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Explainer

Local government

The local government system varies in many ways between the four nations of the UK. We explain the structure and political balance in each nation.

Council staff clean up rubbish left behind on Brighton beach
Council staff clean up rubbish left behind on Brighton beach. Councils are in charge of a range of neighbourhood services including libraries and waste collection.

What does local government do?

Local government is a devolved matter, meaning that there the local government system varies in many ways between the four nations of the UK.

In England, Scotland, and Wales, councils are responsible for social care and provide some aspects of transport, housing, and education. They are also in charge of a range of neighbourhood services including libraries and waste collection.

Local government in Northern Ireland is more limited. Councils provide some neighbourhood services such as waste collection and street cleaning. However, they are not responsible for education, libraries, or social care.

Distribution of powers among local authorities in the UK by council type

How are local councillors elected?

In England, councillors are elected on four-year terms to single or multi-member wards using the first past the post electoral system. Council seats are elected altogether every four years (in 67% of councils); by thirds three years out of every four (31%); or in halves every two years (2%).

In Scotland, councillors are elected to multi-member wards via single transferable vote, a proportional voting system which allows voters to rank candidates. Councils are normally elected as a whole every four years. In 2015, the Scottish Parliament extended the franchise in local elections to 16- and 17-year-olds.

In Wales, councillors are elected to single and multi-member wards using first past the post, and councils come up for election as a whole every four years. In 2020, Senedd Cymru (the Welsh parliament) voted to extend the local franchise – as in Scotland – to 16- and 17-year-olds.

In Northern Ireland, councillors are elected via single transferable vote to multi-member electoral areas. All councillors are elected every four years.

How is local government funded?

Councils across the UK are funded by a combination of central government grants and local taxes. The balance between these funding sources varies. 

In England, in 2020/21, 55.7% of funding came from central government grants (adjusted to remove Covid business relief grants), 28.7% from council tax, and 15.6% from business rates revenue (which is collected locally but then redistributed via a nationally-run system). undefined Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities, Local authority revenue expenditure and financing England: 2020 to 2021 final outturn, 27 January 2022, www.gov.uk/government/statistics/local-authority-revenue-expenditure-and-financing-england-2020-to-2021-final-outturn  

In Scotland, 68% of council funding came from the Scottish government’s General Revenue Grant, 14% from business rate revenues, and 19% from council tax. The Scottish parliament has increased council tax for by highly valued households while reducing revenue funding, meaning that Scottish councils are becoming more reliant on local taxation. undefined Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities, Local authority revenue expenditure and financing England: 2020 to 2021 final outturn, 27 January 2022, www.gov.uk/government/statistics/local-authority-revenue-expenditure-and-financing-england-2020-to-2021-final-outturn

In Wales, there is greater reliance on grants from the Welsh government, which make up 65% of council funding, compared to 22% from council tax and 13% from business rates revenues. undefined Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities, Local authority revenue expenditure and financing England: 2020 to 2021 final outturn, 27 January 2022, www.gov.uk/government/statistics/local-authority-revenue-expenditure-and-financing-england-2020-to-2021-final-outturn

Councils in Northern Ireland are funded differently. They draw their income from district rates (70%), which are a property tax like council tax, as well as grants from the Northern Ireland executive (8%) and fees for services including building control and waste collection (22%). 

Spending on local government has fallen across the UK since the beginning of austerity in 2010, but to a varying extent between the nations. Councils in England cut spending by roughly 21% between 2010/11 and 2018/19 – over 10 percentage points more than in Scotland and Wales. However, spending on local government rose in all nations of the UK in 2020/21 compared with 2019/20 owing to the Covid pandemic. In England, spending rose by 6.2% in real terms between these years. undefined Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities, Local authority revenue expenditure and financing England: 2020 to 2021 final outturn, 27 January 2022, www.gov.uk/government/statistics/local-authority-revenue-expenditure-and-financing-england-2020-to-2021-final-outturn

Originally published in the Institute for Government’s Devolution at 20 report

What is the structure of local government in England?

There are 333 local authorities in England. The structure of government varies between them. They cover:

  • Two-tier areas, where authorities share local government functions. These areas are covered by county councils and district councils. There are 24 county councils, which provide social care and some aspects of transport and education. The counties are sub-divided into 181 district councils, which manage neighbourhood services like waste collection.
  • Single-tier areas, where one authority carries out all local government functions. These areas comprise the 32 London boroughs, 36 metropolitan districts (including in areas like Greater Manchester and the West Midlands), and 58 unitary authorities such as Bristol and North East Lincolnshire. The Isles of Scilly is a unitary authority, but some local services are provided in conjunction with Cornwall unitary authority. The City of London has a unique governance structure.

