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Understanding local government

Map how women and men engage with local government

In engaging with local government, first you need to map how women and men currently interact with local government. In England, WBG found that women use local services to a greater degree than men, because of their need for care services, both for themselves and for other people that they care for, including children, those with chronic illnesses or disabilities, and older people. But there is evidence that many needs are unmet. Women are a majority of local government employees, largely because of occupational segregation – local governments are responsible for services such as education and care which are seen as ‘women ’s work’. But increasingly local governments have contracted out the provision of services to for-profit organisations which tend to provide worse pay and conditions of employment. Women are a minority of councillors and mayors, the people who make the decisions about the local budget. For example, in England women make up only 33% of councillors and 17% of council leaders.

Understand how local government works

A second task is understanding how the local government budget works. WBG identified what services different tiers of local government are responsible for providing and how they fund these services.

We discovered that:

  • Councils are legally required to set balanced budgets at the start of each financial year. Unlike the national government, they cannot carry forward a deficit at the start of every financial year.
  • In England the tax raising powers of local government are limited and most of the funding comes from grants from national government.
  • The main tax instrument is Council Tax, a tax levied according to the value of the property in which households live (irrespective of whether they own or rent it). It was not possible to determine directly what share of Council Tax is paid by women, and what share of women’s income goes into paying to this tax. But we did find that the Council Tax has not kept up with big increases in the market value of residential property, and that because of this wealthier people (who are disproportionately men) are not paying a fair share of this tax.
  • Local councils produce a three-year financial plan as a framework for the annual budget that sets out the amount of money they expect to receive from the national government and how much they plan to raise through Council Tax and other charges, and through borrowing to fund new physical infrastructure, such as roads. It also sets out how the money will be spent. Some local councils organise public consultations before finalising the three-year financial plan but they are of very limited scope and generally do not make an effort to involve women’s organisations.

Economic context

A third task is identifying the overall economic context: is funding being cut or expanded? In England in the period 2010/11 to 2015/16 there have been huge cuts to funding because the national government has cut back on grants to local government and has put pressure on councils to freeze Council Tax. If a council wished to increase the rate of Council Tax by more than 2%, they would have to conduct a referendum. If funding had been expanding, it is more likely that the budget would have a positive impact on gender equality – but not inevitable. The impact depends on what social and physical infrastructure is given priority.

Legal context

A fourth task is investigating how far anti-discrimination and equality laws impinge on what local government can do. In England, Scotland and Wales, the Public Sector Equality Duty requires local government to demonstrate (among other things) that they have due regard to equality when making their decisions (there are different equality laws in Northern Ireland).

In order to do this, councils should conduct an equality impact assessment and make it publicly available. But our action research showed that often gender impact is left out. For instance, an equality impact of a proposal to reduce subsidies to buses service recorded that gender impact was ‘not applicable’, ignoring evidence that women make more use of bus services than men. In other cases, the gender impact assessment was inadequate. In one case, it was acknowledged that budget cuts would mean cuts to jobs, and the majority of those losing their jobs would be women, but this was not seen as a reason to rethink the cuts. Indeed, some local authorities argued that there was no discrimination provided women’s share of job cuts was equal to their share of jobs, ignoring the fact that such cuts disproportionately affect women as a social group, and as such are contrary to the Equality Duty.

Gender responsive budgeting

We concluded that local council budget decision-making was driven by the search for more ‘efficiency’, and this was narrowly defined in terms of cutting financial costs. Application of gender responsive budgeting principles would have required local councils to investigate whether they were really achieving more efficient use of resources or, in reality, making ‘false economies’. For example, were they transferring costs from the paid economy to the unpaid economy by requiring women to do more unpaid work to compensate for the loss of services, with negative effects on women’s physical and mental health and ability to undertake paid work?

We also discovered that it is important to look beyond the budget, to consider strategic decisions on the development of the local economy, and how local government works with private sector businesses. In England we found that Local Enterprise Partnerships are important but pay little attention to developing jobs for women and support for women’s businesses and have few women members.

In order to engage with local government we needed to:

  • Support local women’s networks to engage with local budgets and economic policy on a continuing basis, since most of them have little experience or knowledge of budgetary processes, local government’s procedures and local economic strategies, and very little funding.
  • Maintain ongoing relationships with gender equality champions in local government in the face of turnover of staff and elected representatives.
  • Engage with other social justice groups active at local level who do not have a gender equality perspective.