The system of councils in England is something that most of us have grown up with. We look to the council if there’s an issue with the roads, or with our rubbish collection, and every three or four years we might review who we want to represent us on the local governing body. But how much do you really know about the councils who work for your interests and are you getting the most out of the services that they offer? The average council tax in England is now £1,700 a year which is a sizeable chunk of the household budget – and a large enough sum for some people to need to borrow to pay for some of it. If you don’t feel you are getting value for money what can you do about it?
Council Structure in England
There are two different types of councils across most of England: county councils on one level and district, borough or city councils on another.
- County councils take responsibility for county-wide services, including education, fire and public safety, social care, transport and planning.
- Local councils are responsible for a much smaller geographic area and will cover services such as housing, local planning applications, rubbish collection and council tax.
The purpose of having a system of councils is to be able to organise and structure our communities. They also provide transparency to official decision making and offer a way for anyone to have a say in how their local town or county is run, either by electing a councillor or becoming one. In theory, councils are the perfect way to ensure that there is an infrastructure in place to deliver services and support the local community.
What can you use your County council for?
County councils provide a wide range of services to people who live within defined county lines. For example, your county council will deal with:
- Trading standards issues, such as scams, doorstep crime or setting up No Cold Calling Zones
- Registering a birth or a death, or booking a ceremony for a wedding or civil partnership
- Financial assessments for social care
- Applications for a disabled driver Blue Badge, as well as bus passes or travel vouchers
- Administering grants and funding for people and projects in the local community
- School applications, as well as school transport and the provision of free school meals
What can you use your Local council for?
Local councils carry out a wide range of functions available to anyone who lives within the catchment area for the council. So, you could contact your local council if you want to:
- Find out when your rubbish is collected
- Report a missed rubbish collection
- Apply for a licence – for example, a street collection licence, pet shop licence or a licence that enables you to have a skip on, or near, your property
- Property related queries, such as applying for planning permission or to rent a council-owned garage
- Handle your council tax payments – for example you might be looking to apply for a council tax exemption or for information on council tax reductions for disabilities
- Report problems in your local area, such as potholes in the road
- Pay for a parking season ticket or for any outstanding parking tickets you have
What if you feel like they don’t do enough?
Issues with councils, local or county, often arise when people feel that they are not receiving adequate services in return for annual council tax payments. The problem is that many councils today are chronically underfunded but, nevertheless, cuts to services, such as social care and libraries, are tough to take at the same time as council tax demands have increased. In fact, council tax is set to rise across 95% of councils this year according to the 2018 State of Local Government Finance research. Despite this, around 80% of councils now fear for their financial stability. A study by the Local Government Information Unit (LGiU) think tank and The Municipal Journal found that children’s services and social care put the most pressure on council budgets. But is there anything you can do if you feel like your council doesn’t do enough?
How to hold your council accountable
There are a number of ways to have your say when it comes to what your local council does.
- Make a complaint to the specific department that covers any issues you’ve had
- Speak to your councilor about the problems that you’ve had
- Complain to your local MP
- Raise a complaint with an impartial body – for example if your issue is with council housing, you can complain to the Housing Ombudsman
- Contact the Local Government and Social Care Ombudsman, the final stage for complaints about councils
- Become a local councillor – sometimes the only way to really effect change is to stand for election yourself
- How to get your council tax reduced
- How council house right to buy works
- What are your rights as a social housing tenant?