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How is local government organised?

Successive reorganisations of local government have created a complex and often baffling array of arrangements which vary from area to area. Much of England has two tiers of local government – county councils and district councils – with responsibility for services split between the two. Other areas have a single unitary authority responsible for all local services.

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Two-tier areas

  • County councils provide services that cover the whole county such as education, waste disposal and adult social care.
  • District councils (sometimes called borough or city councils) are smaller and provide local services such as refuse collection, environmental health, and leisure facilities.

Unitary areas

  • Metropolitan councils were councils set up in 1974 covering large urban areas.
  • London boroughs are unitary councils (although the Greater London Authority provides some services including fire, police, transport, and strategic planning).
  • Unitary authorities may cover a whole county, part of a county or a large town or city. For example, Cornwall Council, Nottingham City Council and Reading Borough Council are all unitary councils. Wales has unitary councils.

Combined authorities

All councils in an area can come together and apply to central government to form a combined authority, with a directly elected mayor, in return for a greater devolution of powers from central government. A combined authority (CA) is a legal body set up using national legislation that enables a group of two or more councils to collaborate and take /collective decisions across council boundaries. It is far more robust than an informal partnership or even a joint committee. Although each deal is unique, all have some common elements, including:

  • a single investment fund allowing central and local funding to be pooled for economic growth
  • a devolved adult skills budget and control over post-16 further education and the apprenticeship grant
  • involvement in UK trade and investment services
  • powers to pursue bus franchising, pooled and devolved local transport funding and ‘smart ticketing’ across local transport
  • powers over strategic planning, and powers to establish public land commissions to influence disposal of public assets.

Elected mayors in combined authorities have varying powers, but all chair the combined authority cabinet, have their own mayoral spending plans (which can be rejected by the cabinet on a two-thirds majority) and sit on the Local Enterprise Partnership. They can veto decisions which require unanimous approval of mayor and cabinet and can take on the role of police and crime commissioner.

Ten combined authorities have been established so far, as follows, all of which, apart from one, have a directly elected mayor:

  • Cambridgeshire and Peterborough
  • Greater Manchester
  • Liverpool City Region
  • North East (no directly elected mayor)
  • North of Tyne
  • Sheffield City Region
  • Tees Valley
  • West Midlands
  • West of England
  • West Yorkshire.

Town, parish, and community councils

In some areas, the most local tier of local government is a parish or town council, or community councils in Wales. They maintain local amenities such as recreational areas, footpaths, and cemeteries. The parish council is also consulted on highway and planning applications.

A councillor may serve on more than one tier of local government – so a county councillor may also be a district councillor and a parish or town councillor.