Local Government Explained Part 1: Types of councils

May 5, 2021  

Local government can seem complicated, but it’s where local democracy happens. We start our explainer series by looking at the different types of council in England and what they do.

There are a total of 333 local authorities in England.

The system of local government in England that we have today is the product of our unique history, culture and waves of local government reform over the years.

Like other parts of government, it is complicated – so this short guide will answer your local government questions.

What are the different types of councils? And what does this actually mean?

There are two different forms of council set-up.

In some areas there is just one council, responsible for every local government function. These are known as ‘single tier’ councils.

In other areas, there are two councils – one smaller and one larger – and they split local government functions between them. These are known as ‘two-tier’ areas.

Two-tier councils

There are two different types of two-tier council, where local government functions are split between two councils: a county council and a district council.

(Sometimes county councils are referred to as ‘upper tier’ and district councils as ‘lower tier’.)

  • County councils

There are 24 county councils. They tend to cover large historic, more rural county areas such as Surrey, Warwickshire and Nottinghamshire.

County councils are mostly responsible for strategic services such as transport and people-facing services such as public health, children’s services and adult social care.

  • District councils

There are 181 district councils, and they represent a much smaller area within a county council.

Within any area covered by one county council, there will be approximately 5-7 district councils.

District councils are mostly responsible for more place-related services such as housing, planning and licensing.

They can cover small cities, like Cambridge, and more rural areas, like Fenland, which are both districts within the county of Cambridgeshire.  

Single-tier councils

There are three different types of single-tier council, where just one council carries out all local government functions:

  • Metropolitan boroughs

There are 36 metropolitan borough councils, representing the largest urban areas outside London.

Between them they cover the areas of Greater Manchester, Merseyside, South Yorkshire, West Yorkshire, Tyne & Wear and the West Midlands.

Some represent big cities directly such as Manchester or Newcastle, and some represent an area which contains a few different towns alongside the suburbs and rural areas between them, such as Wakefield or Dudley.

  • London boroughs

There are 33 borough councils in London, and between them they cover the capital city.

One of these is slightly different – the City of London, which represents the historic financial district. It performs the same functions as the others, but it is not formally a London borough – it has an ancient ceremonial status as a county, in fact the smallest county in England.

  • Unitary councils

There are 59 unitary councils.

These are all in areas that were previously two-tier, but which went through a process of reform known as ‘unitarisation’ – in other words they were merged.

One local authority now carries out all the functions of a county and district council.

Unitary councils are the hardest to categorise together because they are each the product of a particular local government reform at a certain point in time, mostly during the 1990s and 2000s.

They come in all sizes:

  • Some big unitary councils cover large county areas such as Cornwall, Wiltshire and County Durham.
  • Some unitary councils cover a city or large town which sit within a wider county area that is administratively separate, such as Derby City Council in Derbyshire or Blackpool Council in Lancashire.
  • Some unitary councils are basically former counties split in two or three. For example, Cheshire, which is now covered by East Cheshire Council and Cheshire West & Chester Council.
  • A few unitary councils are smaller, and cover areas previously similar to district size councils. An example of this is Berkshire, which has six unitary authorities, including Wokingham and Slough.
  • One unitary council defies all other attempts at categorisation: the Council of the Isles of Scilly, which serves only 2,000 people. The Isles of Scilly are a separate administrative entity to Cornwall, although in practice some services such as health are shared between the two. For ceremonial purposes the Isles are considered part of the county of Cornwall, and they are part of the Duchy of Cornwall.

What about the other types of local government?

There are a few other types of local government bodies, which exist in many but not all areas of the country.

Some exist at a smaller, more local level and others at a larger, more strategic or regional level to councils.

  • Parish councils

At a smaller, hyper-local level, are parish councils.

There are approximately 10,000 parish councils in England. They can variously be known as town councils, neighbourhood councils or village councils.

(They are sometimes referred to as ‘local councils’, and to distinguish them from single or two-tier councils the latter can be collectively referred to as ‘principal councils’.)

Usually operating in rural areas, parish councils cover small areas mostly representing under 2,500 people and just under a third of the country is covered by one.

Their only legal duty is to provide allotments, but they also have powers to run local neighbourhood facilities such as community buildings, parks, playgrounds and public toilets.

Regional authorities

At a larger, strategic or regional level there are two types of authority.

  • Combined authorities

There are ten combined authorities in England.  

Since 2009, groups of local authorities outside London have been able to seek permission from Government to “combine” by pooling responsibilities and then receive certain new strategic powers in areas such as transport and economic policy.

The councils within a combined authority remain separate entities delivering their existing council functions, but are able to carry out new activities collectively across their region.

Ten regional areas have been successful in their bids to establish combined authorities.

Examples include

  • Greater Manchester and Sheffield City Region, which combine their respective metropolitan boroughs
  • Cambridgeshire & Peterborough, which includes the two-tier county and districts councils of Cambridgeshire and the unitary council of Peterborough.

Most combined authorities have been required to create a new role of directly elected mayor as part of the new arrangements. These are often known as the ‘metro mayors’.

(The North East Combined Authority is the only one without a directly elected mayor.)

  • Greater London Authority (GLA)

London has its own unique form of ‘strategic authority’.

The GLA is made up of two parts: an executive – the Mayor of London, and the London Assembly, which scrutinises the decisions of the Mayor and is made up of 25 Assembly Members.

The GLA has a range of strategic responsibilities including in areas of transport, policing, housing and economic development.

Differences between the GLA and combined authorities

There are lots of differences between combined authorities and the GLA.

Notably, London borough councils have no legal relationship with the GLA, which operates strategically across them and has entirely separate powers and remit.

But combined authorities are directly composed of groups of councils, which means the leaders of each constituent council have formal decision-making powers as part of the combined authority executive, along with the directly elected mayor.

Conclusion

Councillors are elected to represent neighbourhoods, so your councillors will always live close by and know your area.

Depending on where you live in England, you could have between one and five tiers of local government representing you.

In future parts of our explainer series, we will be looking more closely at what functions councils carry out, how they are funded and how local elections work.

If you have any questions for us, let us know and we will make sure we do our best to answer them. Contact Jessica Studdert: jstuddert@Newlocal.org.uk

Join our mailing list