Local government in the United Kingdom

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There is no single system of local government in the United Kingdom. The United Kingdom is made up of constituent countries, England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. Each has a different system of local government.


Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland

These three parts of the United Kingdom each have devolved legislature and government - the Scottish Parliament and Scottish Executive, the National Assembly for Wales and Welsh Assembly Government, and the Northern Ireland Assembly and Northern Ireland Executive (both suspended) respectively. These bodies are part of the national, rather than local, tier of government in the UK.

They each use a pattern of unitary authorities, meaning there is a single tier of local government. There are 32 council areas in Scotland, 22 counties and county boroughs in Wales, and 26 districts in Northern Ireland.

The rest of this article excludes the situation in Scotland, see Local government in Scotland.


Counties and unitary authorities of England
Counties and unitary authorities of England

The pattern in England is more complex. Unlike the other three constituent countries England has no separate governing body for the whole of it other than that of the Government of the United Kingdom (for the issue of an English legislature, see devolved English parliament). It is subdivided into 9 regions. One of these, London, has an elected Assembly and Mayor, but the others have a relatively minor role, with unelected regional assemblies and Regional Development Agencies.

Excluding Greater London, England has two different patterns of local government in use. In some areas there is a county council responsible for some services within a county, with several district councils responsible for other services. These councils are elected in separate elections. Some areas have only one level of local government, and these are dubbed unitary authorities.

Councils of counties are called 'X County Council', whereas district councils can be 'District Council', 'Borough Council', or 'City Council' depending upon the status of the district. Unitary authorities may be called County Councils, Metropolitan Borough Councils, Borough Councils,City Councils, District Councils, or sometimes just Councils. These names do not change the role or authority of the council.

Overall responsibility for issues such as transport in Greater London is vested in the Greater London Authority. London is then divided into 32 London boroughs and the City of London, which have powers between a normal district and a unitary authority.

Councils and councillors

Councils have historically had no split between executive or legislature. Functions are vested in the council itself, and then exercised usually by committees or subcommittees of the council. The post of leader was recognised, and leaders typically chair several important committees, but had no special authority. The chair of the council itself is an honorary position with no real power.

Under section 15 the Local Government and Housing Act 1989, committees must roughly reflect the political party makeup of the council; before it was permitted for a party with control of the council to 'pack' committees with their own members.

This pattern was based on that established for municipal boroughs by the Municipal Corporations Act 1835, and then later adopted for county councils and rural districts.

In 2000 Parliament passed the Local Government Act 2000 to require councils to move to an executive-based system, either with the council leader and a cabinet acting as an executive authority, or with a directly-elected mayor, either with a mayor and cabinet drawn from the councillors; or a mayor and council manager. There is a small exception to this whereby smaller district councils (population of less than 80,000) can adopt a modified committee system.

Most councils are using the council leader and cabinet option, whilst 52 smaller councils have been allowed to propose alternative arrangements based on the older system (Section 31 of the Act), and Brighton and Hove invoked a similar provision (Section 27(2)(b)) when a referendum to move to a directly-elected mayor was defeated.

There are now twelve directly-elected mayors, in districts where a referendum was in favour of them. Many of the mayors are independents (notably in Hartlepool and Middlesbrough, which in parliamentary elections are usually Labour Party strongholds). Since May 2002 only a handful of referendums have been held, and they have all been negative apart from Torbay. Of the mayors, all but Stoke-on-Trent's are mayor and cabinet-based. Having won the 2005 General Election and a third term of office, the government is approaching the issue in a new way and is considering introducing new Elected Mayors on the basis of larger 'City Region' areas which will mean a reorganisation of the local authorities affected into larger units with wider powers. In any case, the issue may be given fresh impetus with a number of Mayoral referenda being triggered by campaigns receiving the necessary 5% support of the local authority electorate.

The Executive, in whichever form, is held to account by the remainder of the Councillors acting as the ' Overview and Scrutiny function' - calling the Executive to account for their actions and to justify their future plans. As a relatively new concept within local government, this is arguably an under-developed part of local municipal administration. In a related development, the Health and Social Care Act 2001, Police and Justice Act 2006, and 2006 local government white paper set out a role for local government Overview and Scrutiny in creating greater local accountability for a range of public sector organisations.


