The Local Government System in England Today

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In this page:

  • This page sets out the system of local government as it exists in England today. For details on arrangements in your area, see the separate pages on local government in the Sheffield City Region and in Hampshire and the Isle of Wight.
  • In much of England, there are county and district councils. Elsewhere, there is just a single tier of unitary authorities.
  • County councils take responsibility for things like social services, education, roads and waste disposal.
  • District councils take on roles such as housing, planning, parking and street cleaning.
  • On many issues, while local government delivers the services, it is central government in London that decides what the services should be.
  • Supporters of devolution want more local control of these services.

The local government system in England

The term ‘local government’ refers to the councils that deliver local services in each part of the country. The current system of local government is quite complex, with different arrangements in place in different parts of the country:

  • In some parts of England there are two tiers of local government: county councils and district councils. Counties have some functions and districts have others (with a small amount of overlap). Counties are bigger than districts. So, in each county council area, there will be several district councils – normally between 5 and 12.
  • In other areas there are single-tier ‘unitary authorities’, which have all the functions of counties and districts.
Local Government Map

Local government structures in England. The light pink areas have two-tier systems. The green, orange, and red areas have different types of unitary authorities. Source: Wikipedia.

For the most part, larger cities have unitary authorities and rural areas have two tiers. For example, in Hampshire, the cities of Portsmouth and Southampton have unitary authorities, but the rest of the county has a two-tier system. In Yorkshire, similarly, Sheffield, Barnsley, Doncaster and Rotherham are all unitary authorities, whereas most of North Yorkshire has both a county council and district councils. But this is not a universal pattern. For instance, the Isle of Wight, Wiltshire, and the East Riding of Yorkshire all have unitary authorities even though they are mainly rural.

Councils cover widely differing areas in terms of geography and population. In recent years, governments of all colours have sought to promote fewer, larger councils. They have believed that abolishing several small districts and replacing them with a unitary authority would bring ‘economies of scale’. The evidence of this is variable from across the country, but it is fair to say that merging councils tends to save only a very small percentage of costs, probably less than 1%.

County councils generally cover populations of between 500,000 and 1.2 million. District councils tend to cover populations of 70,000 up to 180,000. Unitary authorities typically cover populations of 100,000 up to 1 million.

How councils are organised

Councillors are elected to each of these types of authority, for four-year terms. Different councils have different arrangements for making decisions:

  • In some councils, committees of councillors run the main council services and make all the major decisions on budgeting and priorities.
  • Other councils have a ‘cabinet’ system, where councillors choose a leader for a four-year term and this person then appoints a series of ‘portfolio holders’ – similar to government ministers. The rest of the councillors organise themselves into committees, monitoring the performance of the portfolio holders.
  • In sixteen councils in England, instead of a council leader chosen by councillors, a directly elected mayor appoints a cabinet.

Other local bodies

Every part of England is covered by a Local Enterprise Partnership (LEP). These are small, business-led partnership bodies that are intended to lead on business development and economic growth in their area. They also apply for funding from a number of government programmes and distribute this to businesses in their area. The largest LEPs can be responsible for distributing up to £100 million per year.

Most local councils have close working relationships with the LEPs in their area. There will normally be some local councillors on the LEP board, and councils will often provide administrative support to LEPs.

All parts of England are covered by fire and rescue authorities. In some areas these are integrated parts of the county council. In others, they are run by joint boards, with the local authorities in their area represented on the boards.

All parts of England are also covered by directly-elected Police and Crime Commissioners. They are accountable for the police service in their area, though operations are still run by the Chief Constable.

In some areas, there is another layer of councils below the district or unitary councils. These are generally called either parish or town councils. They have very limited powers in their local areas. For more information on them, see our page on decentralisation to local neighbourhoods.

What do councils do?

The responsibilities of councils are set out below. It might be imagined that the law sets out clearly which public services councils provide and what other responsibilities they have. The reality is much more complex than this.

