FFS explains: What powers do councils have? 4

FFS explains: What powers do councils have?

Scotland’s council elections are approaching, with voters across the country set to cast their ballots. 

Many parties have campaigned on national issues, such as the fallout surrounding ‘partygate’ and ongoing Scottish constitutional debates, on which councils have no direct influence. 

But what are the actual powers of Scottish councils, and what does voting in council elections directly affect?

Ferret Fact Service looked at how Scottish local authorities are organised, elected, what powers they have and how they pay for services they provide. 

FFS explains: What powers do councils have? 5

What do local councils look like?

Scotland is divided into 32 local authority areas, each of which is governed by a council made up of elected councillors.

There is a large variation both in the geographical size and population of different local councils. For example the Highland council area is 427 times the size of Dundee City, while Glasgow has a population of 635,640 and Orkney just 22,400.

How are decisions made?

The 1,227 elected councillors in Scotland are responsible for making decisions in a similar way to MPs or MSPs, except they govern only their local authority area. These responsibilities include executive decision making such as passing council budgets, scrutinising decisions made by council leaders, as well as how well services are being delivered. They are representives of their ward, meeting constituents and providing support and assistance in areas of local concern. 

Local authorities are led by the council leader and a civic leader -–known as the Lord Provost in Glasgow, Edinburgh, Aberdeen and Dundee. 

Decision-making in councils takes place on a few different levels. The full council meeting governs the local authority, with all councillors able to debate and take decisions. Certain decisions can only be made in full council meetings, such as electing a council leader or setting annual budgets. 

Many other policies are decided in committees or subcommittees. These are made up of elected councillors who take collective decisions on specific areas, often informed by non-voting committee members with specialist knowledge drawn from the local community.

What powers do councils have?

Scotland’s 32 local authorities have a number of longstanding responsibilities and functions which they must provide. 

The powers of councils can be divided into three main categories: mandatory, permissive and regulatory. 

Mandatory powers are those things which councils are legally-bound to provide. These include:

  • Councils provide primary and secondary schooling as well as nursery provision. 
  • Providing social care for old people, people with disabilities, mental health and addiction issues.
  • Waste management, including bin collection, providing public bins and dealing with litter in public areas. 
  • Implementing recycling schemes, and waste reduction.
  • Road maintenance, such as dealing with potholes and improving cycling lanes.
  • Responsibility over local public transport, and dealing with parking fines.
  • Setting business standards, such as issuing licences and permits.
  • Council housing, homelessness services and dealing with planning applications.

Permissive powers are not considered necessary, but councils usually provide:

  • Cultural activities, such as museums, galleries, public monuments, and cultural events in the council area.
  • Promotion of local sports, and providing access to leisure facilities and sports centres, as well as public facilities such as tennis courts or football pitches.
  • Some form of economic development, such as support for local business and job creation.

Regulatory powers give councils power over:

  • Licensing and permits, such as for taxis or those wishing to sell alcohol. 
  • Trading standards and environmental health, and the power to fine those who do not adhere to the law. 

Scotland’s ageing population has been identified as a problem affecting councils, as they need to shift the services they provide, as well as overall increases in demand for council services and inflation-based price increases which are increasing costs.

All Scottish councils are facing the challenge of recovering from the Covid-19 pandemic, as well as adapting to climate change and ‘net zero’ targets. 

How are councils funded? 

In Scotland, the majority of council funding comes from the Scottish Government’s General Revenue Grant, which is provided based on how much each local authority needs to provide a “standard level” of service, along with the amount it raises through council tax and business rates (taxes on non-domestic properties). Overall, in 2021, 68 per cent of council funding was provided by the grant, while 19 per cent came from council tax and 14 per cent from business rates. 

Between 2007 and 2017, council tax rates did not rise in Scotland due to the council tax freeze policy of the Scottish Government. Since then, councils have been allowed to raise rates within strict agreed limits, although many chose to continue with a rate freeze. However, from this year councils will be free to set their own rates.

Core local government funding is slightly lower in real terms in 2022-23 than it was in 2017-18, and Audit Scotland found that “when Covid-19 funding is excluded, there has been a real terms underlying reduction of 4.2 per cent in local government funding since 2013-14”.

There was a significant increase in council funding during the Covid-19 pandemic, when central government funding was needed to offset the loss of business rates due to pandemic relief, as well as the extra funding that was required as local councils delivered Covid-19 support and infrastructure, such as testing.

How are councillors elected?

Local council elections take place every five years.

In Scotland, council elections use a form of proportional representation known as the single transferable vote (STV) voting system, where candidates are ranked by preference. The votes are then counted and when the most popular candidates reach a certain threshold and get elected, the rest of their votes are given to their voters’ second preference. If no-one reaches that threshold, the least popular candidate is eliminated and their votes given to their supporters’ second preference. 

When you enter the voting booth, you will see a list of candidates, and can rank as many or as few of them as you like. Your favourite candidate will not be harmed by any of the other lower preferences you choose to rank.

You can find out about your local candidates and nearest polling station on the ‘Who Can I Vote For?’ website here

Correction: A previous version of this article stated that local elections take place every four years. While this was the case until this year (apart from when elections were moved to avoid clashes), future elections will be every five years.

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