Councillors cannot do the work of the council themselves, and so are responsible for appointment and oversight of officers, who are delegated to perform most tasks. Local authorities nowadays have to appoint a 'Chief Executive Officer', with overall responsibility for council employees, and who operates in conjunction with department heads. The Chief Executive Officer position is weak compared to the council manager system seen in other countries (and in Stoke).

In some areas, much of the work previously undertaken directly by council employees has been privatised.

Functions and powers

Districts are responsible for leisure, environmental health, housing — including the provision of social housing and housing benefit, rubbish collection, and local roads. Counties are responsible for more strategic services such as education, libraries, main roads, social services, trading standards and transport. Unitary authorities exercise all these functions.

All sorts of councils also have a general power to 'promote economic, social and environmental well-being' of their area. However, like all public bodies, they are limited by the doctrine of ultra vires, and may only do things that common law or an Act of Parliament specifically or generally allows for - in contrast to the earlier incorporated municipal corporations which were treated as natural persons and could undertake whatever activities they wished to.

Councils may promote Local Acts in Parliament to grant them special powers. For example, Kingston upon Hull, had for many years a municipally-owned telephone company, Kingston Communications.


Local authorities sometimes provide services on a joint basis with other authorities, through bodies known as joint-boards. Joint-boards are not directly elected but are made up of councillors appointed from the authorities which are covered by the service.

Typically joint-boards are created to avoid splitting up certain services when unitary authorities are created, or a county or regional council is abolished.

In other cases, if several authorities are considered too small (either in terms of geographic size or population) to run a service effectively by themselves, joint-boards are established. Typical services run by joint-boards include policing, fire services, public transport and sometimes waste disposal authorities.

If a county is too small to justify its own police force, a joint police force is used which covers several counties, for example the West Mercia Constabulary covers Shropshire, Telford and Wrekin, Herefordshire and Worcestershire.

In the six metropolitan counties the metropolitan borough councils, also appoint members to joint county-wide Passenger Transport Authorities to oversee public transport, and joint waste disposal authorities, which were created after the county councils were abolished.

Joint-boards were used extensively in Greater London when the Greater London Council was abolished, to avoid splitting up some London wide services. but these functions have now been taken over by the Greater London Authority.

Similar arrangements exist in Berkshire where the county council was abolished, and in some former Scottish regions such as Strathclyde, where the regional councils have been abolished.

If a joint body is legally required to exist it is known as a joint-board. However local authorities sometimes create joint bodies voluntarily and these are known as joint-committees .

Corporation of London

The City of London covers a square mile (2.6 km²) in the heart of London. It is governed by the Corporation of London, which has a unique structure. The Corporation has been broadly untouched by local government reforms and democratisation. The business vote was abolished for other parts of the country in 1969, but due to the low resident population of the City this was thought impractical. In fact, the business vote was recently extended in the City to cover more companies.


Local councils are funded by a combination of central government grants, Council Tax (a locally set tax based on house value), Business Rates, and fees and charges from certain services including decriminalised parking enforcement. The proportion of revenue that comes from Council Tax is low, meaning that if a council wishes to increase its funding modestly, it has to put up Council Tax by a large amount. Central government retains the right to 'cap' Council Tax if it deems it to be too much. This is an area of debate in British politics at the moment, with councils and central government blaming each other for council tax rises.

Council Tax is collected by the district-level council. Authorities such as the GLA, parish councils, county councils, passenger transport authorities, fire authorities, police authorities, and national parks authorities can make a precept. This shows up as an independent element on council tax bills, but is collected by the district and funnelled to the precepting authority. Some joint ventures are instead funded by levy.


England and Wales

The area which the council covers is divided into electoral divisions - known in district councils as ' wards', and in county councils as 'electoral divisions'. Each ward can return one or more members - multi-member wards are quite common. There is no requirement for the size of wards to be the same within a district, so one ward can return one member and another ward can return two. Metropolitan borough wards must return a multiple of three councillors, whilst until the Local Government Act 2003 multiple-member county electoral divisions were forbidden.

In the election, the candidates to receive the most votes win - the multi-member plurality system. There is no element of proportional representation, so if four candidates from the Mauve Party poll 2,000 votes each, and four candidates from the Taupe Party poll 1,750 votes each, all four Mauve candidates will be returned, and no Taupe candidates will. Although this has been said to be undemocratic, minor and local single-issue parties do tend to do much better at local elections than they do in general elections, so the case for reform is perhaps less clear. In any event, the system is not likely to change for the foreseeable future.

