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Chart of the week: English local government

Author: ICAEW Insights

Published: 05 Apr 2023

Local government in England remains a complex patchwork despite a cut in the number of local authorities in England from 333 to 317 on 1 April 2023.
chart april 5

Our chart this week takes a look at the structure of local government in England following the abolition of three county councils and seventeen district councils to form four new unitary authorities on 1 April 2023. This reduces the total number of local authorities in England from 333 to 317, while there was no change in the number of regional authorities at 11.

  • Cumbria county council and its six district councils were abolished and their functions were transferred to two newly formed unitary authorities. Cumberland, with 274,000 local residents, absorbed the now defunct Allerdale, Carlisle and Copeland district councils. Westmorland and Furness, serving a population of 227,000, took over Eden, South Lakeland and Barrow-in-Furness. 
  • Somerset county council and its four districts (Mendip, Sedgemoor, Somerset West and Taunton, and South Somerset) were merged into a new Somerset unitary authority serving 573,000 local residents.
  • North Yorkshire county council and its seven districts (Craven, Hambleton, Harrogate, Richmondshire, Ryedale, Scarborough and Selby) were merged into a single North Yorkshire unitary council, responsible for a local population of 619,000. 

As our chart illustrates, there is a complex patchwork quilt of regional and local authorities in England. Around 24.2m people, or 43% of the 56.5m population of England in mid-2021, live in areas with a regional level of government, while 18.6m (33%) people are served by a two-tier structure of county and district councils and 13.7m (24%) by single-tier unitary authorities.

Regional authorities comprise the Greater London Authority (with a population of 8.8m) and 10 combined authorities: West Midlands (2.9m), Greater Manchester (2.9m), West Yorkshire (2.3m), Liverpool City Region (1.4m), South Yorkshire (1.4m), North East (1.2m), West of England (0.9m), Cambridgeshire and Peterborough (0.9m), North of Tyne (0.8m) and Tees Valley (0.7m). 

Regional and local public services in London are provided by the GLA and 32 London boroughs and the City of London, and by the relevant combined authority and seven metropolitan boroughs in the West Midlands ‘Greater Birmingham’ combined authority area; 10 in Greater Manchester; five in South Yorkshire ‘Sheffield City Region’; five in Liverpool City Region; and four in the West Yorkshire ‘Leeds City Region’. There are three metropolitan boroughs plus one unitary authority in the North East ‘Sunderland and County Durham’ combined authority area; three unitary authorities in West of England ‘Greater Bristol’; one county council, five district councils and one unitary authority in Cambridgeshire and Peterborough; two metropolitan boroughs and one unitary authority in the North of Tyne ‘Newcastle and Northumberland’ combined authority area; and five unitary authorities in Tees Valley.

Local public services in two-tier areas without a combined authority above them comprise Kent county council (with 12 district councils), Essex (12), Hampshire (11), Lancashire (12), Surrey (11), Hertfordshire (10), Norfolk (7), West Sussex (7), Staffordshire (8), Nottinghamshire (7), Devon (8), Derbyshire (8), Lincolnshire (7), Suffolk (5), Oxfordshire (5), Leicestershire (7), Gloucestershire (6), Worcestershire (6), Warwickshire (5) and East Sussex (5). Many of these county councils do not cover the whole of their counties, with unitary authorities such as Southend-on-Sea and Thurrock carved out of Essex, Derby carved out of Derbyshire, and Plymouth and Torbay carved out of Devon, for example.

There are 51 unitary authorities plus the Isles of Scilly outside of combined authority areas, responsible for providing local services that traditionally county councils are responsible for, such as education, transport, fire and public safety, social care, libraries, waste management, and trading standards, as well as services typically provided by district councils such as rubbish collection, recycling, social housing, planning approvals and collecting council tax and business rates. 

North Yorkshire and Somerset are now the largest local authorities outside of metropolitan areas with populations of 619,000 and 573,000, followed by Cornwall (572,000), Buckinghamshire (555,000) and Wiltshire (513,000). Excluding these five authorities and tiny Rutland (41,000), the average population size served by unitary authorities outside of combined authority areas is 240,000. 

Overall the 317 local authorities in England comprise 32 London boroughs, the City of London, 36 metropolitan boroughs, 21 county and 164 district councils, 62 unitary authorities and the Isle of Scilly. This contrasts with the simpler one-tier approach of 32 local councils in Scotland, 16 in Wales and 11 in Northern Ireland.

The lack of a standard model for local government and an incomplete regional tier is a big challenge for the national government, unlike similar countries where the national government deals with a much smaller number of states, provinces or regional administrations and lets them deal with their localities. Trying to work with 11 regional authorities and 317 local authorities in a mixture of region + one-tier, region + two-tier, no region + one-tier, and no region + two-tier structures is difficult in practice, not helped by a very centralised approach that requires Whitehall to be involved very closely in what regional local authorities are doing, and a lack of fiscal devolution that means local authorities are dependent on central funding and national government approvals for many of their activities.

A radical proposal to abolish district councils completely and move to a one-tier system of unitary authorities and boroughs, potentially with full regional coverage, was rumoured to be imminent when Boris Johnson was prime minister. Instead, the government has continued with its more glacial approach of providing financial and other encouragement to local authorities willing to form regional combined authorities with elected mayors, and to replace two-tier county and district councils with unitary authorities where some consensus can be reached, as in Cumbria, Somerset and North Yorkshire this year. 

While an unwieldy structure is not the main problem facing local government in England, it doesn’t make it easy for any government wanting to level up opportunity across the country to deliver, nor to find efficiency savings in central government departments that have to deal with that structure. 

Reform is likely, perhaps not now, but when?

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