Local Elections in Britain

By Colin Rallings; Michael Thrasher | Go to book overview

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Local elections—a case of mystery, intrigue and neglect

Local elections in Britain are a mystery to the general public, intriguing to the media and somewhat neglected by academics. There are good reasons for all three of these assessments. Most of the electorate are puzzled about the local government system for the simple reason that it is puzzling. The structure is already complex and recent structural changes will only serve to add to that complexity. In 1991 the government established a Local Government Commission for England. At the same time it asked the respective Secretaries of State for Scotland and Wales to review the local government structure in those countries. There followed wholesale structural changes in both Scotland and Wales with the replacement of a two-tier system by all-purpose or unitary authorities. In England changes have been piecemeal, resulting in a local government structure which comprises a mix of single—and two-tier authorities. The cycle of local elections is an intellectual challenge in itself. Some authorities have elections when others of the same type do not. There are even occasions when, within a single local authority, electors in some wards are able to vote in an election but their neighbours in adjacent wards, literally across the street in some cases, are not. At least with general and European elections every elector realises something is expected of them, even if some still prefer not to exercise their right to vote.

Arguably, the British local government system is as much of a mystery to the electorate in the 1990s as it was when it was reorganised more than twenty years ago. Before 1973, local government in England—excluding London which had been reorganised in 1964—consisted of 48 county councils, 79 county boroughs, 285 municipal boroughs, 491 urban districts and 415 rural districts, not to mention approximately 10,000 parish councils and meetings. Many of these authorities were extremely small, with fewer than half the county districts having populations above 20,000 (Redcliffe-Maud and Wood 1974). The position in Scotland and Wales was no less complex. Reorganised in 1929, Scottish local government consisted of 33 county councils alongside 4 all-purpose councils of cities which covered the major population centres of Glasgow, Edinburgh, Aberdeen and Dundee. Below the counties were some 21 large burghs, 176 small burghs and 196 district councils. The pattern in Wales resembled more the

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