Policies: Which Issues Are Decided at Which Level?

In this page:

  • One issue the assemblies will consider is what powers should be held by different levels of government. That involves two questions.
  • The first is: Which issues should be decided nationally (by central government in London) and which should be decided more locally? What should ‘more locally’ mean (in current local authorities, larger regions or smaller neighbourhoods)?
  • The second is: When issues are decided locally, how much autonomy should councils have? Should central government set minimum standards and other rules?

Which issues are dealt with where?

The image on the next page lists some of the issues that are decided – or might in future be decided – by different bodies at different levels of government.

The image simplifies a very complex reality. Decisions have to be made on many more issues than we have space to include – the Local Government Association estimates that local councils provide over 700 services! If you click on the link, you will see a more detailed listing of these services.

On many issues, different levels of government and other bodies have important roles to play. For example, in the area of planning, while local councils set local plans and decide on planning applications, these must fit with the government’s National Planning Policy Framework. And the central government also makes the key decisions on what it calls ‘nationally significant infrastructure projects’, such as power stations and major transport schemes.

A rough guide to policy decisions taken at different levels of government

Governement Levels 1

Governement Levels 2

Degrees of local autonomy

Councils have varying amounts of autonomy in their decision-making on different issues.

There is a basic distinction between ‘mandatory’ and ‘discretionary’ activities:

  • mandatory services are those that councils are required by law to provide
  • discretionary services are those that councils can choose to provide or not provide

There is also a large grey area in the middle, where councils have to provide a service, but have some discretion in deciding the level of that service. This is how the Local Government Association puts it:

‘Most council services are mandatory. This means that the council must do them because they are under a duty to do so by law (e.g. to operate an alcohol licensing regime under the Licensing Act 2003). Some mandatory functions are tightly controlled by central government, resulting in a similar level of service across the country (e.g. the administration of housing benefit). Other mandatory requirements (e.g. the library function) leave councils with some discretion over the level and type of service they provide.

Some council services and functions are discretionary. These are services a council can choose to provide but does not have to. They range from large economic regeneration projects, to the removal of wasp nests. Councils have a general power to charge for discretionary services provided they are not prohibited by other legislation and the council does not make a profit. Councils can charge for arts and entertainment activities, sport and recreational facilities and some pest control services, under Acts of Parliament.’

So, in addition to thinking about which policy areas local or regional authorities should be involved in, Assembly North and Assembly South might also want to consider the degree of autonomy councils should have in these areas.

How can we decide on these matters?

You will find more guidance on the criteria you could use to help you think about which policy areas are best decided at which level of government and on how much autonomy councils should have in the criteria pages.

All of the criteria set out in those pages are relevant. For example:

  • Certain services are better if they are tailored to local needs and wishes. For example, local communities might be best placed to know the kinds of parks and recreational services that are suited to their area.
  • Other services are better if they are delivered on a larger scale. That will allow staff to develop experience and expertise and will allow specialist equipment to be bought in a more cost-effective way. If administrative functions can be shared, that may improve efficiency. An example might be specialist hospital services.
  • Decision-making might be more democratic if it is more local, as that allows the people most affected by the decision to have the greatest say.
  • But if local decisions affect people in a much wider area, it might be more democratic for a wider range of people to be involved. An example could be a decision on whether to build a road that people from outside the area would use.
  • If you identify with particular local or regional communities – the Isle of Wight, say, or Yorkshire – you might think that these communities should have the power to make decisions for themselves.

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