The term of a councillor is usually four years. Councils may be elected wholly, every four years, or 'by thirds', where a third of the councillors get elected each year, with one year with no elections. Recently the 'by halves' system, whereby half of the council is elected every two years, has been allowed. All Welsh councils are elected all at once on a four-year cycle, the year after the Welsh Assembly elections.

Sometimes wholesale boundary revisions will mean the entire council will be re-elected, before returning to the previous elections by thirds or by halves over the coming years.

Scotland and Northern Ireland

In Scotland, the Labour- Liberal Democrat Scottish Executive coalition agreed to introduce the single transferable vote for local government elections from 2007 onwards as part of its programme for government for the 2003-2007 session of the Scottish Parliament. Proportional representation for local government was a long-standing objective of the Liberal Democrats, and the party made it a non-negotiable condition of their signing up to a second coalition with Labour. Legal effect was given to the parties' agreed policy by the Local Governance (Scotland) Act 2004. Wards will elect three or four members each, and elections will continue to take place on the same day as those to the Holyrood legislature.

Elections take place every four years, the same year as the elections to the Scottish Parliament. This recently replaced a three-year cycle. The last elections took place in 2003 (see United Kingdom local elections, 2003), and the next elections are due in 2007 (see United Kingdom local elections, 2007).

In Northern Ireland, local elections also use STV, with several multi-member electoral areas in each district. As in Scotland, elections take place for the whole council every four years. The last elections took place in 2005 (see United Kingdom local elections, 2005), and the next elections are due in 2009 (see United Kingdom local elections, 2009).

Parishes and communities

Below the district level, a district may be divided into several civil parishes. In Wales and Scotland parishes are instead known as ' communities'. Collectively these are known as 'local councils'.

Some civil parishes are deemed too small to have a feasible parish council. So, instead, they hold parish meetings which all residents can attend and normally speak at. Furthermore, several parishes that form a single contiguous area may share either a parish council or a parish meeting, even though the constituent parishes still maintain their otherwise separate identity, and even have separate parish wards that can elect parish councillors.

Local councils have various local responsibilities. Typical activities undertaken by a parish council include allotments, parks, public clocks, and entering Britain in Bloom. They also have a consultative role in planning.

The absence or presence of local councils does not count towards whether a district is unitary or not. Councils such as districts, counties and unitaries are known as principal local authorities in order to differentiate them in their legal status from parish and town councils, which are not uniform in their existence.

Local councils tend not to exist in metropolitan areas but there is nothing to stop their establishment. For example, Birmingham has a parish, New Frankley. However, parishes have not existed in Greater London since 1965 but a recent government White paper and the 2005 Labour Party election manifesto signalled that the legislative ban would be lifted to enable their creation.

In some districts, the rural area is parished and the urban is not - such as in the borough of Shrewsbury and Atcham, where the town of Shrewsbury is unparished and has no local councils, while the countryside around the town is parished. In others, there is a more complex mixture, as in the case of Crewe and Nantwich, where Nantwich is parished, Crewe is not, and many parishes share a parish council with neighbouring parishes.


Responsibility for minor revisions to local government areas falls to a different body in each part of the UK: the Boundary Committee for England, the Local Government Boundary Commission for Scotland, the Local Government Boundary Commission for Wales and the Local Government Boundary Commission for Northern Ireland.

Revisions are usually undertaken to avoid borders straddling new development, to bring them back into line with a diverted watercourse, or to align them with roads or other features.


Sizes of council areas vary widely. The most populated unitary authority area in England is Birmingham (a metropolitan borough) with 977,087 people (2001 census), and the least populated non-metropolitan unitary area is Rutland with 34,563. However, these are outliers, and most English unitary authorities have a population in the range 150,000 to 300,000.

The smallest non-unitary district in England is Teesdale at 24,457 people, and the largest Northampton at 194,458. All but 9 non-unitary English districts have less than 150,000, though.


