Winston Churchill once described the Soviet Union as a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma. Sometimes I think the same description applies to local government in England. In Norfolk we have the County Council, some areas have District Councils, some have Borough Councils. Most places have a Parish Council too. Or a Town Council. Although Norwich has a City Council which is really a District Council.
We are lucky enough not to have a Mayoral Authority but we do have an elected Police Commissioner. The Broads Authority has powers over planning issues in the Broads area. There’s the Greater Norwich Growth Board which has a say on planning too; the Local Enterprise Partnership (covering Norfolk and Suffolk); and an entire dictionary full of government Quangos that deliver specific services across the county.
It’s not surprising that people get a bit baffled by what they are actually voting for when it comes to election time.
Political parties like to say council elections are about national issues. But Boris and Brexit are not on the ballot paper on 6th May. You are really voting to elect one of 84 County Councillors who will be your voice at County Hall.
What does the County Council do
Norfolk County Council is responsible for a providing care to people with long-term conditions. This might be for older people who need care at home as they get older and less able to look after themselves. Or it might be for younger adults who have a disability. Next year the Council will spend over £450 million on Adult Social Care.
The Council also provides a range of services for children. It must ensure there are enough schools and nursery places for the county’s children and it works with schools to divide up the funding pot provided mainly by the government. Schools then run their own budgets. Some children are in the care of the County Council and some are placed with foster parents who are funded by the council. Social work support for families is an important part of the council’s work and the council works closely with the NHS to support new families through the early years of a child’s life. All of that is really important in providing a fair start for the county’s children, helping to give them a chance to get on in their lives.
The County Council also looks after our local roads and it maintains ‘Rights of Way’ (footpaths and bridleways). It keeps the roads clear in winter and repairs potholes and (sometimes) invests in making our roads safer although speed monitoring is the job of the police.
Important community services like libraries and museums are also run by the County Council. It also has a role in protecting our environment and growing our local economy. The County Council does not empty your bins (your District or Borough council does that) but it does dispose of the waste that is collected.
How much does it all cost and where does the money come from?
The council’s overall budget next year will be over £1.5 billion but only around one third of that is fully under the control of the council. The rest is funding for schools and support payments that the council just administers.
A bit less than one third of the council’s budget is covered by the Council Tax that we pay. Just over one pound in every ten is from Business Rates (so be wary of anyone who tells you they can pay for lots of new services by growing Norfolk’s economy). The rest is either government funding or grants, fees for services or other earned income.
At the time of the last elections in 2017 the council was faced with having to cut around £200 million from its annual spending, mainly thanks to cuts in government funding. That has led to real cuts in services. Looking ahead, there’s sure to be more cuts in the future. No one is really sure what the long-term costs of the Coronavirus Pandemic will be or whether the government will step in to cover those costs.
What do councillors do?
The most important part of a councillor’s job is representing you to the people who run the council and deliver council services. That might mean working with Parish Councils to get road safety improvements or to give feedback about drain clearing and road flooding. It might be putting forward policy ideas like the Million Tree planting proposal put forward by Independent Councillor Sandra Squire. Or it might be one of dozens of individual concerns about personal care or support services that councillors raise on behalf of people living in their division.
Councillors also work with other bodies – like District Councillors and Members of Parliament – to make sure that your voice is heard when it comes to decisions about essential services. And some take on other roles – like championing the needs of people with Learning Difficulties across the county or being a member of the Corporate Parenting Board that oversees services for children looked after by the Council.
Councillors also have to make decisions about how your money is spent when we decide on the annual budget.
The fourth part of the job is ‘committee work’. Decisions about County Council policy are made by a ‘cabinet’ of senior councillors, usually all from the party that has a majority of seats on the council (at the moment that is the Conservatives). Those policy decisions are voted on at meetings of the full council but there are also a number of committees which can scrutinise policy decisions. Most of the committees look at a particular group of services (services for children or highways issues for example). Here, councillors can use their knowledge and expertise to help ensure services are run in the best way possible on behalf of Norfolk’s residents.
Councillors are well paid for their work – the basic allowance is around £1,000 per month and many are able to claim more than that. It is a job that requires a cool head and the ability to challenge those in power. It also demands a willingness to learn and to work effectively with others to get the best for the people we represent.