How is local government organised in England?

Author:
Michela Palese, Research and Policy Officer

Posted on the 16th March 2022

England’s local government can sometimes be quite confusing. The history of devolution within England is one of ad hoc, piecemeal, top-down reforms united in their lack of a clear vision. This has left different areas with different arrangements, although generally, the purpose is the same wherever you are.

Firstly, local councils provide for an additional layer of democracy to that available from central government. Local government ensures the political representation of citizens at the local level, it is publicly accountable for local decisions and the implementation of national ones, and it fosters local engagement. Second, local government is responsible for providing a variety of public services, such as social care, education, housing and planning, and waste collection.

Local government is a devolved matter in the UK, so it takes different forms across the country. In Northern Ireland, Scotland, and Wales, there is a single layer of local government – with 11, 32 and 22 ‘unitary authorities’ respectively in each of these parts of the UK.

The landscape of local government in England is more fragmented and overlapping, with functions, powers and resources depending on the specific type of arrangement, and its shape has changed (and continues to do so) over the years.

There are three forms of sub-national government in England: local authorities, combined authorities, and London’s bespoke arrangements.

Local authorities in England

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: https://citizensassembly.co.uk/local-government-explained/

Currently, there are 333 local authorities in England, and these can be divided into two-tier and single-tier authorities:

  • In two-tier areas, larger County councils cover multiple smaller District councils and these authorities share local government functions. County councils are responsible for social care and some aspects of transport and education (providing around 80 percent of services). District councils manage neighbourhood services, such as waste collection.
  • In single-tier areas, one authority carries out all local government functions. Single-tier areas include: unitary authorities, London boroughs, metropolitan districts (effectively unitary authorities – the name is a relic of past organisational arrangements), and two unique authorities (City of London and Isles of Scilly). Around 62 percent of the population in England is covered by a single-tier authority.

Table 1: Principal Councils in England

Type of authority Number of authorities
Two-tier
County councils 24
District councils 181
Single-tier
Unitary authorities 58
Metropolitan districts 36
London boroughs 32
City of London 1
Isles of Scilly 1
Total 333

Source: https://lgiu.org/local-government-facts-and-figures-england/

In both types of authorities, councillors are elected every four years using First Past the Post in wards that either elect one or multiple councillors each, with voters having as many votes as there are seats up for grabs. This can result in local councils that look nothing like the political make-up of the population that elected them.

The number of seats up for election can vary. In the majority of councils (68 percent), all council seats are elected at the same time. But, in 30 percent of councils, one-third of the councillors are elected every year, with the fourth year fallow. For voters, who may live in wards with three councillors, this would mean going to vote in three out of every four years. In two percent of councils, half of the seats are up for election every two years.

Both two-tier and single-tier types of local government are termed ‘principal councils’. Below this level, there are also around 10,000 ‘local’ councils, such as parish and town councils. All areas of England are also covered by a Local Enterprise Partnership (LEP), a voluntary body established in 2010–11 following the abolition of Regional Development Agencies, which coordinates economic development and growth policy in local areas. LEPs are not formally accountable to local authorities and thus to the electorate.

Combined authorities and London

In some areas, unitary authorities have joined together into a ‘combined authority’ with a directly elected mayor in order to access further powers from central government. There are now ten combined authorities (CAs) in England, nine of which have a directly elected ‘metro mayor’ (mayoral combined authorities or MCAs; the North East CA does not have an elected mayor). Mayors of combined authorities are not to be confused with elected mayors leading a single local authority, of which there are currently 15 in England. or for that matter, ceremonial mayors.

Devolution in Greater London is distinct from MCAs – the Greater London Authority, with a directly elected mayor and the London Assembly, was established following a referendum in 1998 and legislation in 1999.

Metro mayors and the mayor of London are elected using the Supplementary Vote, although the Elections Bill currently in parliament would change the electoral system used to elect mayors and Police and Crime Commissioners to First Past the Post (FPTP). Using the Supplementary Vote helps prevent unpopular candidates being elected on a small plurality of the vote, as can happen under FPTP, ensuring that these important executive roles can command the support of a broad range of voters.

Diversity in local government

There is quite a long way to go to ensure diversity in local government – indeed, until the election of Tracy Brabin as mayor of the West Yorkshire combined authority, all metro mayoral positions were occupied by men. Although demographic data on councillors are not officially collected, an LGA census of local authority councillors in 2018 found that almost two thirds (63%) of councillors were male, while 36 percent were female. Ethnic minority representation is also very low – a study by the University of Manchester found that only seven percent of local councillors in the UK come from an ethnic minority background, compared with 10 percent of MPs and 14 percent of the population.

Section 106 of the Equality Act 2010 would require political parties to publish diversity data on candidates standing for election to the House of Commons and devolved administrations, but is yet to be enacted.

The ERS has long called for section 106 to be enacted and to extend to local government, so that transparency about those standing for office at the local level is enhanced.

Devolution in England clearly remains very much unfinished business. You can find out more about English local government and how it can be reformed, in the latest ERS report Democracy Made in England.

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