These notes focus on local governments in England. For more information about governance of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, see our notes on devolution.
Parliament devolved certain executive functions to local bodies. These local authorities are seen as having more expertise on local matters and needs. Local authorities deal with matters such as social housing, education and sanitation. They are regulated by the Local Government Act 2000, as amended by the Localism Act 2011.
Structure and Functions
Local authorities in England are either ‘single-tier’ or ‘two-tier’. Two-tier authorities split the functions of education, social services and transport on the one hand, and day-to-day services on the other. A single-tier authorities deals with all matters in its local area.
Single-tier authorities include the London boroughs, the Metropolitan districts, other unitary authorities and the Isles of Scilly.
The two-tier authorities are split between County Councils (handling education and so on) and the District Councils (handling day-to-day services).
Management structures in local government take one of three approaches:
Under this approach, the authority is led by: 1) a directly elected Mayor, who appoints two councillors; or 2) a Leader elected by the full council, along with two councillors chosen by that Leader. Executive action is scrutinised by committees.
A committee approach sees local government led directly by committees, with each seeing to a different area of government such as education. This approach used to be common, but fell out of favour when the Local Government Act 2000 was enacted.
If a local authority does not want to follow an executive or committee approach, the Secretary of State may pass a regulation setting up a unique and tailored approach. The new approach must be an improvement and ensure efficiency and transparency.
The Representation of the People Act 2000 allows local authorities to submit their own arrangements for local elections to the Secretary of State for approval. However, some elements are universal:
- Candidates must show they have a ‘close connection’ with the locality in which they are seeking election. This could be residence or employment in the area or presence on the local register of electors for at least 12 months.
- Councillors are elected for four-year terms.
- The ‘first-past-the-post’ system for determining a winner applies (the winner is whomever has a simple majority of the votes).
- The same financing and expenditure rules apply to all local elections.
Local authorities only have those powers granted by statute, and are subject to judicial review in exercising those powers. This includes a power of ‘general competence’ – the ability to do anything a private citizen can lawfully do: Localism Act 2011, s.1. This is subject to the limits under s.2.
Authorities have extensive powers to delegate the services they provide to the private sector. They may not delegate their functions or change their structure, however.