The pattern of local government in England is complex, with the distribution of functions varying according to the local arrangements.
Legislation concerning local government in England is decided by the Parliament and Government of the United Kingdom, because England does not have a devolved parliament or regional assemblies, outside Greater London.
England has, since 1994 been subdivided into nine regions. One of these, London, has an elected Assembly and Mayor, but the others have a relatively minor role: Regional Development Agencies were abolished in 2012, though unelected "leader's boards" continue as consultative forums.
Combined authorities were introduced in England outside Greater London by the Local Democracy, Economic Development and Construction Act 2009 to cover areas larger than the existing local authorities but smaller than the regions. Combined authorities are created voluntarily and allow a group of local authorities to pool appropriate responsibility and receive certain delegated functions from central government in order to deliver transport and economic policy more effectively over a wider area. There are currently nine such authorities, with the Greater Manchester Combined Authority established on 1 April 2011, Liverpool City Region Combined Authority and three others in April 2014, two in 2016 and two in 2017.
Below the region level and excluding London, England has two different patterns of local government in use. In some areas there is a county council responsible for services such as education, waste management and strategic planning within a county, with several non-metropolitan district councils responsible for services such as housing, waste collection and local planning. Both are principal councils and are elected in separate elections. Some areas have only one level of local government. These are unitary authorities, which are also principal councils. Most of Greater London is governed by London borough councils. The City of London and the Isles of Scilly are sui generis authorities, pre-dating recent reforms of local government.
There are 57 'single tier' authorities:
There are 269 'lower tier' authorities, which all have the function of billing authority for Council Tax. The metropolitan and London boroughs also function as local education authorities:
There are in total 353 principal councils, not including the Corporation of London, the Council of the Isles of Scilly, or the Inner Temple and Middle Temple, the last two of which are also local authorities for some purposes.
Below the district level, a district may be divided into several civil parishes. Typical activities undertaken by a parish council include allotments, parks, public clocks, and entering Britain in Bloom. They also have a consultative role in planning. Councils such as districts, counties and unitaries are known as principal local authorities in order to differentiate them in their legal status from parish and town councils, which are not uniform in their existence. Local councils tend not to exist in metropolitan areas but there is nothing to stop their establishment. For example, Birmingham has a parish, New Frankley. Parishes have not existed in Greater London since 1965, but from 2007 they could legally be created. In some districts, the rural area is parished and the urban is not — such as the Borough of Hinckley and Bosworth, where the town of Hinckley is unparished and has no local councils, while the countryside around the town is parished. In others, there is a more complex mixture, as in the case of the Borough of Kettering, where the small towns of Burton Latimer, Desborough and Rothwell are parished, while Kettering town itself is not. In addition, among the rural parishes, two share a joint parish council and two have no council but are governed by an annual parish meeting.
The current arrangement of local government in England is the result of a range of incremental measures which have their origins in the municipal reform of the 19th century. During the 20th century, the structure of local government was reformed and rationalised, with local government areas becoming fewer and larger, and the functions of local councils amended. The way local authorities are funded has also been subject to periodic and significant reform.
Councils have historically had no split between executive and legislature. Functions are vested in the council itself, and then exercised usually by committees or subcommittees of the council. The post of leader was recognised, and leaders typically chair several important committees, but had no special authority. The chair of the council itself is an honorary position with no real power. Under section 15 the Local Government and Housing Act 1989, committees must roughly reflect the political party makeup of the council; before it was permitted for a party with control of the council to 'pack' committees with their own members. This pattern was based on that established for municipal boroughs by the Municipal Corporations Act 1835, and then later adopted for county councils and rural districts.
In 2000, Parliament passed the Local Government Act 2000 requiring councils to move to an executive-based system, either with the council leader and a cabinet acting as an executive authority, or with a directly elected mayor — with either having a cabinet drawn from the councillors — or a mayor and council manager. There was a small exception to this whereby smaller district councils (population of less than 85,000) can adopt a modified committee system. Most councils used the council leader and cabinet option, while 52 smaller councils were allowed to propose alternative arrangements based on the older system (Section 31 of the Act), and Brighton and Hove invoked a similar provision (Section 27(2)(b)) when a referendum to move to a directly elected mayor was defeated. In 2012, principle councils began returning to Committee systems, under the Localism Act 2011.
