Council of European Municipalities and Regions (CEMR)
European section of United Cities and Local Governments

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United Kingdom

The United Kingdom is a unitary state with devolved jurisdictions. The UK Parliament is sovereign but Scotland and Northern Ireland have always retained separate legal systems. Ever since the devolution process that started in 1997 with the creation of legislatures in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, the UK has had an asymmetric system of governance; as for many domestic policy areas the UK government holds exclusive powers only in England. 
Local level: 398 local authorities
There are four local government jurisdictions in the UK. Each local government system is entirely separate from the rest in terms of powers, functions and elections. In general, councillors are elected for a four-year term, based on either a first-past-the-post voting system or a system of proportional representation.

England has 24 county councils, 36 metropolitan district councils, 181 non-metropolitan district councils (local authorities outside of big cities), and 59 unitary authorities (a single tier local authority). There has been a growing tendency towards grouping several local authorities into one larger ‘combined authority’ (see note below). In London, the United Kingdom's capital, there are 33 boroughs, including the City of London, which is the city’s financial district.

Wales has 22 single tier unitary authorities (county and county borough councils) which were established in 1996. These authorities deliver a wide range of services, such as education housing, social services, transport and highways, environmental health, planning, economic development, libraries, leisure and tourism.

Scotland has 32 single tier unitary authorities. In Scotland, local services are delivered through Community Planning Partnerships, a statutory framework designed to promote collaboration between municipalities and other public and voluntary bodies within a local area. Since devolution, in addition to the transfer of some services to the central government, there has now been integration of national and local services in social care and health.

Northern Ireland has 11 district councils, with competencies that are more limited than elsewhere in the UK. Nevertheless, following a major reform in April 2015 that reduced the district councils’ numbers from 26 to 11 authorities, their powers were broadened to include planning, community investment and economic development, in addition to regulatory, registration, enforcement, animal welfare, refuse, waste management, building control, leisure, arts and environmental health.
  • In addition to the local authorities referred to above, there are over 12,000 other smaller authorities at the local tier (parishes, town councils and community councils in Scotland). These are small elected bodies that look after local interests. Many of them are not regarded as municipal bodies.
  • The Greater London Authority, set up in 2000, is considered a regional authority, although, unlike the devolved jurisdictions in the UK, it does not have any legislative powers.
  • Combined authorities consist of two or more English councils (excluding London). The creation of a combined authority is voluntary, but its formation must be approved by the UK Parliament. The combined authority has the power to exercise any function of its constituent councils that relates to economic development and regeneration, and any of the functions that are available to the transport authorities. The Cities and Local Government Devolution Act 2016 introduced directly-elected mayors to combined authorities in England and made it possible for combined authorities to exercise a wider range of powers, including those otherwise delivered nationally. Since 2011, combined authorities have been created in: Cambridgeshire and Peterborough, Greater Manchester, Liverpool City Region, North East, North of Tyne, South Yorkshire, Tees Valley, West Midlands, West of England, and West Yorkshire.

Unitary authorities have the competences of both counties and districts.

Local competences are not uniform throughout the United Kingdom as they have been wholly transferred (devolved) to Scotland, while other arrangements have been applied to Wales and Northern Ireland. English local governments remain directly accountable to the UK government and parliament.

There are two tiers of local government in parts of England (counties and districts) and a single tier in other parts of England and all of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland (councils).

County councils – responsible for services across the whole of the county, including:
  • Education
  • Transport
  • Planning
  • Fire and public safety
  • Social care
  • Libraries
  • Waste management
  • Trading standards
District, borough and city councils – cover a smaller area than county councils, and are usually responsible for services such us:
  • Household waste collection
  • Recycling
  • Council Tax collections
  • Housing
  • Planning applications
Nations and regions: England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland
In England, the only directly elected regional authority is the Greater London Authority, which has an assembly of 25 elected members, including an executive mayor, elected by direct universal suffrage. Its main competences include public transport, sustainable development planning, fire and emergency planning and metropolitan police. Several areas have also elected mayors.

The Senedd Cymru or Welsh Parliament (formerly National Assembly for Wales) came into existence in 1999. It has a more limited range of legislative powers than the Scottish Parliament (mainly secondary legislation, giving more detailed effect to UK parliament measures). However, its primary law making powers were enhanced following a referendum held in March 2011, authorising it to legislate without having to consult the UK parliament in devolved areas. Its competences include policy development and implementation in agriculture, culture, economic development, education, environmental health, highways and transport, social services, housing, spatial planning and local government. In May 2020 the National Assembly for Waleswas renamed the Senedd Cymru/Welsh Parliament to reflect the broader powers and responsibilities acquired by the institution, i.e. full law making powers within its devolved areas of competencies and the ability to alter some taxes.

Since 1999, the Scottish Parliament, as part of a Scottish Government has held full legislative powers over a wide range of matters – effectively, all issues except those reserved to the UK Parliament. Its exclusive competences include education, health, environment, agriculture, justice, social work, planning and local government. A new transfer of mainly tax and borrowing powers to the Scottish Parliament was enacted via the Scotland Act 2012 and following the Scottish independence referendum in 2014, additional powers over income tax and some elements of social security benefits were devolved under the Scotland Act 2016.

The Northern Ireland Assembly also came fully into being in 1999. Its main competences include the economy, foreign direct investment, justice, policing, education, health, regional infrastructure and agriculture. New planning and economic powers were devolved to the district councils (see above) in April 2015, with the possibility of further powers being transferred to them at a later date.

The withdrawal from the EU has wrought changes in the distribution of powers between the UK and the devolved nations: the Withdrawal Act 2018, the Withdrawal Agreement Act 2020, the UK Internal Market Act 2020 have all amended the above mentioned Devolved acts without the consent of the Devolved legislatures which effectively resulted in the UK Government taking unilateral actions that affected  some devolved competences.

The Internal Market Act in particular resulted in the UK Government acquiring new powers with respect to devolved areas, and making it difficult for the four jurisdictions to legislate differently from each other.

Amidst this context, the new UK Common Frameworks and the new intergovernmental mechanism provide an opportunity for more joint decision making between the UK and Devolved Administrations. 

CEMR in United Kingdom

Local Government Association
Chief Executive: Mark LLOYD
Local Government Association
18, Smith Square - Westminster, London SW1P 3HZ
Tel.: +44 20 7 664 3100
Fax: +44 20 7 664 3128
Welsh Local Government Association (WLGA)
Chief Executive: Steve THOMAS
Welsh Local Government Association / Cymdeithas Llywodraeth Leol Cymru
Local Government House, Drake Walk, Cardiff CF10 4LG
Tel.: +44 29 2046 8600 or +44 29 2046 8600
Fax: +44 29 2046 8601
Convention of Scottish Local Authorities (COSLA)
Chief Executive: Sally LOUDON
Convention of Scottish Local Authorities
Verity House, 19 Haymarket Yards, Edinburgh EH12 5BH
Tel.: +44 131 474 92 00 or +44 131 474 92 00
Fax: +44 131 474 92 92
Northern Ireland Local Government Association (NILGA)
Chief Executive: Derek McCALLAN
Northern Ireland Local Government Association
Bradford Court, Upper Galwally - Castlereagh BT8 6RB
Tel.: +44 2890 798 972 or +44 2890 798 972
Fax: +44 2890 791 248
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