Local government in Kent: the who, how and why

“File:Maidstone0044.JPG” by Clem Rutter, Rochester Kent is licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0

Local Government elections will take place on 6 May 2021. But what will you be voting for? Here we explain the structure of local government in Kent.

The top level of local government in most of Kent is the County Council – Kent County Council (KCC). Below that are the District Councils, which are sometimes called Borough Councils.

District and Borough Councils all have the same powers which derive from the 1972 Local Government Act.

But they have different names for historical reasons. In medieval times, a town could ask the monarch for a Royal Charter which, if granted, gave the town right to run a market and certain other rights with regard to feudal dues and self-government. They also had the right to elect Members of Parliament. So in each of these market towns, there were electors (male and property-owning) whereas in the countryside, and later in the growing industrial towns, there were no voters as the land was owned by aristocrats  with seats in the House of Lords.  Hence the growing movement for electoral reform in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries to gain fairer representation in the House of Commons.

Under Henry VIII, if a town had a Cathedral it could be granted City status. Kent has two cathedrals; one in Canterbury and the other in Rochester. Of these, only Canterbury is a city and this is because Rochester, which had been a city for some 800 years, lost that status in 2002.

So what we now have in Kent are  seven Boroughs, four Districts and one city – a total of 12 areas where the second tier of local government has different name but the same powers.

DartfordFolkestone and Hythe
Tonbridge & MallingCity
Tonbridge WellsCanterbury

But then there is another type of Local Government body; a Unitary Authority, and Kent has the Unitary Authority of Medway. This is not under KCC.

Unitary Authorities were established in 1992 and they combine the powers of the County Council and the District (or Borough) Council into a single tier of government. Like Medway, London Boroughs are also unitary authorities.

The rest of Kent is under the “two tier” system, with the County Council at the top and the District (or Borough) Councils below.

In all areas there are also Parishes, so we actually have a three-tier system – except of course in the Unitary Authorities!

Mostly, Parishes consist of a traditional village and surrounding hamlets or farms. But sometimes it is possible for a town that was not granted District status to opt to have a Town Council which will have the same powers as  a Parish Council. There are 227 Parish or Town Councils in Kent, with Gravesham having a mere six while Maidstone has 41.

The powers of the Parish and Town Councils  consist mostly in providing and managing amenities, like bus shelters, car parks, cemeteries, community transport, road and pavement improvements, speed restrictions, street lighting, street cleaning, village halls, recreation fields, public toilets, public seats, etc. They are also responsible for rights of way (footpaths and cycle routes, as well as parking lots). There is only one duty: to provide allotments. They have powers of taxation (under the 1894 law) but how much they can levy is restricted by what they can pay for. These powers were increased in the Localism Act of 2011, and if a Parish gets GPC status (General Powers of Competence, which involves having a qualified clerk) they can also invest public money in enterprises like a Post Office, a Co-operative Shop, or local energy consortium.

Recently, a number of Kent Parishes have been developing neighbourhood plans. If you want to find out what your Parish is up to the minutes of the meetings are usually obtainable online. Some Parish councils also open their meetings to the public, giving residents a chance to raise issues and local matters. A Parish Council has to have a chairperson and at least five elected councillors. Some Kent Parishes are holding elections this year on 6 May.

The District/Borough Councils are the Local Planning Authorities, so they are responsible for all planning applications, housing developments and how much of Kent’s countryside get built on. They are also responsible for council housing,  electoral registration and elections, environmental health, leisure and recreation facilities, bins and recycling and regeneration.

The District Council collects the Council tax: it does so on behalf of the various bodies that are entitled to raise taxes locally. These are known as precepting authorities and they include other levels of local government such as County Council and the Parish and Town Councils. In addition, joint boards, such as passenger transport executives, police authorities, fire authorities are precepting authorities and can raise local taxes.

Each year, when your local Council sends you the demand for your Council Tax they include with it a leaflet setting out how much of it relates to each of the precepting authorities. The Council sets the overall rate of Council Tax for a Band D property and the other bands are relative to that mid-level charge. It collects the Council Tax on behalf of both the Parishes, and of the County, as well as for the other precepting authorities and of course for itself.

In most Districts/Boroughs, the councillors are elected for four year terms and the next elections will be in 2023. But two of the Districts – Maidstone and Tunbridge Wells – have a system of electing a third of their councillors every two years and so they are holding elections on 6 May 2021. In some Kent Districts, there are also by-elections caused by the death or resignation of a councillor and these by-elections have also been scheduled for 6 May.

Kent County Council is responsible for education services, public safety, libraries, social services, streets, roads and footpaths, trading standards, transport and highways and waste management.

On 6 May 2021, there will be elections for the Kent County councillors for the 81 County Council seats., These councillors will be elected from 63 single seat divisions and nine divisions  which have two seats each.

Confusingly, the boundaries for these divisions do not correspond to the wards of District elections or even, in some cases, to the constituency boundaries for Parliamentary elections!

But you can find the division in which you live and details of the candidates by entering your postcode on the Electoral Commission website.

And you can find out more about local government in your area on the KCC website.

This year, there is also the election of the Kent police and crime commissioner (PCC). There are 41 PCCs in England, so some straddle several counties. Kent PCC is responsible for the KCC area as well as Medway. They hold office for 4 years,, with these powers:

Under the terms of the Police Reform and Social Responsibility Act 2011, PCCs must:

  • secure efficient and effective policing for their area;
  • appoint the Chief Constable, holding them to account for running the force, and if necessary dismissing them;
  • set the police and crime objectives for their area through a police and crime plan;
  • set the force budget and determine the precept;
  • contribute to the national and international policing capabilities set out by the Home Secretary;
  • bring together community safety and criminal justice partners, to make sure local priorities are joined up.

So if you are an active voter preparing to cast your vote on 6 May  remember to look not only at the policies proposed by those canvassing to be county councillors, but look also at the proposals of those aspiring to be the Kent Police Commissioner.

So that’s the heads-up about the May elections in Kent.

We live in a democracy, so the most important thing to do in preparation for casting your vote is to read carefully whatever election leaflets reach your doorstep, to listen to candidates who are canvassing, and understand what you are voting for.