There are now 16 directly elected mayors, in districts where a referendum was in favour of them. Several of the mayors originally elected were independents (notably in Tower Hamlets and Middlesbrough, which in parliamentary elections are usually Labour Party strongholds). Since May 2002, only a handful of referendums have been held, and they have mostly been negative, with only a few exceptions. The decision to have directly elected mayors in Hartlepool and Stoke-on-Trent were subsequently reversed when further referendums were held.
The executive where it exists, in whichever form, is held to account by the remainder of the councillors acting as the "Overview and Scrutiny function" — calling the Executive to account for their actions and to justify their future plans. In a related development, the Health and Social Care Act 2001, Police and Justice Act 2006, and 2006 local government white paper set out a role for local government Overview and Scrutiny in creating greater local accountability for a range of public-sector organisations. Committee system councils have no direct 'scrutiny' role, with the decisions being scrutinised as they are taken by the committee, and potentially referred to full council for review.
Boroughs in many cases are descendants of municipal boroughs set up hundreds of years ago, and so have a number of traditions and ceremonial functions. Where borough councils have not adopted a directly elected mayor, the chairman of the council is the mayor. In certain cities the mayor is known as the Lord Mayor. The chairman of a town council is styled the town mayor.
The area which a council covers is divided into one or more electoral divisions – known in district and parish councils as "wards", and in county councils as "electoral divisions". Each ward can return one or more members; multi-member wards are quite common. There is no requirement for the size of wards to be the same within a district, so one ward can return one member and another ward can return two. Metropolitan borough wards must return a multiple of three councillors, while until the Local Government Act 2003 multiple-member county electoral divisions were forbidden.
In the election, the candidates to receive the most votes win, in a system known as the multi-member plurality system. There is no element of proportional representation, so if four candidates from the Mauve Party poll 2,000 votes each, and four candidates from the Taupe Party poll 1,750 votes each, all four Mauve candidates will be returned, and no Taupe candidates will. This has been said by some to be undemocratic.
The term of a councillor is usually four years. Councils may be elected wholly, every four years, or 'by thirds', where a third of the councillors get elected each year, with one year with no elections. Recently, the 'by halves' system, whereby half of the council is elected every two years, has been allowed. Sometimes wholesale boundary revisions will mean the entire council will be re-elected, before returning to the previous elections by thirds or by halves over the coming years. Recent legislation allows a council to move from elections by thirds to all-up elections.
Often, local government elections are watched closely to detect the mood of the electorate before upcoming parliamentary elections.
Councillors cannot do the work of the council themselves, and so are responsible for appointment and oversight of officers, who are delegated to perform most tasks. Local authorities nowadays may appoint a 'Chief Executive Officer', with overall responsibility for council employees, and who operates in conjunction with department heads. The Chief Executive Officer position is weak compared to the council manager system seen in other counties. In some areas, much of the work previously undertaken directly (in direct service organisations) by council employees has been privatised.
|Arrangement||Upper tier authority||Lower tier authority|
|Non-metropolitan counties/Non-metropolitan districts||waste management, education, libraries, social services, transport, strategic planning, consumer protection, police, fire||housing, waste collection, council tax collection, local planning, licensing, cemeteries and crematoria|
|housing, waste management, waste collection, council tax collection, education, libraries, social services, transport, planning, consumer protection, licensing, cemeteries and crematoria†, police and fire come under shire councils|
|Metropolitan Counties/Metropolitan Boroughs||housing, waste collection, council tax collection, education, libraries, social services, transport, planning, consumer protection, licensing, police, fire, cemeteries and crematoria†|
|Greater London/London Boroughs||transport, strategic planning, regional development, police, fire||housing, waste collection, council tax collection, education, libraries, social services, local planning, consumer protection, licensing, cemeteries and crematoria†|
† = in practice, some functions take place at a strategic level through joint boards and arrangements
Under the Local Government Act 2000, councils have a general power to "promote economic, social and environmental well-being" of their area. However, like all public bodies, they were limited by the doctrine of ultra vires, and could only do things that common law or an Act of Parliament specifically or generally allowed for. Councils could promote Local Acts in Parliament to grant them special powers. For example, Kingston upon Hull had for many years a municipally owned telephone company, Kingston Communications.
The Localism Act 2011 introduced a new "general power of competence" for local authorities, extending the "well-being" power with the power to "do anything that individuals generally may do". This means, in effect, that nothing otherwise lawful that a local authority may wish to do can be ultra vires. As of 2013 this general power of competence is available to all principal local authorities and some parish councils. However, it has not been extensively used.
