Legality and Locality: The Role of Law in Central-Local Government Relations

By Martin I. Loughlin | Go to book overview

6
INNOVATIVE FINANCING IN
LOCAL GOVERNMENT

The status of local government within our system of government is not easily determined from a purely legal point of view. Local authorities, being corporate bodies established by statute, are viewed by many lawyers as being relatively simple institutions. The general statutes (the Local Government Acts) provide a constitutional structure, in the form of a common management, financial and decision-making framework, and various functional statutes (such as Housing, Education, Planning, and Social Services Acts) equip that corporate body with a set of more or less precise responsibilities. Since both types of statute provide a range of controls -- both internal and external -- over the exercise of these powers, we are tempted to evaluate the relative autonomy of local government by examining this checklist of powers and constraints. This type of approach is, however, likely to be highly distortive. And the reason for this is primarily because the functions performed by law within the system are dependent on a more basic set of practices concerning the structure of governance. Consequently, although law in a sense establishes the framework of the local government system, it does not define that system.

If we are to understand the modern institution of local government we must first recognize the fact that local government has become locked within an extensive network of government. The status of local government is thus largely a product of its function within this interdependent network. This network is often not explicitly recognized in law and is accommodated by the widespread use of framework legislation; law, that is, which is facilitative rather than restrictive and which often confers powers without specifying controls. In effect, law cedes some of its control functions to a variety of administrative networks. These informal networks, being generally built on divergent interests, have both an ambiguous status and nature. The boundaries of these networks, and the power relations within them, are constantly shifting. Nevertheless, because of high structural interdependencies and because of the overall complexities of the fields which they regulate, these networks are of great importance to the achievement of system stability and performance. Although the image projected from a traditional legal perspective is that of a central authority imposing its will on dependent bodies, when we take account of the actual workings of government a more complex picture emerges; while the centre possesses a great array of special powers, it too is also locked into a highly complex network which it cannot easily control.

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