Local government may be defined as a government established through an Act of Parliament at the local level and to deal with specific matters as it affects them.
The essence of local government creation is to involve local participation in the affairs of their country. Not only that, to bring them into the realms of politics at the grassroots. Most modern states and governments embrace three or two tiers of government, for example, central, state or regional and local governments.
The powers of government and administration are therefore made relevant at the local level. Local government are created through a document called ‘lnstrument’. They are created like corporate bodies because they had legal existence. They could sue and be sued.
Four Types of Local Government
There are four different types of local government, and these are now explained in turn.
1 – French System
The French system is the commonest type of local government. Under this system, the local council is an extension of the central government. The local government is established by the central government to help the latter achieve national objectives. Local governments are not created for the purpose of achieving local objectives. As such, the French system is more of deconcentration than devolution. The local government does not have local autonomy and may be tagged a form of local administration.
There are three different levels in the French system. They are the commune,arrondisement and department (departement) in ascending order of Importance.
At the bottom of the French local government system is the commune. It is a small area, which may be a village or a town. The commune has a council comprising 10 to 36 members and it is headed by a mayor. Both the mayor and the council are under the control and supervision of the Prefect. The prefect is usually a top civil servant who is appointed by the central government to represent the interest of the French government in the department.
The arrondisement is the intermediate level between the commune and the department. It is divided into several cantons and each canton has a number of communes or towns. The canton elects a member to represent it on the council. The arrondisement is headed by a Sub-Prefect.
The department is the highest local government unit in France. France has about 90 departments and each consists of a number of arrondisements. The Prefect is the executive head of a department and he is appointed by the President of the country.
As an agent of the central government, the Prefect is responsible for the implementation of all national laws and policies in the department. The prefect may veto any decision of the councils of the department or arrondisement or commune. He may even suspend the council or remove the mayor.
2 – The British (Anglo-Saxon) System
Unlike the French system which is essentially a local arm of the central government, the British or Anglo-Saxon system of local government is characterized by local autonomy. That is the local government units are relatively independent of the central authorities. Local independence in local matters is exercised through elected local councils. The emphasis in the British model is on popular participation.
The local government system in Britain has seven different tiers, These levels are now explained in turn.
The Parish is a small area, which has a population of about 400. It has a local council, which deals with minor local matters such as public parks play-grounds. public libraries and cemeteries.
Rural District Council
The rural district council is the next higher level in the hierarchy. It handles matters relating to housing; water supply, public health and minor roads.
The urban councils perform the functions of the rural councils at a higher level.
The powers and functions of the borough councils are similar to those of urban councils.
The county councils supervise the rural and urban councils.
Count Borough Council
The county-borough councils are all-purpose councils, which combine the function of county and borough councils. They also supervise the councils under them.
London Metropolitan Area
London, the British capital, has a complex multi-purpose council. Education is a major function of all the local councils in Britain. Indeed, education has been a local responsibility in Britain since 1902. Education here comprises primary and secondary education. As a result of the Educational Act of 1944, the allocation of responsibility for primary and secondary education to different levels of councils was abolished on the ground that it was wrong for a child’s education to be split half way through his education career.
In Britain, the local councils are responsible to the Minister of Local Government, and Housing. Each functional ministry supervises the function being performed in the council e.g. the Health Ministry supervises health matters. The chairman of the council is elected for a specified period. He bears the title of mayor in borough councils and other higher level councils. .
The central government may establish minimum standards but it cannot suspend or remove elected local officials.
3 – The Communist Local Government System
The pattern of local government in communist (or socialist) states is based on the Marxist-Leninist philosophy of public ownership of the means of production. Economic factor rather than political consideration determines the nature and scope of the local government system. Thus the socialist state is divided into local government units for industrial and agricultural purposes. That is, unlike the local government organization in the western capitalist states (including developing countries), which is based on territorial units, the councils in the communist states are organized on industrial and agricultural production basis.
On the whole, the communist local government system is based on the concept of democratic centralism. This system is attractive to many countries, partly because of the rapid economic achievement recorded by the socialist states.
The fourth category of local government identified by Professor Alderfer is the traditional non-western system. This refers to the traditional type of local government in developing countries. It tends to be associated with a traditional ruler or chief, a council of elders, the extended family or clan or with a local custom or ritual. This was, for example, the system existing in parts of Nigeria in the pre-colonial period.
These different systems of local government are neither clear-cut nor mutually exclusive as every local government system today either combines the characteristics of different systems or is shedding some of its own inherent features. In Britain, for example, the increasing central control is affecting the autonomy of local councils while the local councils in France are now gaining more local autonomy.
In the United States of America, there are as many as thirteen different local government systems ranging from the elected councils to the political bosses who exercise greater personal authority and to the city or council managers who are professional administrators hired by the elected city councils to manage the affairs of a council or city with a high degree of independence. In some cases, the councils are treated like big business. The city manager operates like the Managing Director of a large corporation while the city council is like the board of the enterprise.
The Nigerian system also typically represents a hybrid of the British and the French system. At the onset of colonialism, for example, the British operated a local government system, which resembled the French system. Under the native authority system, the local councils were placed in the hands of traditional rulers who were supervised by the British colonial officials, namely, the Resident and District Officers just as the Prefects controlled the councils in France. Although, the local government system has undergone a great deal of changes since then, the local council in Nigeria are still tightly controlled by the central (or state) govemment in spite of the constitutional provision of elected representation and popular participation.