Local councils are funded by a combination of central government grants, Council Tax (a locally set tax based on house value), Business Rates, and fees and charges from certain services including decriminalised parking enforcement.
Many of these funding sources are hypothecated (ring-fenced) - meaning that they can only be spent in a very specific manner - in essence, they merely pass through a council's accounts on their way from the funding source to their intended destination. These include:
The other main central government grant - the Revenue Support Grant - is not hypothecated, and can be spent as the council wishes. For many decades, Business Rates were gathered locally, pooled together nationally, and then redistributed according to a complicated formula; these would be combined with the Revenue Support Grant to form a single Formula Grant to the council. Since 2013, a varyingly sized chunk of Business Rates is retained locally, and only the remainder is pooled and redistributed; the redistribution is according to a very basic formula, based mainly on the size of the 2013 Formula Grant to the relevant council, and is now provided to the council independently of the Revenue Support Grant.
When determining their budget arrangements, councils make a distinction between hypothecated funding and non-hypothecated funding; consideration of all funding in general is referred to as gross revenue streams, while net revenue streams refers to funding from only non-hypothecated sources.
When attempting to justify a rise in Council Tax, which is set at each council's discretion, or to criticise a reduction in government funding, the public will often be provided with information about the gross revenue streams, since Council Tax forms only a low proportion of these, meaning that a modest income in total revenue would require a large increase in Council Tax.
However, Council Tax actually forms a very large proportion of net revenue streams - typically around half - with most of the remainder being provided by business rates; therefore, in regard to discretionary spending (where the council has a choice of what to spend money on), a large increase in council tax equates with a large increase in funding.
Historically, central government retained the right to cap an increase in Council Tax, if it deemed the council to be increasing it too severely. Under the Cameron Ministry, this has been changed to a more voluntary system - councils can raise the level of council tax as they wish, but must gain permission from their electorate, in a local referendum on the matter, if they wish to raise it above a certain threshold; the threshold is set by central government, and is currently set at 2%.
Council Tax is collected by the principal council that has the functions of a district-level authority. It is identified in legislation as a billing authority, and was known as a rating authority. There are 326 billing authorities in England that collect council tax and business rates:
Precepting authorities do not collect Council Tax directly, but instruct a billing authority to do it on their behalf by setting a precept. Major precepting authorities such as the Greater London Authority and county councils cover areas that are larger than billing authorities. Local precepting authorities such as parish councils cover areas that are smaller than billing authorities.
The precept shows up as an independent element on official information sent to council tax payers, but the council bill will cover the combined amount (the precepts plus the core council tax). The billing authority collects the whole amount, and then detaches the precept and funnels it to the relevant precepting authority.
Levying bodies are similar to precepting authorities, but instead of imposing a charge on billing authorities, the amount to be deducted is decided by negotiation. The Lee Valley Regional Park Authority is an example of a levying body. Voluntary joint arrangements, such as waste authorities are also in this category.
Aggregate External Finance (AEF) refers to the total amount of money given by central government to local government. It consists of the Revenue Support Grant (RSG), ringfenced and other specific grants, and redistributed business rates. A portion of the RSG money paid to each authority is diverted to fund organisations that provide improvement and research services to local government (this is referred to as the RSG top-slice), for example the Local Government Association.
It is feared many local authority services will close or be cut because the government has not increased local authority funding in 2017-2018. Gary Porter of the Local Government Association fears authorities will have to cut back on collecting waste, filling potholes, maintaining parks, running children's centres and libraries due to increasing funding shortfalls. Porter said, “Councils, the NHS, charities and care providers remain united around the desperate need for new government funding for social care. By continuing to ignore these warnings, social care remains in crisis and councils and the NHS continue to be pushed to the financial brink.” Children at risk get inadequate help because councils are under resourced. What help children at risk get depends on the postcode lottery and varies between local authorities. Over 500 children's centres have closed since 2010 due to funding cuts and more closures are planned. Children's centres support parents struggling with parenting skills and give children the best start in life.