In April 2023, North Yorkshire, Cumbria and Somerset county councils were restructured into unitary authorities. Somerset and North Yorkshire will form single unitary authorities, while Cumbria will split into two new authorities: Cumberland, and Westmoreland and Furness unitary authorities. Elections for these new authorities took place on 5 May 2022.   

Most local authorities in England are run by a leader and cabinet from councillors of the majority party or a coalition of parties in cases of no overall control. Other authorities use a committee system, in which decision-making is delegated to committees of councillors from all parties. Budgetary decisions in these cases must still receive the support of a majority of councillors.

Sixteen English local authorities, including those in Bristol, Liverpool, and Watford, have transferred leadership powers to executive mayors. To date, mayors have been elected via the supplementary vote system, which allows voters to choose their first and second-preference candidates. In the future, mayors will be elected using the first-past-the-post system, the same one used to elect Westminster MPs. In May 2022, Bristol residents voted in a referendum to revert back to the committee system to lead the council from 2024. In July 2022, Liverpool City Council voted to abolish the position of directly elected mayor in the city and instead return to the leader and cabinet governance model from May 2023. undefined Hamilton C, 'Liverpool City Council votes to scrap elected mayor role', BBC, 21 July 2022, retrieved 21 July 2022, www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-merseyside-62241771

These local mayors are distinct from ‘metro mayors’, who are elected across a number of local council areas and exercise strategic economic and public service functions in partnership with other local leaders, who collectively form a ‘combined authority’ for the region. The most recent metro mayor election was held in South Yorkshire in May 2022. 

What is the political balance of local government in England?

Following the English local elections in May 2022, 78% of councils had one-party majorities while 22% were under no overall control.

The Conservatives have the most councillors in England (42%), followed by Labour (31%) and the Liberal Democrats (15%).

Of the 144 councils which held elections in 2022, 64 were won by Labour, 35 by the Conservatives, 15 by the Liberal Democrats, independents won one council, while 29 resulted in no party having overall control. Shadow elections for new unitary authorities of Cumberland and Westmoreland and Furness were also held, and won by Labour and the Liberal Democrats respectively. The Conservatives now have majorities on 39% of councils, while Labour control 24% and the Liberal Democrats run 8%.

What is the structure of local government in Scotland?

There are 32 local authorities in Scotland and they are all unitary authorities. Scottish councils are led by a council leader and cabinet as well as a provost – a ceremonial figurehead – chosen from and elected by their councillors. Elections took place to all Scottish local councils on 5 May 2022. 

In 2017, the Scottish government launched a review of local governance undefined Scottish government, Improving public services, www.gov.scot/policies/improving-public-services/local-governance-review , exploring how to improve local democracy by increasing capacity for community decision-making and public governance. The first results were collated and published in a report in May 2019 and the review remains ongoing.

At the 2022 local elections, the SNP took the most seats (37%), followed by Labour (23%) and the Conservatives (17%). There are only five Scottish councils with majority control, three run by independents and one each by Labour and the Scottish National Party respectively. All others are run by coalitions or minority administrations.

What is the structure of local government in Wales?

There are 22 local authorities in Wales. They are all unitary authorities led by a leader and cabinet elected by the council itself.

Following the 2022 local government elections, Labour has the largest number of councillors in Wales (42%), followed by independents (25%) and Plaid Cymru (16%). 

What is the structure of local government in Northern Ireland?

There are 11 local authorities in Northern Ireland. As in Scotland and Wales, all of Northern Ireland’s councils are unitary authorities. Councils in Northern Ireland typically use a committee system undefined Local Government Act (Northern Ireland) 2014, www.legislation.gov.uk/nia/2014/8/section/19  of governance and are led by a chairperson (or mayor) chosen by the council for a one-year term.

At the local elections in 2019, the DUP (Democratic Unionist Party) gained the most seats (26%) undefined Local Government Act (Northern Ireland) 2014, www.legislation.gov.uk/nia/2014/8/section/19 , followed by Sinn Féin (23%), the UUP (Ulster Unionist Party – 16%), the SDLP (13%), and Alliance (12%). No party holds a majority on any council.

 

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