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Understanding How Councils Work

Local government is made up of at least one (unitary) tier or two tiers of authorities - depending on which area you live in the United Kingdom. The information in this section will help you understand how your council works, determine when local elections are held, and guide you through the official complaints process.

The Different Types of Councils in England

Most of the country has two tiers of local government. They will be a county council, and either a borough, district, or a city council.

However, some areas have only one (unitary) tier that provides all the local services, such as:

  • London (and metropolitan) boroughs
  • Unitary authorities in shire areas

County Council Responsibilities

As the name suggests, county councils are responsible for the services needed across an entire county, and will include facilities and resources like:

District, Borough, City Councils

Because they generally cover a smaller area than a county council, the services that a district, borough, or city council will be responsible for typically include:

Unitary Authorities (London and Metropolitan Boroughs)

It is not uncommon for one (unitary) tier of local government to provide all the local services needed (e.g. those already listed).

The Greater London Authority (GLA) provides all the key services needed for the country’s capital. They include public transport, policing, and fire and rescue services. Whereas, ‘joint authorities’ will provide similar services in some of the bigger metropolitan areas (e.g. Birmingham, Manchester).

Parish, Community, Town Councils

Once elected – and operating at a lower level – parish, community, and town councils help out with the provision of several local issues, such as:

  • Allotments
  • Bus shelters
  • Community centres
  • Grants that help local organisations
  • Neighbourhood planning consultation
  • Play areas (and playground equipment)
  • Public clocks

Furthermore, the lower level tier of local government has the power to issue fixed penalty fines for offences relating to:

Important: The guidance in this section focuses on councils and local government in England. You can review other government websites to understand how your council works in Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland.

Council Decision Making Process

The responsibility for making all decisions falls on a full council (e.g. a meeting comprised of its members). Even so, much of the work goes to paid staff (e.g. smaller groups of councillors or council officers).

Every council must publish the details when any key decisions will be taken, along with:

  • Papers of meetings (a minimum of five working days beforehand).
  • Minutes of meetings (showing what decisions the council made at the meeting).

Note: The official website of your local council displays their meeting agendas, minutes, and final reports. Even though members of the public can attend some council meetings, it will be a non-speaking attendance.

Civic and Elected Mayors

Many of the larger councils around the United Kingdom will have an elected and a civic mayor (or a chairman of the council).

Civic mayors perform ceremonial duties and they chair meetings. But, they do not have the authority to make decisions about regular council business. Whereas, elected mayors have the responsibility of ensuring that daily local services are running as they should be.

How Councils Spend their Budget

As a rule, you can view most of the important details and information about a council’s spending and accounts on their official website, including:

  • Contracts and tenders sent out (over £500)
  • Payments made for goods and services over £500

Viewing Annual Accounts of Your Council

By law, all councils will open their detailed financial accounts on an annual basis. Doing so, gives the public an opportunity to view the information for thirty (30) working days.

Thus, you will be able to check council spending under £500 (published in the local press and on their website) without the need to make a freedom of information request.

Note: Another section explains how to make a freedom of information (FOI) request to see recorded information held by public authorities in the United Kingdom.

Electing Local Councillors

In England, local communities will elect their councillors to represent the views of the inhabitants for a four (4) year term. There are several ways to contact your local councillor:

When are Your Local Elections Held?

As a general rule, they hold elections to councils in England on the first Thursday during the month of May. The Ministry of Housing, Communities & Local Government produces a local government election timetable.

Some councils choose to elect all councillors at the same time. Whereas, others may elect around half of them at each election (or less in some cases).

Declaration of Interests

It is not uncommon for local councillors to receive gifts or hospitality. By law, they must declare any interests that could influence the decisions they are making as a councillor.

Local councils must publish details of ‘declaring interests’. In most cases, you can view the details at the local town hall or on their website.

Note: The Local Government Boundary Commission (LGBCE) provides more information about the current local authorities in England.

How to Complain about the Council

Anyone can make an official complaint about their local council if they feel dissatisfied with any of the services they received, by following these three steps:

  1. First, complain about your council to the actual service provider.
  2. Next, you can make a complaint to the complaints officer at the council if they are unable to resolve the issue.
  3. Finally, the Local Government Ombudsman may look into the situation if it remains unsolved.

As a rule, the Ombudsman will only consider complaints if someone has suffered due to the way a council decision was made or because of the way it has been given.

Local Government Ombudsman
Telephone: 0300 061 0614
Find out phone call charges

Important: Complaints usually need to go through the council’s official complaints procedure before the Local Government Ombudsman will consider taking on the case.

Related Help Guides

You can find and access local council services (e.g. dog wardens, libraries, and rubbish collection) in the master section.

Other sections contain further information and advice about council house rules and regulations and the key issues that relate to Council Tax in the United Kingdom.

How Local Government Works in the United Kingdom