The 'Association for Public Service Excellence' (Apse) published a report claiming largescale funding cuts and differences between authorities were “changing the very nature of local government.” Universal services which are core functions of Local Authorities were being dismantled. “These services need defending in their own right as part of wider defence of local government as a whole.” Deprived areas experienced the greatest fall in spending, 'food and water safety inspection, road safety and school crossings, community centres and services aimed at cutting crime – such as CCTV – and support for local bus services' were among areas cut. Neighbourhood services have been cut against a framework of unparalleled cuts in local government spending as a proportion of the economy. In 2010-11, it amounted to 8.4% of the economy, but fell to 6.7% by 2015-16. By 2020-21, it is projected to be down to 5.7%, a 60-year low. Cuts to social care received more attention but the neighbourhood services, including highways and transport, cultural services, environmental services and planning, has been cut far more severely according to the report. Paul O'Brien of Apse said: “In eight years, local government spending will have dropped from two thirds of that of central government's to half. There is a slow but very harmful dismantling of neighbourhood services that marks a profound change in what local public services our communities can expect to receive. From emptying bins to running swimming pools to providing high quality local parks, spending on these services which communities really value has been cut harder and faster than any other area of public service spend. Centrally driven austerity has fallen hardest on local shoulders.” Swimming pools, sports halls and leisure centres are at risk of closure due to lack of funding. This is despite growing health problems like obesity, heart disease and diabetes. Many pools and sports facilities are old and in need of refurbishment but local authotities do not have the funds to refurbish them.
Sizes of council areas vary widely. The most populous district in England is Birmingham (a metropolitan borough) with 1,073,045 people (2011 census), and the least populous non-metropolitan unitary area is Rutland with 37,369. However, these are outliers, and most English unitary authorities have a population in the range of 150,000 to 300,000. The smallest non-unitary district in England is West Somerset at 34,675 people, and the largest Northampton at 212,069. However, all but 9 non-unitary English districts have fewer than 150,000 people. Responsibility for minor revisions to local government areas falls to the Local Government Boundary Commission for England. Revisions are usually undertaken to avoid borders straddling new development, to bring them back into line with a diverted watercourse, or to align them with roads or other features.
Where a district is coterminous with a town, the name is an easy choice to make. In some cases, a district is named after its main town, despite there being other towns in the district. Confusingly, such districts sometimes have city status, and so for example the City of Canterbury contains several towns apart from Canterbury, which have distinct identities. Similarly the City of Winchester contains a number of large villages and extensive countryside, which is quite distinct from the main settlement of Winchester. They can be named after historic subdivisions (Broxtowe, Spelthorne), rivers (Eden, Arun), a modified or alternative version of their main town's name (Harborough, Wycombe), a combination of main town and geographical feature (Newark and Sherwood) or after a geographical feature in the district (Cotswold, Cannock Chase). A number of districts are named after former religious houses (Kirklees, Vale Royal, Waverley). Purely geographical names can also be used (South Bucks, Suffolk Coastal, North West Leicestershire). In a handful of cases entirely new names have been devised, examples being Castle Point, Thamesdown (subsequently renamed as Swindon) and Wychavon. Councils have a general power to change the name of the district, and consequently their own name, under section 74 of the Local Government Act 1972. Such a resolution must have two thirds of the votes at a meeting convened for the purpose.
Councils of counties are called "X County Council", whereas district councils can be District Council, Borough Council, or City Council depending upon the status of the district. Unitary authorities may be called County Councils, Borough Councils, City Councils, District Councils, or sometimes just Councils. These names do not change the role or authority of the council.
Greater London is further divided into 32 London boroughs, each governed by a London Borough Council, and the City of London, which is governed by the City of London Corporation. In the London boroughs the legal entity is not the Council as elsewhere but the inhabitants incorporated as a legal entity by royal charter (a process abolished elsewhere in England and Wales under the Local Government Act 1972). Thus, a London authority's official legal title is "The Mayor and Burgesses of the London Borough of X" (or "The Lord Mayor and Citizens of the City of Westminster"). In common speech, however, "The London Borough of X" is used.
Metropolitan counties no longer have county councils, as these were abolished in 1986. They are divided into metropolitan districts whose councils have either the status of City Council or Metropolitan Borough Council.
Some districts are Royal boroughs, but this does not affect the name of the council.
Local authorities sometimes provide services on a joint basis with other authorities, through bodies known as joint-boards. Joint-boards are not directly elected but are made up of councillors appointed from the authorities which are covered by the service. Typically, joint-boards are created to avoid splitting up certain services when unitary authorities are created, or a county or regional council is abolished. In other cases, if several authorities are considered too small (in terms of either geographic size or population) to run a service effectively by themselves, joint-boards are established. Typical services run by joint-boards include policing, fire services, public transport and sometimes waste disposal authorities.
