There are in principle four types of local authority, though within each typology there are marked differences.
- County Councils
- District and Borough councils,
- Metropolitan Councils
- London Boroughs,
In addition, within more rural areas, a lower tier of council exists – the Parish and Town Councils. We will return to these later.
County councils generally cover larger geographical areas, examples would be Cornwall, Warwickshire and Essex. From Kent County Council with the largest population (2018) of over 1.5million to Cumbria with smallest population, .42 million. However, when geographical size is accounted for North Yorkshire with 8083 square kilometres is largest to Buckinghamshire with 1043 square kilometres is smallest. However, Hertfordshire has the highest population density of 721 people per square kilometre making it most density populated in England.
As administrative areas many have been in existence for over a millennium tracing their history back to localities that the crown could call upon for taxation and the raising of armies. This historical perspective must not be underestimated in the minds of the public as they can define very strong local associations and be significant in creating local and regional identities.
In addition to the above the previous fifteen years or so has seen the creation of what are termed ‘Unitary County Councils’ – as a simple explanation they are local authorities that have maintained their geographical boundaries on the whole but absorbed the roles, functions and services of District and Borough councils that were contained within their boundaries.
District and Borough Councils
(N.B to all intents and purposes these remain the same classification as districts though certain ancient ones retain the ‘Borough’ status – a term that reflects the granting in ancient times by a monarch the right to a self-governing walled township)
In England there are 192 district councils (some still called borough councils) to illustrate the differences in size by geographical area, Torridge (Devon) is the largest area 983.9 square kilometres though there are many with less than 100 square kilometres; examples being Stevenage with 25.7 square kilometres and nearby Harlow with 30.3 square kilometres.
One important aspect to the district council is that it can serve as a way of offering distinctiveness to a locality, whilst larger geographical areas (Counties) have significant local variations within them one key argument for District councils is that they define place. Later, we will explore the complex issues of how local government is financed but in two tier areas the role of the District council as the collector of taxes is paramount.
Larger urban and industrialised areas and the larger cities in England are covered by Metropolitan councils, there are 36 such councils mostly based on large city areas and regions. Examples are Sheffield, Newcastle upon Tyne and Liverpool City Council. However, areas such as Kirklees cover agglomerated areas of West Yorkshire around Huddersfield and the heavy woollen district as it was known and Trafford forming as large area to the south of Manchester. What is key to these authorities is that are single tier or ‘unitary’ in function. Whilst the counties contain the district and Borough councils these metropolitan councils encompass all the functions that each of the others do.
Other English Unitary Councils
To further complicate matters, the latter part of the twentieth century and into the first parts of the twenty first there has been the introduction of unitary councils in England. These have taken slightly different forms, for instance following a government review the county of Northumberland became a unitary county on abolition of the districts it contained and Wiltshire also. The review of 2008 of Cheshire took a somewhat different approach in the creation of two unitary councils out the original two-tier approach there, the creation of Chester and West Cheshire and East Cheshire as two unitary councils was seen to be the most effective solution. Whilst there are clear economic reasons why such reorganisation take place, not least being the economies of scale that can be created but as the populations of locations change there is a requirement to manage the local governance and administration in a way that reflects this. As of 2020 there are suggestions of further change and reform to the administrative map of England reflecting the needs of local people.
London has long been seen as a special case in UK local government, the current population is estimated at 9.3 million, this is set against a census figure for 2011 of 8.1 million suggesting a highly rapid growth rate not seen since the eighteenth century. Consequently, the provision of services to such a population requires a form of administration that has high level strategic capabilities as well as an ability to reflect the needs as felt locally. The speed of population growth and the transient nature of a significant proportion of those who live and work in the city results in huge pressures and demands on services.
Today, London has an over strategic authority with an elected mayor, the GLA, with 32 Boroughs providing a range of services. The boroughs are roughly divided into ‘inner London’ boroughs, (******) and outer London Boroughs
The populations of each Borough varies between just under 200.000 (Kensington and Chelsea @160k to Barnet with over 350k) – in addition the corporation of London covering the ‘square mile’ with a population of a little over 7k (2018 figures)