There are 1264 councillors on the 22 unitary councils and some 8000 councillors also serve on 735 community and town councils. Wales’ 22 local authorities play a central role in the governance of Wales. Welsh local government provides the leadership and services necessary for successful local economies and sustainable local communities. Welsh councils spend over £8 billion and employ over 150,000 people in delivering vital public services that impact on everyone’s everyday lives.
Councils are by far the biggest employer in their area and contribute significantly to the local economy. Councils provide a wide range of personal, community and environmental services for individuals and whole communities from ‘the cradle to the grave’. Welsh local government is responsible for delivering a wide range of services and functions, including:
- Social Services
- Highways and Transport
- Waste management
- Leisure & Cultural services
- Consumer protection
- Environmental Health
- Economic Development
- Environmental Services; and
- Emergency Planning
Councils have to provide certain statutory services as set out in legislation and can provide other services at their discretion. Councils have statutory responsibilities to provide local services such as social care and environmental health inspection and planning development management.
Councils provide some services directly, work in partnership with other organisations, and commission others to provide services on their behalf, such as the private and third sectors. Councils are not motivated by profit although they do provide some trading services such as catering, and services for which there are private sector alternatives such as leisure centres.
The funding for much of councils’ functions and service provision is through funding from the Welsh Government, mainly the Revenue Support Grant (RSG), supplemented by specific grants, Business Rates, earned income (such as car parking charges) and, of course, council tax. Councils currently have a significant amount of local flexibility around how they prioritise and spend their resources. The biggest spending services are education, social services and housing. Despite being one of the most contentious taxes, council tax is probably the most transparent and visible tax in the UK – everyone knows how much council tax they pay, and what it is spent on as councils provide this information with council tax bills. How many people know how much VAT or fuel duties people pay per year, or indeed what services this tax is then spent on?
People can also challenge their council tax banding if they believe it to be incorrect and can also apply for a range of discounts and support depending on individuals’ personal circumstances. Council tax represents only 4.2% of national taxation in the UK and funds on average only 20% of local council expenditure in Wales. The council tax helps pay for police officers and fire-fighters, as well as the broad range of council services.
More than just a service deliverer…
Councils are democratically representative of their local communities and promote participation in local democracy by local people. This is of course the central role of elected councillors.
Councils are central to the lives and futures of the communities they serve and have a unique power of community leadership. Community leadership means defining a vision for the community and working in partnership with a range of public sector, third sector and private sector partners to fulfil that vision. In practice this is achieved through partnerships, mutually agreed strategies, joint working and the pooling of resources.
Councils have a statutory power to promote the economic, social and environmental wellbeing of their areas which is usually expressed through the Community Strategy. The council has a duty to produce a Community Strategy which should bring together all partners and provide the longterm
vision and direction for the whole of a local area. Underneath this overarching plan, the council also prepares a number of other key strategies, including a Local Development Plan, Children and Young Peoples’ Strategy and a Heath and Well-being Strategy.
Councils have legal and moral duties to promote equality of opportunity and should be sensitive to the diverse needs for local services within their communities. The council has responsibilities to promote equalities as a provider of services, as a democratic body which is representative of all interests in the community, as a major employer and as a community leader.
In Wales there is a unique legal duty to promote sustainable development across all statutory bodies including councils. There are environmental limits which must underpin everything that councils and citizens do. A sustainable local government approach therefore should plan for prosperity not wealth, and offer sufficient local services and resources, whilst also understanding the need to live within environmental limits.
The public service delivery ‘architecture’ is evolving. Whilst councils are responsible for the provision of many services, they are not always delivered by the council and may be delivered by third sector or private sector or partners jointly with other authorities or agencies. The scale of services is also changing, with an increasing emphasis and expectation from the Welsh Government that certain services, such as education, waste and social services, should be delivered jointly or across regions.
“Find out what scrutiny committees exist in the council and the type of work they do (via the council website) so that when you are asked for a preference you will be well informed.”