  • County functions include education; social services; public health; roads and other transport; registration of births, deaths and marriages; libraries; trading standards and consumer protection; waste disposal; emergency planning.
  • District functions include administering elections; community safety; coastal protection; collecting council tax and business rates; housing; environmental health; licensing; parking; planning; sports, leisure centres, parks and recreation; waste collection and street cleaning.

Some functions can be carried out by either of the tiers of government (known as ‘concurrent functions’ in the jargon). These include arts, galleries, economic development, and tourism.

Where there are unitary authorities, they cary out all of these functions.

There are a number of public services that are administered locally but are not under the control of local government. For instance, councils have no control over the NHS, trunk roads, further education colleges and universities, or most benefit payments.

In other public services, whilst councils have some functions they must work with other public bodies, or there are restrictions on what they themselves can do. For instance:

  • Whilst county councils are nominally responsible for education, in practice almost all funding for schools goes directly to schools. Similarly, county councils must design a local flood strategy, but they are reliant on other bodies like the Environment Agency to put it into practice.
  • Whilst district councils are responsible for housing, funding for new housebuilding is provided by the Homes and Communities Agency (HCA). Many districts have sold their entire housing stock to housing associations, which can themselves receive funding directly from the HCA.
  • Whilst both tiers have responsibility for economic development and business support, in practice the government provides funding direct to the Local Enterprise Partnerships (LEPs) that is considerably more than councils spend.

A good deal of the debate over ‘devolution’ focuses on making the case for local councils taking over powers, and/or budgets, from other public bodies, including central government. Councils argue that their local knowledge would allow them to use such powers and money more effectively; and that this would also reduce the number of different public bodies interacting and possibly clashing in their actions.

Who oversees councils?

In general, if a council makes a decision, it will not be automatically reviewed and overruled by another authority. Councils are independent of government. However, they do not have a free hand in deciding what to do. For instance, councils must perform their ‘statutory duties’ – hundreds of requirements, across many laws, for them to do specific things. They are monitored by bodies such as Ofsted and the Care Quality Commission to make sure they are fulfilling these duties.

Councils are also subject to strict limits on how they raise money. Although they are allowed to borrow money, they have to balance their budget each year – that is, they cannot run a deficit. They have to produce annual accounts which are subject to audit.

The government does have reserve powers to take over council functions when it sees fit. These reserve powers are currently being used in Rotherham, where all of the council’s powers are in the hands of a team of ‘Commissioners’ appointed by the government. The plan is to gradually return powers in Rotherham to the elected councillors after the 2016 elections. The reserve powers are normally only used where there is a long record of concerns over council behaviour. The government does not monitor council decisions or overturn them at will on a daily basis.

Combined authorities

Some parts of England also have ‘combined authorities’ that bring local councils in the area together. Existing local councillors make up the combined authorities – citizens do not vote directly on who they are. The Greater Manchester combined authority was set up on 1 April 2011. Combined authorities were set up in April 2014 in West Yorkshire, Sheffield, Liverpool and the North East.

Each combined authority is created through a deal negotiated between the local councils and the government – known as a ‘city deal’. The deals struck have been somewhat different from place to place, but the main areas of focus are economic development, regeneration and transport.

The government now want to extend the roles of combined authorities further through ‘devolution deals’. The government’s argument is that local government is currently too fragmented and that development can be pursued more effectively with combined authorities headed by directly elected mayors (elected by citizens in that area).

The creation of stronger combined authorities such as these is the first of the reform options that Assembly North and Assembly South will discuss. For further details, see our page on Devolution Deals.

Where to from here?

  • House of Commons Library briefing on Combined Authorities.
  • Currently, local councils are the key bodies that provide public services in local areas.
  • Under the government’s plans, many parts of England will get new ‘combined authorities’, which will be particularly focused on economic development, regeneration, and transport.
  • These combined authorities will be established through ‘devolution deals’, which will also introduce directly elected mayors.
  • Further information on these Devolution Deals.

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