What are you voting for in this year’s local government elections?
PUBLISHED: 07:00 10 March 2019
This year’s local elections will give voters across the region the chance to have their say on who runs their local council – but what will those elected be doing once they’ve been voted on to the authority?
The councils up for election this year are the districts and boroughs and also – in part of the county – parish and town councils.
But what do they do? What are they responsible for? And what do they have nothing to do with?
Firstly, what is the difference between a district and a borough council? The simple answer is that in terms of the work the do, nothing – it’s only a name.
The top councillor in a district is the Chair who manages full meetings of the authority and wears a chain of office at official events.
The top councillor in a borough is the Mayor. At present there are two boroughs in Suffolk – Ipswich and St Edmundsbury. After the elections in May and St Edmundsbury’s merger with Forest Heath there will be only Ipswich.
If the new West Suffolk council wants to apply for borough status it will have to apply for a new charter – until that happens it will be a district with a Chair at its head.
What are districts/boroughs responsible for?
Smaller than county councils, they run some of the most significant public-facing services that people rely on.
Environment: They are responsible for collecting domestic waste from homes – whether they do this directly with their own staff or hire in an outside contractor to do the work.
They are also responsible for clearing rubbish from public areas and supplying waste bins.
However the disposal of the rubbish is not their responsibility – the county council has to make sure there is a way to dispose of the rubbish collected. It is responsible for ensuring the incinerator at Blakenham operates and that there are recycling facilities available.
Leisure and culture: Districts and boroughs can (and in many cases do) run a wide variety of services that are seen to make life better in their areas. They include parks, sporting facilities like swimming pools, sports pitches and leisure centres.
Some councils – like Ipswich and West Suffolk – run their own theatres and many promote special events during the year to attract visitors and stimulate economic activity.
Some also run museums either directly or in association with other organisations. Ipswich council owns the town’s museum in the High Street and Christchurch Mansion.
They are now run in conjunction with Colchester museums – but their buildings and exhibits remain in Ipswich ownership.
Planning: These councils are responsible for planning and development control in their areas – everything from producing a local plan saying how the shape of the area should develop through to individual planning decisions like whether a householder can build a new extension.
This is can shape the way their area develops – and is one of the most high-profile services offered by authorities.
Housing: Boroughs and districts have a responsibility to provide housing for people from their areas, but how they do this can alter from council to council.
Some, like Ipswich council, still have a substantial stock of council homes – and are in fact adding to this stock.
Others have sold off their homes to housing associations – but they still retain the responsibility to find homes for vulnerable individuals and families. That includes providing some sheltered housing.
Environmental health and licensing: This covers a wide variety of issues from dealing with noisy neighbours to monitoring the cleanliness of restaurants and food retailers.
These councils are now also the licensing authorities for shops, bars and restaurants selling alcohol and for taxis and private hire vehicles.
Economic Development: A bit of a grey area here – districts and boroughs can use their land ownership to encourage businesses to move to or stay in their areas. County councils can also do this – in effect this kind of activity is normally done in partnership between different tiers of local government.
One high-profile area of economic development where districts and boroughs do get involved is in car parking – although they are often in competition with privately-run car parks in the same area.
Council tax collection: Districts and boroughs send out your bills every year – but only a small proportion of the total sum (about 20%) goes to them. The rest goes to the county council and Police and Crime Commissioner.
What these elections are NOT about:
Many local authority functions are carried out by county councils which cover much wider areas and have much higher budgets.
That doesn’t always stop political candidates from talking about things that are way beyond the competence of the authority they are standing for.
But district councils are not responsible for:
Social care: Entirely a county council matter (except for the provision of sheltered accommodation for those able to lead essentially independent lives).
Education: Most schools are now academies, but county councils do have a responsibility to find school places in the areas. Districts and boroughs have no school responsibilities.
Roads: Ipswich and St Edmundsbury councils used to manage roads in their areas under an agreement from the county council – but that ended several years ago. But now all roads are the responsibility of the county council (except the A14, A11 and part of the A12 which are run by Highways England).
Libraries: The county council has to ensure there is a library service – there is no district involvement.
Police: Run by the Police and Crime Commissioner. Districts do have representatives on the Police and Crime Panel, but this is essentially an advisory role.
Public Health: Now a county matter, but with support from health authorities.
Public protection (trading standards and fire): Entirely a county council matter.
Parish and town councils
These “third tier” authorities (where they exist) have little actual power – although where they represent large towns like Felixstowe or Sudbury they can have considerable influence.
They can advise on planning applications, manage parish cemeteries and some small parks, and in some places they have residual powers – for instance Leiston Town Council owns the town’s film theatre.