Where a district is coterminous with a town, the name is an easy choice to make. In some cases, a district is named after its main town, despite there being other towns in the district. Confusingly, such districts sometimes have city status, and so for example the City of Canterbury contains several towns apart from Canterbury, which have distinct identities. Similarly City of Chester contains a number of large villages and extensive countryside, which is quite distinct from the main settlement of Chester.

They can be named after traditional subdivisions ( Spelthorne), rivers ( Eden, Arun), a modified version of their main town's name ( Harborough, Wycombe), or after a geographical feature in the district ( Cotswold, Cannock Chase). Purely geographical names can also be used ( South Bucks, Suffolk Coastal, North West Leicestershire).

In Great Britain, councils have a general power to change the name of the district, and consequently their own name. In England and Wales this is exercised under section 74 of the Local Government Act 1972. Such a resolution must have two thirds of the votes at a meeting convened for the purpose.

Ceremonial functions

The boroughs are in many cases descendants of boroughs set up hundreds of years ago, and so have accreted a number of traditions and ceremonial functions.

In borough councils not to have adopted a directly-elected mayor; the chair of the council is the mayor. In certain cities the mayor is known as the Lord Mayor. Councils may make people honorary freemen or honorary aldermen.


Local government in a recognisably modern form emerged during the late 19th century. Most importantly, the Local Government Act 1888 created county councils and county boroughs across England and Wales, the following year this was extended to Scotland, and by 1898 to Ireland.

Further reforms in the 1890s divided counties in England, Wales and Ireland into various lower-tier districts, including rural districts, urban districts, municipal boroughs, and in the County of London, metropolitan boroughs.

The system created in the late 19th century, survived largely unchanged for most of the 20th century. The first major reform took place in 1965 when Greater London was created with a new Greater London Council replacing the old London County Council.

Another large scale reform took place in 1974, by the Local Government Act 1972. This abolished county boroughs and created a uniform two-tier system everywhere. In England it created Metropolitan and non-metropolitan counties, which were sub-divided into non-metropolitan and metropolitan districts, and merged some smaller counties such as Rutland (into Leicestershire), Herefordshire and Worcestershire (into Hereford and Worcester). A number of new counties were created including Avon, Humberside and Cleveland. Several of the new counties created were called metropolitan counties which had a different division of powers between county and district councils. In Wales the Act created a set of entirely new counties for local government purposes.

In 1975 Scotland's counties were abolished and replaced with two-tier Regions and districts.

From 1974 (1975 in Scotland) to 1986, the whole of England, Scotland and Wales had a two-tier system, with district councils and county (or in Scotland, regional) councils.

This was changed in 1986 by the abolition of metropolitan county councils and the Greater London Council. A local government reform took place in the 1990s, which was instituted by the then Conservative Major government. Scotland and Wales moved to a fully unitary system in 1996, whilst expansion of unitary government in England happened haphazardly, leaving parts of the country unitary, and other parts two-tier — a system similar to that which prevailed between 1890 and 1974 in the whole of Great Britain. Unitary local government was inserted as a precondition for the introduction of any elected Regional Assemblies under the Labour government's former plans to introduce such bodies prior to the rejection by referendum in North East in November 2004. The government then said that it had no plans to introduce unitary local government in England but since the General Election the government has floated the idea of voluntary mergers of local councils, avoiding a costly reorganisation but achieving desired reform. For instance, the guiding principles of the government's 'New Localism' demand levels of efficiency not present in the current over-duplicated two-tier structure.

The system in Northern Ireland dates from 1973; before then a system was used identical to that used on the mainland before 1974. It does not resemble the systems on the mainland in that the 26 district councils are mainly responsible for environmental services, with education and social services being provided at the provincial level through area boards run from the various civil service departments. The Review of Public Administration, which ran from 2002 to 2005, examined the options for reducing the number of district councils in the province while passing powers down to new councils and has proposed seven new 'super councils'.

Future in England

The Government released a Local Government White Paper on October 26, 2006, Strong and Prosperous Communities, which deals with the structure of local government. The White Paper does not deal with the issues of local government funding or of reform or replacement of the Council Tax, which is awaiting the final report of the Lyons Review. A Local Government Bill has been introduced in the 2006-2007 session of Parliament.

