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. Councillor Robert Flatley describes his time as a county councillor below.
Video of Councillor Robert Flatley transcript

I’m Robert Flatley, I’m from Derbyshire County Council and I represent Ilkeston East Division, and I have been a councillor since 2017.

So my main role at the County Council is as Cabinet Support Member for strategic leadership, culture and tourism. As part of that role I assist the Leader with his day-to-day portfolio duties that includes looking after the council’s library service, heritage and museums policy, and research divisions.

So in addition to my portfolio role I am also a member of the Improvement and Scrutiny People Committee, which looks at sort of a range of social services and education aspects that the County Council manages. So we look at things such as care homes, social services, schools, school improvement just anything to sort of help the most vulnerable in our communities.

I sort of saw the difference that councillors can make in their local area and I knew that there were a lot of problems in the community that I grew up in, and I wanted to play my part in to improve things and put some sort of common sense solutions in just to make life better for people across the community and I think it’s as simple as that, anybody who wants to make things better should stand.

I’d say one of the best aspects is variation, it can be quite a heavy workload at times, but I think it gets you involved in a range of different aspects of the community and you get to see systems and things work that you perhaps wouldn’t otherwise get a chance to, and there’s also the opportunities to get out and meet different people and make a difference.

Councillor Flatley's top tips for new councillors

1. Sit in on as many meetings as possible. Learn how the council works, how decisions are made and learn the rules.

2. Get involved with the community. There’s only so much you can do at the council office or on Teams meetings, you should see what projects are going on and get stuck in and see what you can do to improve things locally.

  • District councils (sometimes called borough or city councils) are smaller and provide local services such as refuse collection, environmental health, and leisure facilities. Councillor Sarah Rouse shares her experience of being a District Councillor.
Councillor Sarah Rouse video transcript

My name is Sarah Rouse, and I’m from Malvern Hills District Council in Worcestershire, and I’ve been a District Councillor since 2015 and I’ve been a Parish Councillor since about 2010.

I’m Leader of Malvern Hills District Council, so I have that role which is quite a lot of responsibility. I’m also a portfolio holder so I’m responsible for economic development. But then I’m also a Ward Councillor, so I’m responsible for people who want help with potholes or hedgerows or any of those things that just matter in daily life and I also have to go to four Parish Councils to give reports. My areas of policy, because I’m Leader of the council it is a lot of working with the national groups, so the District Council Network, the Local Government Association I’m responsible for leading on work with the Local Enterprise Partnership and all the larger groups. My specific area of responsibility at the moment is economic development and tourism, last year I did finance and resources, and next year I’m doing environment so with the economic development it’s the town centre regeneration it’s how we start again with our skills and apprenticeships and how we rebuild the economy after Covid.

Committee-wise, I look after our entire group so I was responsible for chairing all the group meetings, but I’m also the Chair of the Executive Committee, where most of the main decisions are made at the council. So those are my main roles and responsibilities.

I stood I think, like a lot of people because something really irritated me, and that was a planning application in this area, and we got together as a community to try and stop it we didn’t succeed, but that’s by-the-by. Because of that I really enjoyed being part of the community, and I got on to the Parish Council and I enjoyed just helping people and standing up to help people with difficult problems. So that’s what got me in to being a councillor, and the reason I stood was because we were sat around deciding who it was who should stand against the person who was councillor at the time and they decided I should, so here I am, six years later.

I like that I can help people. You come to me with a problem I can try and help fix it, I can’t always fix it but maybe I can explain why I can’t fix it, and that, I can help those people that, perhaps can’t or don’t know how to do things for themselves. I love the community side of it, I love being part of making decisions about where we’re going to put a play area or how we’re gonna fix up a wildlife garden, and I love all of that. What I like about being a Leader is that I’ve met so many different people from all political parties from all across the country and everyone, doesn’t matter who they are, has the passion for helping people and working together. So I think that’s the thing that I love the most, is all the different experiences I’ve had and really being able to make a difference locally where I live.

Councillor Rouse's top tips for new councillors

1. Ask questions. When I first became a councillor that’s all I did, if I didn’t understand something I’d just ask, there’s never a stupid question and it’s the best way to learn. Every question you ask will make you a better councillor.

2. Enjoy it. It might be stressful, and it’s a huge learning curve in the first year but get through that and enjoy everything about it, because it’s not an experience everyone has, and you may never get to do it again so just go with it and do as much as you can.

Unitary areas

  • Metropolitan councils were councils set up in 1974 covering large urban areas. Councillor Paulette Hamilton shares her experience of her time at Birmingham City Council.
Councillor Paulette Hamilton's video transcript

My name is Paulette Hamilton, I am a councillor at Birmingham City Council in Birmingham which is a Metropolitan Council, and I have been a councillor for 16 years.

