Local government in the United Kingdom

This article is part of the series
Politics of the United Kingdom

The United Kingdom is divided into four parts, England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. Each has a different system of local government.



Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland,

These three parts each have a devolved assembly - the Scottish Parliament, the Welsh Assembly and the Northern Ireland Assembly respectively. These are not considered local, but national (or provincial) government.

The three consistently 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 pattern in England is more complex. England has no separate governing body for the whole of it other than that of the Government of the United Kingdom. It is subdivided into 9 regions. One of these, Greater 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, and then later adopted for county councils and rural districts.

In 2000 Parliament passed the Local Government Act 2000 to force 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 eleven 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), and the government is no longer actively advocating the creation of new mayors. Since May 2002 only three referendums have been held, and they have all been negative. Of the mayors, all but Stoke-on-Trent's are mayor and cabinet-based.

The Executive, in which ever form it is, is held to account by the remainder of the Councillors acting as the 'scrutiny function' - calling the Executive to account for their actions and to justify their future plans. As a new concept within local government, this is currently an under-developed part of local municipal administration.


Councillors cannot do the work of the council themselves, and so are responsible mainly 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).

Much work undertaken directly by council employees has now been privatised.

Functions and powers

Districts are responsible for leisure, environmental health, housing, 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.


If a local service is provided over an area covering several local authorities, joint-boards are established to administer them. Joint-boards are not directly elected but are made up of councillors appointed from the authorities which are covered.

Typically joint-boards are created to avoid splitting up certain services (usually policing, fire services and public transport authorities) when unitary authorities are created, or a county or regional council is abolished.

In some cases, 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.

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.


Local councils are funded by a combination of central grants and Council Tax, a locally set tax based on house value, along with business rates. 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.


Great Britain

The area which the council covers is divided into electoral divisions - known as in district councils as 'wards'. 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.

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. This has been criticised as undemocratic, but third, minor and local single-issue parties do tend to do much better at local elections than general elections, and it is unlikely to be reformed in England and Wales.

In Scotland, however, the Labour-Liberal Democrat coalition agreed to introduce the single transferable vote for local government elections. This is a long-standing objective of the Liberal Democrats, and despite its unpopularity in the Labour Party no coalition was possible without it. Wards will elect three or four members each; it is expected that the next Scottish local government elections in 2007 will be conducted using STV.

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, where half of the council is elected every two years, has been allowed. All Scottish and Welsh councils are elected all at once on a four-year cycle. Scottish authorities are chosen at the same time as elections to the Scottish Parliament; Welsh authorities are elected the year after the Welsh Assembly elections.

Sometimes wholesale boundary revisions will mean the entire council will be re-elected; and then return to the previous elections by thirds or by halves over the coming years.

Northern Ireland

In Northern Ireland, local elections are run instead on the basis of the single transferable vote, with several multi-member electoral areas in each district. Elections take place for the whole council every four years.

Parishes and communities

Below the district level, a district may be divided into several civil parishes (with all or no land left unparished). In Wales and Scotland parishes are instead known as 'communities'. Collectively these are known as 'local councils'.

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 prescence of local councils does not count towards whether a district is unitary or not.

Local councils tend not to exist in metropolitan areas such as Greater London, but there is nothing to stop their establishment. For example, Birmingham has a parish, New Frankley.


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 Commisssion 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 wildy. The most populated unitary authority area is Birmingham (a metropolitan borough) with 977,087 people (2001 census), and the least populated (normal) one is Rutland with 34,563. However, these are outliers, and most unitary authorities have a population in the range 150,000 to 300,000.

The smallest non-unitary district is Teesdale at 24,457 people, and the largest Northampton at 194,458. All but 9 non-unitary 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.

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 descendents 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.

Recent history

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. 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 before 1974 in the whole of Great Britain.

The system in Northern Ireland dates from 1973; before then a system was used identical to that used on the mainland before 1974.

See also

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