collectively engaged in decision-making through committees and no single councillor legally held decision-making powers. The reality of such a system, however, was that only the majority group of councillors would see their preferred decisions made in committee. Committee chairs would also often meet together privately, or with officers and act as a form of ‘submerged’ or nascent cabinet.

After the Local Government Act 2000, all councils were obliged to distinguish between councillors holding executive positions within a cabinet headed by an executive leader, and the remainder of the council membership. Executive councillors would hold portfolios and if the council decided, could have individual delegated authority. Councillors outside the cabinet would no longer have day-to-day decision-making powers, but would sit on overview and scrutiny committees, charged with holding the executive to account, reviewing policy and decisions, or indeed, holding to account and reviewing the actions of organisations beyond the council. However, overview and scrutiny committees cannot make decisions, only produce reports and recommendations for others to consider. This system made a clear break with the previous approach. 

Reorganisation of local authority areas

As a result of reorganisations in the 1960s and ‘70s, England has some of the largest units of local government in Europe. There is still a folklore-like attachment in much of local government and Whitehall to the belief that bigger local authorities are better. However, in recent decades national governments have preferred to make only ‘organic’ changes a bit at a time, rather than more expensive across-the-board reforms. Table 2 shows the most recent reorganisation in 2009, which focused in more rural areas with two tiers of district and county councils. It saw 44 existing councils abolished and replaced by just 9 new councils.

Table 2: Changes made in the 2009 reorganisation

County areaMain reformOld councilsNew councils
BedfordshireCounty council abolished. Two districts now unitary authorities32
CheshireCounty council abolished. Two districts now unitary authorities72
CornwallUnitary county, 6 districts abolished71
DurhamUnitary county, 7 districts abolished81
NorthumberlandUnitary county, 5 districts abolished71
ShropshireUnitary county, 5 districts abolished61
WiltshireUnitary county, 4 districts abolished51

These changes were justified in terms of both efficiency and creating a simpler structure of unitary authorities, more understandable by citizens. However, they also meant a consequent loss of over 1,300 councillors, a 63 per cent reduction in the areas concerned. In the last five (de-localising) rows of Table 2, fewer elected members meant less participation by people in local politics, a greater workload for the remaining members and a greater distance between them and the citizens they represent. In addition, larger units of local government are more remote from the public than the smaller units they replaced, which van create more communicative distance between councils and citizens. Critics argue that as English local government units get bigger and are less proximate to citizens, so citizens will tend to disengage and to feel less politically efficacious.

The Localism Act 2011

A section of the Localism Act 2011 provides that ‘a local authority has power to do anything that individuals generally may do’ unless they are specifically prohibited in legislation. However, this relatively new ‘general competence’ power does not free local government from oversight by Whitehall departments, who have been less than enthusiastic in embracing the idea of new freedoms for local government. Indeed, the power does not fundamentally undermine the structure of public law and how councils are restricted in their ability to act. This highlights a conflict between the legalistic view of local government and the political / governing view of local government. Yet, if English local government is to have any chance of genuinely focusing local views, and having governing autonomy to act as it thinks fit to solve the issues it faces, then the general power of competence is a step in the right direction.

Local government finances

The impact of UK government austerity policies has hit home hardest in English local councils. They calculated in July 2017 that central revenue support grants of £9.9bn would be reduced to just £2.2bn by 2019-20 on Whitehall’s projections: ‘Local government as a whole in England would have £15.7bn less central government funding by 2020 than it did in 2010’. Around half of all local councils get no grant support at all. Yet local authorities’ ability to raise council tax is also restricted by Westminster ministers, and monies raised from business rates cannot be retained locally but are passed to the Treasury. In response, cutting ‘discretionary’ spending has been the main thing that councils have had to do – especially repairing potholes in roads infrequently; cutting back library, museum and leisure services; collecting rubbish less often; firing staff; selling off land and depleting financial reserves. Statutory duties, such as providing social care for old people and long term ill and disabled people, and ensuring the safety of children, have been pruned too, but with somewhat more ameliorative central funding arriving late on, chiefly to forestall care scandals. This all adds up to a picture of a dependent tier of government scrambling around to maintain services under acute pressure.


In 2013 the Political and Constitutional Reform Committee, then chaired by Graham Allen MP (but since scrapped) published a report on the prospects of codifying the relationships between central and local government. It included a Manifesto (pp.1-9) by this author, outlining how genuine local autonomy could be introduced. It proposed radically new local law-making powers for councils, constitutional protection against being scrapped or reorganised, substantial tax-raising powers and financial independence from central government. The manifesto also envisaged an English Parliament with much the same powers as the Scottish Parliament (except for the local autonomy provisions above), including safeguards for local citizens to control local voting methods and changes in how councils are run by local referenda. Implementing such a manifesto, or even part of it, would considerably enhance the democratic strength of local government and recognise it as a permanent partner with Whitehall in the overall government of England.

This post does not represent the views of the LSE.

Colin Copus is Professor of Local Politics and Director of the Local Governance Research Unit in the Department of Politics and Public Policy, De Montfort University.

Similar Posts