Your browser is no longer supported

For the best possible experience using our website we recommend you upgrade to a newer version or another browser.

Your browser appears to have cookies disabled. For the best experience of this website, please enable cookies in your browser

We'll assume we have your consent to use cookies, for example so you won't need to log in each time you visit our site.
Learn more


  • Comment
After years of tinkering, England has an unwieldy system of councils which often leaves the public overwhelmed. Nic...
After years of tinkering, England has an unwieldy system of councils which often leaves the public overwhelmed. Nick Triggle fears tiers before bedtime

Local government lived through many reincarnations during its long history, culminating in the mish-mash of county councils, district councils and unitary authorities seen today.

Regional control dates back to medieval times when lords had rights over the local population. But local government as it is known today was born out of the 1835 Royal Commission on Municipal Corporations, which established boroughs across the country, with councillors and mayors elected by local ratepayers. By the end of the century, county, urban and district councils were introduced.

The 1972 Local Government Act changed the landscape again by setting up six new metropolitan counties in Greater Manchester, West Midlands, West Yorkshire, South Yorkshire, Merseyside and Tyne &

Wear, with boroughs operating underneath them. The Greater London Council had already been formed in the mid-1960s.

These were dismantled by prime minister Margaret Thatcher in 1986 and a raft of unitary authorities rose from the ashes - 36 metropolitan boroughs and 32 London boroughs, not including the City of London which dates back to the Victorian age.

Outside the main urban conurbations, county councils, district councils and parish councils operated under a three-tier system.

Following the Banham review of the early 1990s, a further 47 unitary authorities were set up, as single-tier local government spread across the country.

The result is that in London the boroughs form the first tier with the country's only directly elected assembly, the Greater London Authority, acting as a second tier.

The single-tier concept remains, with the unitary authorities governing major cities and towns and county and district councils operating in the more rural areas.

The thousands of parish councils serve everything from rural communities to major towns, covering a third of the population.

On top of that, nine government offices co-ordinate Whitehall policies on a regional level.

Unsurprisingly, doubts have been raised about how effective local government can be with such a fragmented and diverse system.

Improvement & Development Agency founder Mel Usher says: 'The nature of local government today does not necessarily have to be detrimental, but it does require a certain set of skills. It is not just a question of managing an organisation. You have to manage upwards and sideways and have a good relationship with lots of bodies. I am not sure we are yet able to do that.'

And Mr Usher, a former council chief executive, acknowledges local government is now more fragmented than ever, adding: 'I used to find it difficult dealing with parish, district and county councils, which all meet at different periods and have different agendas.'

However, the situation is set to become even more complicated. Vast swathes of northern England could undergo another major reorganisation with the introduction of directly elected regional assemblies in the north-east, north-west and Yorkshire and the Humber.

Referendums are expected in November but if residents want a directly elected assembly they will

have to agree to one of two options to create unitary authorities.

Tony Travers, director of London School of Economics' Greater London Group, believes the push for single-tier local governance stems from the government's susceptibility to accusations of increasing bureaucracy.

'Downing Street is worried about public perceptions of bureaucracy. Getting rid of one tier of government is about creating the illusion that you are getting rid of it.

I think tidiness is a little over zealous.

'It is not a question of whether one tier or two tiers are better. It is about how well government can be run and that is not dependent on the tiers.

'You can have two tiers which work perfectly well together. And a single tier that is disjointed - just look at Whitehall.'

Mr Travers also dismissed suggestions that multiple tiers of government lead to public confusion and low election turnout.

'I am not sure there is any political evidence that turnouts are necessarily any higher or lower where there are two tiers. There is a presumption that the British can only manage so much voting.'

Others see it differently. George Jones, emeritus professor of government at the London School of Economics, believes fragmented government means the voters do not know who to hold accountable.

But he does not necessarily want to see the end of a two-tier council structure, as people can feel multiple loyalties to their town or village and also the larger area.

'People want clear lines of responsibility and they don't want to be dictated to. Directly elected regional assemblies will suck up power from local government and create a fraught relationship. There would be more negotiation, bargaining and delay. The public will then not know who they should be blaming when things go wrong.'

And Prof Jones adds that the GLA has been a nuisance and interfered with councils, pointing to council tax rises since it was set up four years ago.

Another example came last year when London mayor Ken Livingstone called for the 33 boroughs to be merged into fewer, larger authorities.

A recent paper by the New Local Government Network, London calling, also acknowledged government in London needs to be streamlined, but instead the contributors called for more power to be given to the GLA and the scrapping of the Government Office for London.

England is almost unique within Europe in having such an asymmetric structure of local government. Before power was devolved to Scotland and Wales, a uniform system of unitary authorities was introduced.

Further afield, Germany, with its federal system, allows states to set their own laws with the councils operating beneath them.

Austria has a clear line of responsibility running through the federal government to the regional governments and down to the councils.

Belgium, like England, has two tiers of local government - the municipality and the province - but in practice most power is wielded on a regional level.

'We need more clarity - it is very mixed in England,' says Ken Spencer, professor of local policy at Birmingham University's Institute of Local Government Studies.

'It is probably extremely confusing to people that there are so many different bodies - councils, quangos, regional development agencies, government offices.

'Is government any better for them? I doubt it. People tend to think more tiers of government just costs them money and they are probably right.'

For NLGN director Dan Corry, who edited London calling, the system of government is even more complex.

He says the relationships between the different tiers of government differ from area to area.

'There is no simple answer to whether multi-tier governance can be effective or not, as it boils down to what is appropriate in a given context and how it operates in reality.

'In London for example, there is a clear delineation between what the boroughs do and what the mayor and London Assembly do.

'This also appears to be the way in some county/district scenarios such as Kent, although such clarity is less apparent across the board - partly due to local circumstances.'

But he is less concerned about the possible effect the nature of English local government has on the public.

'While the question of public confusion is something of a red herring, it is true that multi-level governance requires clear and present lines of responsibility and accountability.

'It is not that the public cannot get their heads around who does what in different levels of government, but more that life is complex and most individuals do not spend their waking days concerning themselves with such matters.'

Local government - who does what in England

England has a mixture of single, two and three-tier local government. There are 34 county councils, 36 metropolitan district councils, 47 unitary authorities, 238 district councils, 33 London boroughs and more than 8,000 parish councils.

In the two-tier areas, district councils tend to run local services such as rubbish collection and street cleaning, with the counties responsible for the more strategic services of education and social services.

But responsibility for services in between - housing, planning, leisure and tourism to name just four - varies from area to area.

Eight regional assemblies give each area a united voice, although these assemblies are not elected and have no real powers.

Only in London, with the Greater London Authority headed by mayor Ken Livingstone, does the regional body wield any official function.

Instead, government programmes are overseen regionally by the nine government offices set up in 1994, which are themselves overseen by the ODPM-based Regional Co-ordination Unit.

Confusingly, nine regional development agencies, which are non-departmental public bodies, are charged with aiding the economic development of each region.

Eight were launched in April 1999 followed by a ninth, for London, in July 2000 along with the formation of the Greater London Authority.

  • Comment

Have your say

You must sign in to make a comment

Please remember that the submission of any material is governed by our Terms and Conditions and by submitting material you confirm your agreement to these Terms and Conditions.

Links may be included in your comments but HTML is not permitted.