Local government in Britain

Simply explained - a thematic guide to Britain

Local administration in Britain - simply explained
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England Scotland
Cities and mayors Other structures

Local government or administration in England : the Local Authorities

       On the face of it, the territorial administration of England seems extremely complex; but in reality it is fairly simple compared to that of many countries.  Wheras a country like Germany has four levels of administration - State, "Länder", district, and municipality, in Britain there are only one or two levels of local government - called Local Authorities. Apart from this, some minor and strictly local functions are delegated to parish councils , most often in the hands of volunteers.

       The precise structure of local government varies according to the nature of the territories.
      The guiding principle is very simple to understand;
Whenever possible and desirable, there is one single tier (or level) of local government and administration - known as a "unitary authority"

      In some areas - London and many historic rural counties - there are two tiers (levels) of local governement, with some services managed jointly over a large area by the higher level of administration, others managed locally at the lower level.

     Where there are two tiers or levels of local government, the main local public services are managed as follows:
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    London, with its Greater London Authority (GLA) , chaired by the Mayor, is a unique case.  It is the only large urban area with two tiers of administration.
    In London, the administration of public services is split  between the GLA and borough councils .  London is the only large city in England to have two tiers of local government

Metropolitan counties

The other six major urban areas of England, around the cities of Newcastle , Leeds, Manchester , Liverpool (Merseyside), Sheffield and Birmingham, are known as metropolitan counties. Here there is only one single layer of local administration
    However, the metropolitan counties themselves are largely empty shells: they DO NOT HAVE any territorial administrative function.  All local administration is ensured by the individual boroughs within these metropolitan counties. It is the boroughs, not the metropolitan counties, that are unitary authorities, i.e. the only tier of local government for their area.
   Nevertheless, for certain services, such as police, fire and public transport, the boroughs within metropolitan county areas work together in the framework of joint boards.

Non-metropolitan counties

    Outside major urban areas, England is divided into 76 non-metropolitan counties , 75 have their own administration.
   There are two types of non-metropolitan county, those that are "unitary authorities" (i.e. there is only one level of local administration), and those that operate with a two-tier system.

Non metropolitan unitary authorities :

Most other large towns and cities in England (i.e. apart from London and the metropolitan counties), and also some rural areas, are administered as unitary authorities, with just a single level of local government. Examples include the cities of Southampton, Bristol, Bournemouth, Leicester, Blackpool, and rural areas including Cornwall, North Somerset, the Isle of Wight, or West Berkshire .

Two tier counties

    For the rest of England, most of the rural " shires " or historic counties of England, such as Norfolk, Herefordshire or most of Kent, there are here two levels of local government; an upper level, called the "County council", and a lower level made up of "district councils".


The system of local government in Scotland is even simpler than in England. There are just 32 unitary authorities.

Cities and mayors

    Most towns or cities in Britain are part of a district. Districts are managed by a District Council, under the direction of a leader appointed by councillors. The person at the head of a district council may be known as the Leader of the council, or as the Mayor. To prevent the formation of small local fiefdoms of personal power , mayors or council leaders are chosen from local elected representatives for a term of one year, and the job usually goes in  turn to different members of the executive.
    Only 17 English cities have a directly elected mayor. The system was imposed in London in 2000 and later other cities were allowed to create the post of elected mayor, if this was approved by popular referendum. Only 16 cities / districts, including Liverpool and Bristol, have so far voted to have an elected mayor; the idea has been rejected by voters  in forty other cities. The powers of mayors and council leaders are strictly limited.
   From 2008 to 2016, London's mayor was the Conservative Boris Johnson. In 2016 however Londoners chose as their new mayor, by a large margin,  moderate Labour candidate Sadiq Khan, the first Muslim to become mayor of a major European city.

Lord mayors

     The historic office of Lord Mayor is largely ceremonial today.  Thirty British cities have a Lord Mayor ( known in Scotland as a Lord Provost ) .
     It is necessary to distinguish between the role of a mayor and a lord mayor . For example, London has its own elected mayor (currently Sadiq Khan) who is the leader of the GLA ( city council ). But the City of London (which is just the historic centre of London), has a Lord Mayor, who is chosen by the corporation of the city of London, and, appointed for a year. The Lord Mayor of London plays a mainly ceremonial and public relations role for the City of London.

Other structures

Parishes and parish councils.

    Parishes are a very ancient unit of territorial administration: they corresponded in the past to the area served by one church. Today, this may still be the case, though more generally parishes are the small subdivisions of boroughs or districts. The powers of parish councils are limited mainly to social issues, sport and culture, and perhaps local parks and some local social services. Their functions were defined in 1965 by the Royal Commission on Local Government (Redcliffe -Maude Commission) .
    However, since 2011, the Cameron government, as part of its policy of reducing the role and cost of local government, has given greater freedom of action to parish councils. In many cases Parish councils are largely run by unpaid volunteers; but councils have the power to decide whether or not to give their members some form of remuneration or allowance for services rendered to the community.
    In Scotland, parish councils are known as community councils.

Autonomous public services

    While many public services are managed by local authorities, others are managed by autonomous public or private bodies, not controlled by local authorities. This is notably the case for hospitals (managed by hospital trusts), water supplies (delivered by private companies) and an increasing number of state schools that have adopted the status of academies or free schools, and are funded directly by central government, and run by their own boards of governors.

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