Decentralisation and Devolution in the United Kingdom

Decentralisation and Devolution in the United Kingdom

Chris Game (University of Birmingham, UK)
DOI: 10.4018/978-1-5225-0320-0.ch001
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The key to the core of this chapter is in its title. Constitutionally, the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland (UK) is still a unitary state comprising three countries – England, Scotland, Wales – plus the province of Northern Ireland. Since 1998, though, the last three have had their own elected parliaments or assemblies and devolved governments, whose responsibilities naturally include most local government functions and operations. It is arguable, therefore, that in practice nowadays the UK is quasi-federal. England, with 84% of the UK population, doesn't have a separate parliament, but is gradually working out its own form of devolution. The chapter describes all these developments, but its detail is largely reserved for the structure and workings of local government in England – elections and elected councillors, services and functions, and its currently rapidly changing finances – and the impact, particularly on councils' financial and policy discretion, of its having, in population terms, by far the largest scale of local government in Western Europe.
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British Local Government: An Exceptional System

As a single-country case study, this chapter will focus very largely on the decentralized, devolved – arguably quasi-federal – governmental system in Britain/the UK1. It will also refer in places to other, particularly other European, systems and practices. More often than not, though, these references will take the form of contrasts, rather than the noting of similarities – the reason being that one of the chapter’s assertions is that, in its organization and much of its conduct of sub-central government, Britain is exceptional.

All systems of decentralized government differ. But this chapter will suggest that, in several important ways, Britain’s differs more than most. France – whose local government system and structures are likely to be more recognizable to Turkish readers – is also exceptional, but at the opposite end of the European scale spectrum, as can be seen in Table 1. The two countries – France and Britain – have very similarly sized populations and both have relatively large local government sectors, but in their approaches to local government they are “at the opposite ends of the spectrum” (Council of European Municipalities and Regions [CEMR], 2009, p.3; CEMR, 2013b).

Table 1.
Scale of European local government: By average population per municipality
Pop (Mil.)Levels of Sub-Central GovernmentApproximate Numbers of Lower Tier (Most Local) Principal CouncilsAverage Population
Per Council
% of Gross Domestic Product (GDP)
Total Public Sector ExpenditureSub-National Public Sector ExpenditureSub-National Public Sector Tax Revenue
France65336780 Communes180056125.5
Spain4738120 Municipios58004525 (fed)10.3
Germany83311250 Gemeinden74004521 (fed)11.1
Italy6138100 Comuni750050156.4
Belgium113590 Gemeenten187005322 (fed)4.6
Greece113325 Dimos338005230.2
Sweden102290 Kommuner34500512515.2
Netherlands172390 Gemeenten4330050171.4
Denmark6298 Kommuner61000583712.7
Turkey7721394 Belediye550003960.5
EU 2851089750568049176.6
UK64½391 Districts, etc.16400048131.7
England54½326 Districts, etc.167000

Sources: Council of European Municipalities and Regions (CEMR) Factsheets: A figure-based portrait of local and regional Europe (Brussels, 2013); Turkish GDP figures calculated by Uğur Sadioğlu from T.R. Ministry of Finance and Turkish Statistical Institute data. (fed) – ‘Sub-national’ in these federal systems includes both provincial and local expenditure/revenue.

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