UK Politics

Vote 2012: Local government around the world

Local election time looms in England, Scotland and Wales, where councils set council tax, run education and social services, make planning decisions and collect bins, among other services. Gavin Stamp reports on what happens in other parts of the world.

Image caption Campaigning in the New Delhi municipal elections earlier this month


Efforts have been made to modernise local government in India, whose structures originate from the late 19th Century.

The powers of municipal authorities are still largely determined by state governments. Local bodies are required by law to provide certain services, while others are discretionary.

Structures differ in urban and rural areas while the type and frequency of elections range from state to state.

Municipal corporations - first established in the 1880s - remain at the heart of the system in the big cities like Delhi, Mumbai and Chennai. They are responsible for - among other things - utilities, transport and housing.

They are controlled by committees made up of both elected councillors - selected by wards - and officials chosen for their expert knowledge. Executive decisions are taken by municipal commissioners, appointed for a fixed term in office, with the mayor often a figurehead.

But in Kolkata the mayor has significant power, sitting on top of a pyramid structure consisting of a cabinet of elected councillors and elected borough committees.

In smaller cities and towns, there are municipal councils whose members are elected for terms of generally three to five years. A president, who is sometimes directly elected, serves as the figurehead although the executive officer is often chosen by the state government.


Local government has historically been less powerful in Australia than in many countries although this has begun to change in the last decade.

Its remit is determined by state and territory governments. Some bodies are limited to functions such as planning and maintaining roads and public parks. Others, such as Brisbane Council, have far wider powers over economic development and the environment.

In Brisbane, councillors are elected from wards every four years while the mayoral vote is on a city-wide basis. Voting, as in all elections, is compulsory for over-18s.

There are more than 850 local government bodies, the largest - East Pilbara in Western Australia - covers 378,333 square kilometres.

Town halls raise £4.1bn in rates every year, nearly 40% of their total income. The rest comes from charges and funding from state and federal grants.


Decentralisation since the early 1980s has given French local government greater powers.

The three tiers of local authority - regions, departements and communes - each have different roles.

Each of the 22 administrative regions has a council whose members are elected, mainly for six-year terms. They, in turn, elect a chairman or president. They deal with planning, economic development, job training, and school building.

Below this, there are nearly 100 departements which have control over hospitals and social services, roads and rural development. Until the 1980s, these were run by prefects appointed by central government.

While these roles still exist, local decision-making has passed to general councils whose members are elected to represent areas known as "cantons". The chair of the council, generally elected for six years, makes budget decisions and has certain policing and legal powers.

Communes are the lowest tier of government. There are nearly 40,000 of them - most of them very small. They also have an elected council whose job it is to manage municipal buildings and lead regeneration.

The mayor of a commune has extensive powers, ranging from security to public health and transport.

Mayors are generally not directly elected but voted in by dint of being at the top of the list of candidates for the party which gets the most support in elections. The mayor of Paris, France's largest commune, is a national figure. Jacques Chirac held the role between 1997 and 1995, before he became president.


There are about 14,000 municipal councils in Germany whose responsibilities include planning, water management and social welfare.

They get their funding from both federal and state level.

Elected councillors, generally chosen every four to six years, share power with a mayor or burgermeister - who is head of both the council and the local administration.

Mayors serve terms ranging from four to nine years. Some are directly elected, others take office as head of the largest party.

Of all the 16 states, or Lander, Hessen is unique in that the council appoints magistrates to run its affairs, overseen by the mayor.

As Berlin is also a state, the city's mayor - who is indirectly elected - has greater powers, similar to those of the minister-president in other Lander. The German capital is divided into 12 sub-districts, each with their own mayor.

Across Germany, there is also a separate administrative tier - districts - with elected councils and either elected or appointed presidents. These 300 bodies have responsibility, among other things, for road maintenance, waste management and tourism.


Image caption Michael Bloomberg, the mayor of New York, is one of the country's most powerful politicians

In the US there are multiple tiers of local government below federal and state level, ranging from city councils with billion-dollar budgets to town hall meetings taking decisions across New England.

Powers in rural and suburban areas rest with more than 3,000 "county" governments, which operate in 48 out of the 50 states.

The size of counties, and the services they provide, vary widely. From traditional roles, such as road building and maintenance, their powers have expanded over the years to include economic development, child welfare and planning.

Their tax-raising powers are determined at state level. Some generate much of their own income, while others depend more on state grants. The power to pass laws and set budgets is shared between elected and appointed officials or are given to one elected individual.

In urban areas, there are nearly 20,000 municipal councils, with powers over the police, emergency services, transport and public works.

Members of city councils - often known as aldermen - pass laws and have final approval over budgets. Some cities have a form of "commission" government, where elected officials run departments and hire a manager to oversee law enforcement and other key functions.

Most councils, however, share power with directly elected mayors, who are high-profile political figures in their own right. Most are either Republican or Democrat politicians.

Among the best known are former media tycoon Michael Bloomberg, mayor of New York since 2001, and Chicago mayor Rahm Emanuel, formerly chief of staff to President Obama, elected last year.

Mayors' executive powers vary but many draw up budget plans, hire and fire department chiefs and have the power of veto over policies.