In several areas a joint police force is used which covers several counties; for example, the Thames Valley Police (in Berkshire, Buckinghamshire and Oxfordshire) and the West Mercia Police (in Shropshire, Telford and Wrekin, Herefordshire and Worcestershire). In the six metropolitan counties, the metropolitan borough councils also appoint members to joint county-wide passenger transport authorities to oversee public transport, and joint waste disposal authorities, which were created after the county councils were abolished.
Joint-boards were used extensively in Greater London when the Greater London Council was abolished, to avoid splitting up some London-wide services. These functions have now been taken over by the Greater London Authority. Similar arrangements exist in Berkshire, where the county council has been abolished. If a joint body is legally required to exist, it is known as a joint-board. However, local authorities sometimes create joint bodies voluntarily and these are known as joint-committees.
The City of London covers a square mile (2.6 km²) in the heart of London. It is governed by the City of London Corporation, which has a unique structure. The Corporation has been broadly untouched by local government reforms and democratisation. It has its own ancient system of 25 wards, as well as its own police service. The business vote was abolished for other parts of the country in 1969, but due to the low resident population of the City this was thought impractical. In fact, the business vote was recently extended in the City to cover more companies.
The Labour Government released a Local Government White Paper on 26 October 2006, Strong and Prosperous Communities, which dealt with the structure of local government. The White Paper did not deal with the issues of local government funding or of reform or replacement of the Council Tax, which was awaiting the final report of the Lyons Review. A Local Government Bill was introduced in the 2006–07 session of Parliament. The White Paper emphasised the concept of "double devolution", with more powers being granted to councils, and powers being devolved from town halls to community levels. It proposed to reduce the level of central government oversight over local authorities by removing centrally set performance targets, and statutory controls of the Secretary of State over parish councils, by-laws, and electoral arrangements.
The white paper proposed that the existing prohibition on parish councils in Greater London would be abolished, and making new parishes easier to set up. Parish councils can currently be styled parish councils, town councils or city councils: the White Paper proposes that "community council", "neighbourhood council" and "village council" may be used as well. The reforms strengthen the council executives, and provided an option between a directly elected mayor, a directly elected executive, or an indirectly elected leader – all with a fixed four-year term. These proposals were enacted under the Local Government and Public Involvement in Health Act 2007.
A report released by the IPPR's Centre for Cities in February 2006, City Leadership: giving city regions the power to grow, proposed the creation of two large city-regions based on Manchester and Birmingham: the Birmingham one would cover the existing West Midlands metropolitan county, along with Bromsgrove, Cannock Chase, Lichfield, North Warwickshire, Redditch and Tamworth, while the Manchester one would cover the existing Greater Manchester along with the borough of Macclesfield. No firm proposals of this sort appear in the White Paper. Reportedly, this had been the subject of an internal dispute within the government.
Since the Coalition Government was elected in 2010 while the thrust of policy is to further promote localism, as within the introduction of the Localism Bill in December 2010, which became the Localism Act 2011 on receiving Royal Assent on 15 November 2011 the Coalition has also declared its intention to streamline past regulation, reform planning, re-organise the police and health authorities, has abolished a whole tier of regional authorities and in its one-page Best Value Guidance. voiced its intention to repeal the Sustainable Communities Act and other New Labour commitments like the 'Duty to Involve'. It has however created the Greater Manchester Combined Authority and signalled intent, under the 'City Deals' process promoted under the Localism Act, to create further combined authorities for the North East, South Yorkshire and West Yorkshire as nascent city regions. Another aspect of the Localism Act is increased opportunities for Neighbourhood Forums.
Further consolidation of local government through the formation of unitary authorities in existing two-tier areas have been proposed under the premiership of Theresa May.
In 2017, it was proposed that two unitary authorities be formed to cover the ceremonial county of Dorset. One of the authorities would consist of the existing unitary authorities of Bournemouth, Poole and the non-metropolitan district of Christchurch, the other would be composed of the remainder of the county.  In November 2017, Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, Sajid Javid stated that he was "minded to approve the proposals" with a final decision being made on 8 January 2018. 
Two competing plans have also been drawn up for Buckinghamshire. One plan would see the abolition of the four district councils resulting in the existing county council becoming a unitary authority. The other plan would see the formation of two unitary authorities, one authority would be formed through the merger of the three existing districts of Chiltern, South Bucks Wycombe with the other formed by the existing Aylesbury Vale district becoming a unitary authority.   A decision is expected to be made by Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government in March 2018.
In late 2017, plans were drawn up for local government reorganisation in Northamptonshire which would see the existing eight councils in the county consolidated into a single unitary authority with a view to saving £29 million per year.