October 1, 2016

Guyanese should be more engaged in country and community affairs

Dear editor,
Local government is the collective term for local councils. You may also sometimes hear them referred to as local authorities. Local councils are made up of councillors (members) who are voted for by the public in local elections and paid council staff (officers) who deliver services.
In the UK, District Council have produced this excellent and straight-forward “Schools Guide” to the Citizens, a wide range of services, either directly through their staff or by commissioning services from outside organisations. They also have responsibility for the economic, social and environmental ’well-being’ of their area.
Most council services are mandatory. This means that the council must do them because they are under a duty to do so by law. Some mandatory functions are tightly controlled by central government, resulting in a similar level of service across the country (eg payment of housing benefit).
Other mandatory requirements (eg libraries) leave councils with some choice over the level and type of service they provide. Other services and functions are discretionary. These are services a council can choose to provide but does not have to. They range from large economic regeneration projects, to the removal of waste.
Councils have a general power to charge for these services provided they are not prevented from doing so by other legislation and the council does not make a profit. Councils can charge for arts and entertainment activities, and sports, etc.
City councils are responsible for services across the whole of a county or city, like education, transport, planning, fire and public safety, social care, libraries, waste management and trading standards.
District and borough councils cover a smaller area, often a town or rural area, and are usually responsible for services like rubbish collection and recycling, council tax, leisure services and housing.
Local authorities are councils that provide one tier of local government and provide all services. Confusingly, they can be called city councils or town councils or just councils!
Parish and town councils operate at a level below district and borough councils. Parish or town councils are elected and can help on a number of local issues, like planning applications or running local sports grounds and community centres.
Local government spending is about a quarter of all public spending in the UK. Local councils are funded by a combination of grants from central government, Council Tax and business rates. (In Northern Ireland, district councils still raise money through a domestic rate and a business rate.) They also receive income from investments, council rents, sales and charges for services.
Central government (or Cabinet, through the Government of Guyana) provides specific and general grants to enable local authorities to deliver all the necessary services.
To divide up the funding, the government uses a system based on the number and value of properties in each area and how much it costs to provide services there. Council Tax provides about a quarter of local funding.
Local councils set the total Council Tax they need to raise, based on their overall budget for the year. Each household pays an amount depending on the value of their home.
The government has powers to ensure that increases in local authority budgets and Council Tax are not excessive. Business rates are a property tax on businesses and other properties that aren’t homes. The national rates are set by central government.
Councillors from different political parties make up the full council. The council is divided into individual groups called committees, which have responsibility for particular services such as education or planning. Many decisions are recommended by the committees, but have to be agreed by the full council. After decisions have been made by the elected members of the council, they are carried out by the officers whose job it is to deliver the particular service.
Every council must publish in advance when key decisions will be taken and publish meeting papers at least five working days beforehand. The minutes of the meeting, summarising decisions, must also be published.
You can attend most meetings of the council, although usually you won’t be able to speak at them.
In closing I urge the citizens of Guyana to become more engaged in your country and community affairs and to follow what is going on to be more informed of works and services in your area.

Yours sincerely,
Ivan Bentham

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