Big Issue Vendor

Why local council elections are so important

Local authorities do a lot more than just look after our bins. We spoke to the experts
Local council elections in England are on May 6. Image credit: StockSnap / Pixabay

Think local politics and tired councillors wrangling on about parking tickets might be the first thing that comes to mind. Perhaps local council elections seem trivial as a result. But that is far from the case. Just about everything we interact with within our neighbourhood is connected to the work done in our local guildhall or council office. 

We spoke to some of those in the know and asked why local elections are so important. 

What are local council elections? 

On May 6 2021, more than a hundred local council elections will take place across England as well as a flurry of other polls to select police and crime commissioners, elected mayors and London Assembly members in the capital. Scotland and Wales are also holding elections which you can find out about here

Some 5,000 seats across England will be up for grabs. In most cases, the party with the majority of seats will have most control. 

According to the Institute for Government, most local authorities in England are run by a leader and cabinet from councillors of the majority party or a coalition of parties in cases of no overall control. 

Other authorities use a committee system where decision-making is delegated to councillors from all parties. 

What does the council actually do? 

Just about everything. From street maintenance, rubbish collection, community facilities and social care to housing, homeless services, schools, transport, local parks and libraries. Our local councils have a hand in many of the services we use on a daily basis. 

“Almost everything you see, as you walk around the streets, as you leave your home and walk around, is in the hands of the council,” said Professor Tony Travers, an expert in local government from the London School of Economics. “It’s hard to exaggerate.” 

Why don’t people vote in council elections? 

Historically, turnout rates in local elections have been low. Even though there is often a big push to get people on the electoral register, turnout averaged just 35 per cent in 2018. 

Some of us could probably identify our elected mayor if we live in a big city. But we don’t see our local councillors on the TV every day and certainly not in the same way we are served highlights of politicians at Westminster jostling over the dispatch box. 

Travers added: “Council leaders may be on the local news some of the time but they’re going to be less well known.

“Inevitably, the media concentrates on national government. England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland are quite centralised countries when compared with others. There’s more power in London, Edinburgh and Cardiff than there is if you are in a country like Germany or America.

“I think that deep down people know the council is important but they see a lot more of Boris Johnson and Keir Starmer and so on. 

“Politics is so often construed through the national media as only about national politics  when for most people the thing that matters most is how good the council is.” 

Rachael Farrington, founder of the website Voting Counts, which aims to help people make informed decisions when voting, told The Big Issue that often people don’t consider the work of their local council – except maybe when it came to the issue of bins. 

“The number one barrier is that some people don’t understand or don’t associate that the services they use every day are actually controlled by their local council. 

“Everything from transport to housing to your local parks and libraries, even social care, are all connected to your local council. If that’s not shouted at you time and time again you often forget.”

Part of the problem, Farrington explains, is so many layers of government. This confusion will be exacerbated on May 6 as pandemic-delayed elections coincide with those scheduled to go ahead anyway. Voters in places like Cambridge and Liverpool could have four different elections to take part in on the same day. 

Why is voting so important? 

Voting, Farrington says, is the “first and easiest step” to getting involved in politics – something which everyone and everything is impacted by. 

“I’d reiterate the point that your local council has an impact on many of the services you see and use every single day. This is your chance to be part of choosing who makes those decisions.” 

Travers echoed this, adding: “When you’re voting in council elections, which I would strongly advocate everybody to do, it’s about an incredibly important range of provision which determines whether the place you live in feels reasonably clean, pleasant and safe.” 

How do I register to vote? 

Registering to vote is an easy process.

The Government website has all the information you need and you can use it to register in all elections on May 6, including those in Wales in Scotland. 

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The register to vote website.

You must be aged 16 or over to register (or 14 or over in Scotland and Wales where the voting age for devolved and local elections is lower). 

The deadline for registering to vote in the May 6 elections is 11:59 pm on April 19. 

How do I find out what elections are happening near me? 

The Big Issue has put together a comprehensive guide of all local elections taking place on May 6. 

This includes information about the councillors, police and crime commissioners, parliamentarians, assembly members and mayors that will be up for election across the country this May. 

To find out about who’s standing for election near you, your best bet is to use your local council’s website. It should have an elections page and direct you to who your local councillors are and who is running for election this time around. 

GOV.UK even has a helpful search feature where you can find the website for your local council. 

Most political parties will also have a local variation of their website where you can find out what they stand for. 

This will help you see which candidates are championing the issues you care about and help you make an informed choice as to how to cast your ballot.