The White Paper emphasises the concept of "double devolution", with more powers being granted to councils, and powers being devolved from town halls to community levels. It proposes to reduce the level of central government oversight over local authorities; by removing centrally-set performance targets, and statutory controls of the Secretary of State over parish councils, bye-laws, and electoral arrangements. The White Paper proposes that the existing prohibition on parish councils in Greater London will be abolished, and making new parishes easier to set up. Parish councils can currently be styled parish councils, town councils or city councils: the White Paper proposes that "community council", "neighbourhood council" and "village council" may be used as well.

It invites local authorities to submit consensus-based proposals for unitary authority status, to be submitted before 25 January, 2007. Selected submissions will be subjected to a public consultation from March until June: the government will make final announcements in July 2007. Elections to the new authorities would take place in 2008, with them taking up their powers on April 1, 2009. It has been suggested that the 2007 council elections might be suspended because of this, to avoid electing councils which would be replaced by new councils the following year.

The White Paper proposes to strengthen the council executives, and provides an option between a directly-elected mayor; a directly-elected executive; or an indirectly elected leader; with a fixed 4-year term. It promises that the Department for Transport will put forward proposals for a reform of the Passenger Transport Authorities.

Various local councils have indicated they will seek unitary authority status. Four medium-sized towns and historic county boroughs, overlooked by the 1990s review: Ipswich, Oxford, Norwich and Exeter are hoping for unitary status on their present boundaries, and commissioned a report jointly to press their case. Norwich has announced its intention to respond to the invitation, as have Ipswich and Exeter. Cambridge, a similarly-sized town which never achieved county borough status, is also considering its position.

In Lancashire, Preston and South Ribble desired to form a single unitary authority although Preston's bid is for it alone. The City of Lancaster also is considering seeking unitary status on its present boundaries (having supported a merger with South Lakeland and Barrow-in-Furness to form a Morecambe Bay unitary authority during the referendums review). Blackpool has advocated a merger with the Fylde and Wyre districts, which they do not support.. Pendle and Burnley have also tried to form a unitary authority with Rossendale however Rossendale rejected this and the overall decison now lies with the Boundaries Commison

The Local Government Chronicle suggests that the non-metropolitan counties of Cornwall, Shropshire, Durham, Cumbria and Northumberland may fit the government's criteria, and that the government is unlikely to favour carving out unitary authorities from existing two-tier counties. Shropshire County Council, as well as two of the five districts of Shropshire, have stated that they wish for a move to unitary status. The issue is being considered in Durham and Cumbria. In Cumbria the idea of a North Cumbria authority covering the Eden, Copeland, Carlisle and Allerdale districts has seen some support. The issue is also being considered in Northumberland, with the County Council in favour of one Northumberland unitary authority. Alan Beith, the MP for Berwick at the far north of Northumberland, has suggested instead a three unitary solution, with authorities for the largely rural north and south-west, and an authority for the urban south-east ( Wansbeck and Blyth Valley).

A report released by the IPPR's Centre for Cities in February 2006, City Leadership: giving city regions the power to grow, proposed the creation of two large city-regions based on Manchester and Birmingham : the Birmingham one would cover the existing West Midlands metropolitan county, along with Bromsgrove, Cannock Chase, Lichfield, North Warwickshire, Redditch and Tamworth, whilst the Manchester one would cover the existing Greater Manchester along with the borough of Macclesfield. No firm proposals of this sort appear in the White Paper. Reportedly, this had been the subject of an internal dispute within the government.

On January 26, 2007, the government confirmed that 26 proposals for unitary authorities had been received. Various county councils have proposed they should become unitary authorities : these being Bedfordshire, Cheshire, Cornwall, Cumbria, Durham, North Yorkshire, Northumberland, Shropshire, Somerset and Wiltshire. Districts seeking to become unitary authorities on their own are Bedford, Exeter, Ipswich, Lancaster, Oxford, Preston. Pendle and Burnley have proposed merging as a unitary authority.

On March 27, 2007, the government announced that the proposals by Bedfordshire, Bedford, Cornwall, Cheshire, Cumbria, Durham, Exeter, Ipswich, North Yorkshire, North Yorkshire, Norwich, Shropshire, Somerset and Wiltshire to become unitary authorities would go into the next phase, as would the proposal of Chester for a two-unitary authority Cheshire and by the districts of Northumberland for a two-unitary Northumberland.


See Subdivisions of England for list of English local authority areas.

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