Within Birmingham City Council, I am a local councillor, and the ward in which I am a councillor is a ward called Holyhead. Also, I am the Cabinet member for adult social care and health and I also cover public health in my role, that is a Cabinet post which is an Executive position within the council as a politician, and it is a Governance role where I look at what is happening within the service and how I can ensure that officers work towards the agenda that is set within the council politically.

I don’t sit on any committees because the role that I do as Cabinet member is a full time position, and because Birmingham is a council of approximately 1.2 million people in the population and I cover a budget of over 300 million pounds it means I haven’t got a great deal of time to cover any other roles within the council.

I am passionate. I am a passionate person, I am a mother and I have five children, and many years ago I looked at the injustice within education, and I was also having some difficulties with at the time my very very young son, and I wanted to make a difference, I’m a nurse by trade but I also had quite a big mouth and so what I wanted to do was look at how I could change policy how I could improve people’s lives within local communities and benefit large numbers of people, and the role of a local councillor really suited me because I could work in areas I grew up in.

I absolutely love the role of a local councillor, you change people’s lives, you make a difference, you’re able to help large numbers of local people, and if you get it right, you can actually see the difference it makes to their lives and people are very appreciative of that. I’ve always wanted to give back, and to help people to develop and show them that you can make a difference it doesn’t matter where you started from, and as a local girl in the ward that I come from, it was a very poor area that I grew up in and to be able to now represent people from the ward I grew up in has been an absolute pleasure for me.

Councillor Hamilton's top tips for new councillors

1. You can’t change the world overnight. It’s one step at a time. When you’re doing things, just know that to make change does take time. Don’t allow people to tell you what you cannot do, just work with the system and you can make the changes that will affect people’s lives.

2. Learn the ropes. Learn policies, get to learn your local area, get to learn who the professionals are in your area, get to know who the drivers are in your local area, and just take your time, build your networks, and make the changes you want slowly. If you can know who’s in your area and who you can work with, you can make a massive difference as you’re working with people in co-production instead of on your own.

  • London boroughs are unitary councils (although the Greater London Authority provides some services including fire, police, transport, and strategic planning). ​​​​​​​Councillor William Houngbo shares his experience being a councillor in a London Borough council.
Councillor William Houngbo video transcript

I’m Councillor William Houngbo, I’m from Southwark Council I’ve been a councillor since 2018.

I am the deputy Leader of the council group, the Opposition group in Southwark, and my main area of focus is community safety and youth services. One of my skills in this community, I’m very good at networking with different stakeholders in the community I believe that community is stronger when people have a strong network. Recently, I have been working on a domestic violence project it was a cross party project, I had the idea to create a safe space, or safe zone, we call it ‘open door’, for victims of domestic abuse or domestic violence. Particularly during the pandemic we had increasing cases of domestic violence and it was important to have those safe spaces located in schools, pharmacies or other public areas so that victims of domestic violence can attend those places secretly. I’m also involved with helping young people, to keep them safe working with outreach organisations to involve young people in local projects, to draw their energy and attention in positive projects in order to not be vulnerable and used by criminal organisations so this is one other area I’m very passionate to work in.

I’ve been recently sitting on the Scrutiny Commission for education and business. I think for me it was very important and I have learned a lot being on this Commission, things I didn’t even realise, the level of school exclusions in Southwark. So trying to understand the reason for this high level of school exclusions for me, was the key part of being a member of this Scrutiny Commission.

Being a councillor, for me was a solution to a situation. I wasn’t really known in my area and I wanted to make a difference I wanted to help people in my area to avert acute situations that negatively impacted their lives. I thought that being a councillor would have given me more tools to respond to issues we are facing in our communities.

I’m a very outgoing person and as a councillor the good thing is you are not always stuck somewhere like an admin person in the office, you have to mix, you have to multi-task, and I like that because it doesn’t make your life boring. There is an impact on local. Anything to do with national or international has to come from the local first, and being a councillor is something that I believe is great and allows me to be a major player on the local scene, and the local scene has an impact on the national scene and the national scene has an impact on the international scene.

Councillor Houngbo's top tips for new councillors

1. Be confident. Your residents know you are in an elected role and the expectation on you can sometimes be very high, but you cannot please everybody. Sometimes you will need to compromise, it’s very important to be 100 per cent confident and reassuring to the public that you can respond to their needs.

2. Know your ward and your constituents. You should be able to interact with your community, and it’s important to engage with the residents, know the issues they’re facing and be in regular contact with them. You can do a street letter about an issue and bring it to them, or you can visit them if they have an issue and they will be happy to see you and know you care about them. It’s important to make an effort to know your area.

  • 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. 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. Eight of them have a directly elected mayor:

  • Cambridgeshire and Peterborough
  • Greater Manchester
  • Liverpool City Region
  • North of Tyne
  • Sheffield City Region
  • Tees Valley
  • West Midlands
  • West of England

Two do not have an elected mayor:

  • North East
  • 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/town councillor.