Local government

‘Local government’ refers to the public administration of a particular district, borough, city, town or parish by an elected body – a council – which derives its powers from central government legislation. In total there are 426 local authorities: 346 in England, 26 in Northern Ireland, 32 in Scotland and 22 in Wales.

The system of local government is quite different in each of the four nations. You can find out more about how local government works in England, Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland.

The Department for Communities and Local Government has oversight over all UK local bodies, and acts as one of the major hinges between local and national government. The Department’s role is to give more power and responsibilities to local authorities. You can more about its work here.

Powers of local bodies

Generally speaking, central government makes policies, and local gvoernment implements them. Local bodies are usually in charge of administering national policies on a circumscribed local level, including those on education, housing, social services, libraries, arts and culture, transport, planning, fire and police, council tax and waste collection. They receive their funding to do so through a combination of grants from central government, Council Tax, business rates, and parking fees. Most of the funding is ringfenced for specific functions, e.g. the Dedicated Schools Grant.

Local bodies have the power to pass ‘by-laws’, specific local laws, but cannot pass legislation, and do not have the power to do anything not expressly provided for in legislation. In this way, local bodies differ from devolved legislatures, which have the power to pass legislation in relation to transferred issues. However, the UK government is currently beginning the process of devolving further powers to some large metropolitan local authorities, and as this happens, certain local authorities will have powers more comparable to those of the devolved administrations.

Local government organisation and elections

Local bodies are typically run by a council. The council is an elected group of councillors which is either led by a council leader or elected mayor, or governs by committee. There is usually no distinction between legislature and executive, with the council debating and agreeing on laws and policies, and enacting them through council officers (the equivalent of civil servants). The council is usually headed by a mayor, who may be either appointed or elected (or a council may have both). An appointed, or civic mayor (sometimes also called 'Chairman of the Council'), carries out ceremonial duties and chairs meetings, but can’t make decisions about council business. An elected mayor has similar powers to a Chief Executive Officer, and oversees the day-to-day work of the council.

Councillors are typically elected once every four years, and are often combined with European parliamentary elections. Candidates may run as independents or, more commonly, as members of one the UK political parties. Although there is no formal ‘government’ or ‘opposition’, councils are controlled by the party or parties with a majority share of seats. In the past, local elections have attracted a much lower average voter turnout than national elections.

Council officers

Elected councillors cannot carry out the day-to-day work of the council themselves, as unlike MPs they usually have other additional positions. Instead they are responsible for appointing and overseeing officers, who are delegated to perform most tasks in much the same way as civil servants carry out work directed by the relevant government minister. Like civil servants, council officers are apolitical, and may also have a great deal of influence on the council’s decisions, as in addition to carrying out the day-to-day functions of the council, they also provide policy advice to the councillors. Local authorities may appoint a 'Chief Executive Officer', who has overall responsibility for the day-to-day running of the council, and who operates in conjunction with department heads.

The guide to Engaging with local government has information and advice on how to work with local government.