What is the structure of UK Local Government?

The set-up of UK Local Government is extremely confusing even to those of us who live here. This is the result of a complete re-organisation in 1973 and further partial re-organisations in 1986, the 1990s, and 2009. I will try to explain.

Up until the creation of the first new Unitary Authority (Isle of Wight in 1995) there were two models of service provision:

In the 1990s the Central Government's view was that the two tier model of service provision was inefficient and confusing, and that County Councils were too remote from those they served; and therefore that County Councils should be abolished and their functions transferred to District Councils, with some of the smaller Districts being merged.

In Scotland and Wales this is exactly what was done. In England there was a process of local consultation which led to the single tier model being supported, and implemented, in some places and rejected in rather more.

Where single-tier councils have been implemented, they are called UNITARY AUTHORITIES. In the cases of Avon, Berkshire, Cleveland and Humberside all the Districts became Unitaries (with some mergers) and the County Councils were abolished (see also What is a County?). As in the Metropolitan Areas, some functions are now exercised by joint boards appointed by County Councils and the Unitaries which were formerly within their jurisdiction.

A second round of Unitaries was implemented in 2009, but the rationale had by then shifted to "clear leadership and improved efficiency" and county-sized unitaries were new the favoured solution (remoteness no longer being an obstacle, it seems). As a result 5 of the new unitaries covered entire former two-tier counties, and the remaining 4 half-counties, with the district councils in these areas being abolished.

At the conclusion of this re-organisation the total count of Principal Authorities stands as follows:

Two tier structure
County Councils27
District Councils201
All-Purpose Authorities
English Unitary Authorities55 179
Metropolitan Districts36
London Boroughs32
Scottish Unitary Authorities32
Welsh Unitary Authorities22
City of London1
Isles of Scilly1
England Wales & Scotland Total407
Northern Ireland District Councils26
Grand Total433

(Northern Ireland District Councils are Unitary Authorities but perform a narrower range of functions. The sectarian problems in the province have meant that potentially sensitive functions were reserved by central government: some have now been transferred to the Northern Ireland Executive. The Council of the Isles of Scilly was already a Unitary Authority; and the Corporation of the City of London, which covers only a very small area of "London" as normally understood, is a Quaint British Tradition™).

PARISH and TOWN COUNCILS in England cover areas smaller than Districts (up to 30,000 population but usually much less). They have very limited responsibilities for local services and environmental improvements, and do not exist in large towns and cities. There is no difference in powers between PARISH and TOWN councils - the distinction is just that TOWN councils cover areas which are generally more urban than PARISH ones. COMMUNITY COUNCILS in Wales are similar bodies; those in Scotland have no statutory functions. Very small parishes may not have an elected council, in which case decisions are taken by open PARISH MEETINGS. At the last count there were 10466 parishes in England, 867 communities in Wales and about 1200 in Scotland.

CITY and BOROUGH are titles of honour which do not affect the functions of a local authority. The titles may be conferred by a Royal Charter, which is generally done for a very large and important town (note, though, that this has been going on for about 700 years and towns which were important then may not be so important now) but in some cases the term City seems to be traditional usage whose origin is lost in the mists of time. In particular it is generally used of any town containing a Cathedral. The various reorganisations have led in some cases to the title of City being applied to a Town Council (which can be thoroughly confusing where it has the same name as a District which covers a larger area!) but more often it is applied to a District. The title of Borough is only applied to Districts.

In Wales the terms County Council or County Borough Council are titles of honour referring to the status which areas had before the 1973 re-organisations. They are all actually Unitary Authorities.

Central Government responsibility and financial support for Local Government in England now falls to the Department for Communities and Local Government; in Scotland to the Scottish Executive; in Wales to the Welsh Assembly: Local Government and Communities Directorate; in Northern Ireland to the Northern Ireland Executive: Department of the Environment

COUNCILLORS represent geographical WARDS (called ELECTORAL DIVISIONS in County and county-sized Unitary Councils) and serve for four years before needing to seek re-election. A ward may represented by 1, 2 or 3 councillors. County Councils, London Boroughs, and Scottish and Welsh Unitaries elect all their councillors at once, every 4 years; Metropolitan Districts elect one-third of their councillors in each of the 3 years out of 4 which are not County Election years; English Unitaries and second-tier Districts were given the choice of the two methods: 18 out of the 55 Unitaries and 88 of the 201 Districts elect by thirds.

ELECTIONS - in England and Wales are always held by the plurality ("first-past-the-post") method even when 3 (or even more in Wales) councillors for a ward are being elected at once. Elections in Scotland and Northern Iteland are conducted by the Single Transferable Vote. About 88% of councillors (excluding those in Northern Ireland) stood on behalf of one of the three main British Parties; most of the rest profess to be "Independent".

Until recently, most council decisions were taken by COMMITTEES appointed from within the Council, with only the most important decisions being taken by the entire Council. There are rules to ensure that the political composition of the committees reflects that of the whole Council. The Local Government Act 2000 has changed this, in all but the smallest districts, to a system where decisions are taken by one of a few CABINET or EXECUTIVE COUNCILLORS with the committees reduced to an advisory or SCRUTINY role.

This is accompanied in a few cases by a change in the role of MAYOR. In the past, the MAYOR of a Borough or City (or LORD MAYOR in the largest cities) has been appointed by the council from among its own members and combined the role of Chair of Council Meetings with a ceremonial role as "First Citizen". There is now provision for councils to have a directly ELECTED MAYOR responsible for most decisions in assocation with a small CABINET of Councillors: however only 11 councils have such a mayor.

More information on the structure of UK Local Government from Office of National Statistics

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