Local Government Explained Part 2: What do councils do?

May 27, 2021  

Most people know that councils collect bins and fix potholes. But they do much, much more. Councils are responsible for a vast range of services that touch many aspects of our daily lives. They also provide ongoing support for people going through the hardest times in their lives.

Our previous edition of Local Government Explained looked at the structures of English local government. This, Part 2 in our series, will look more closely at what councils actually do and the contribution this makes to our society.

What do councils do? 

Councils provide more than 800 services to their communities. They are obliged by law to offer most of these services (which are known as statutory). But for some services, they have more flexibility over whether and to what level they provide them at (these are known as discretionary). 

In single-tier areas, the council (a metropolitan borough, London borough or unitary) will be responsible for all services. In two-tier areas, responsibilities are split between the county and the district. Find out more about structures here.

Here’s a list of the main services councils provide and how they are split between tiers.

Why are services split between two tiers of local government in some areas? 

Areas where services are split between a county and a district tend to be those in which populations are more spread over a larger area, as opposed to being more densely concentrated in a predominantly urban area.  

Services which are more directly related to place, such as housing, street cleaning and building regulations, tend to make more sense to be run over a smaller footprint. But services that are strategic such as highways, or which serve a specific population group that is more geographically spread out, such as children’s and adult social care, are carried out at the larger scale of a county council. 

However, this distribution isn’t the case in all areas. There are some large counties and some smaller authorities that have been unitarised and operate the whole range of services across their footprints.  

The two-tier system is not without its quirks. For people living in one of these, their bins will be collected by their district council and the waste disposed of by their county. When a person in a two-tier area dies, their death will be registered with the county but they will be buried or cremated by their district council.   

So, what do councils spend their money on? 

Of the many services councils run, some take up more capacity than others. The chart below shows the proportion of overall council spend on different service areas. 

From our perspective as people who use council services, the wide range of what councils do affects seemingly endless aspects of our daily lives. From mending the pavements we walk on, to collecting our bins; from running the markets and licensing the pubs we frequent, to tending the parks and playgrounds our children play in. But it’s a lesser-known fact that all this amounts to only a minority of what councils actually do overall. 

Nearly 60 per cent of all the money councils spend is on social care – children’s and adults. This means that the most significant area of activity for councils is for people who need the most intensive support: children who have challenging family circumstances, working-age adults with learning disabilities and elderly adults with care requirements. 

So, the full range of non-social-care services that councils provide, covering public health, housing, planning, the environment, transport and culture-related activity, in addition to central operating costs, adds up to just over 40 per cent of what they spend overall on average. This also accounts for why district councils have much smaller budgets, proportionately to single-tier councils, because they do not have responsibility for social care. 

Has it always been like this? 

The picture of council spend is not static. Over the last ten years the resource available to councils has decreased due to austerity policy. This, combined with other factors such as the wider lack of a policy to reform the financing of adult social care, is creating pressures within local government budgets. 

As the chart shows, over the ten years from 2009/10 to 2019/20, the average proportion of local authority budgets spent on children’s and adult social care has remained relatively protected. Children’s social care spend has gone up slightly overall by two per cent, and adult social care spend has decreased by seven per cent. Meanwhile, the proportion of budgets available to spend on other core service areas has decreased more significantly: between 24 and 59 per cent.

This is where the difference between statutory and discretionary services is important. Councils have increasingly had to focus available resource on the statutory services for which demand is growing – children’s services and adult social care. Indeed, demand is growing so fast due to trends like deepening inequality and our ageing population, that even relatively static budgets over ten years are in practice a real terms cut, and even children’s services and adult social care have faced reductions. But councils have both a moral and a legal duty to provide these services to the best of their ability for the people who need support at the most critical times of their lives. 

Because councils operate within fixed budgets largely determined by Government policy, local government struggles to provide the full range of services that they did pre-austerity. As we see from the chart above, areas like housing, transport and culture have all experienced significant decreases in spend. And in many cases, discretionary services, such as youth services, have been even more affected because councils are not obliged by law to provide them.  

So, in seeking to protect areas of spend for children and adults in the most acute and immediate need, councils have often had no other option but to take the decision to spend less in other service areas. This includes discretionary services, and in practice will have meant reducing or completely stopping some services. 

The next in our series of Local Government Explained will focus in more detail on how councils are financed and how this is changing. It will also address what this means in practice for the resources available to councils to spend on local services and with their communities.  


The data for this article is drawn from the Institute for Government’s explainer on local government, which is also very useful further reading.

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