History of local government in the United Kingdom

History of local government in the United Kingdom

The history of local government in the United Kingdom concerns the period after 1707, although local government itself pre-dates the United Kingdom, having it origins in the Middle Ages. Its history is marked by a long period of very little change and, since the 19th century, a constant evolution of role and function.Barlow, I., "Metropolitan Government", (1991)] Change did not occur in England, Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales in a uniform manner and the devolution of power over local government to Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland means that further changes are unlikely to be uniform either.

Both the Kingdom of England and Kingdom of Scotland had systems of local government that existed before the creation of the Kingdom of Great Britain in 1707.

England and Wales

Local government in England and Wales was provided by counties, boroughs and parishes. Most functions were provided at the parish or borough level and there was very little co-ordination between them. There was a lack of change in its organisation until it was made necessary by the social movements and increasing urbanisation of the Industrial Revolution.Thomson, D., "England in the Nineteenth Century (1815-1914)", (1978) ]

The ancient shire counties had a more limited role. The Justices of the Peace, who tried minor offences and the more serious Assize Courts were organised on a county-wide basisHMSO, "Aspects of Britain: Local Government", (1996)] and county-wide police forces were set up in 1839 and 1856 to cover the rest of the country outside of the Metropolitan Police District and the boroughs.Bryne, "T. Local Government in Britain", (1994)]

From the end of the seventeenth century, improvement commissioners were established in a number of towns by local act of parliament. The commissioners had responsibility for duties such as paving or lighting in a specified district defined in the Act, and were authorised to collect rates to fund their work. In many cases, commissioners' districts were within existing boroughs, creating overlapping jurisdictions. By the nineteenth century there were about three hundred commissioner's districts, with approximately one hundred in the London area. [ Lipman V. D., "Local Government Areas 1834 - 1945", (1949)]

Civil parishes had their origins in the ecclesiastical parish and parish affairs were managed by a group known as the "vestry"; a reference to this. The principal responsibility of the parish was relief of the poor, a duty previously established under the Poor Law of 1601. The parish was required to help those incapable of supporting themselves. The local officer was known as an Overseer of the Poor. Rates were charged to households to pay for poor relief. Workhouses were set up by parishes after 1723. Law and order, by way of a constable, and road repairs were carried out by the parish.

19th century

England and Wales

Municipal reform

Because new industrial towns in England and Wales were not incorporated as boroughs they lacked any form of municipal self-government or political representation. The Municipal Corporations Act 1835 reformed many existing boroughs [ [http://www.visionofbritain.org.uk/types/status_page.jsp?unit_status=MB Vision of Britain] - Status details for Municipal Borough. Retrieved 22 October 2006.] and allowed large towns to be incorporated under the Act. Significantly, London was excluded from the legislation.

The metropolis

The growth of the London conurbation caused particular problems, with existing structures proving ineffective. Policing was removed from the various parish authorities in 1829 with the formation of the Metropolitan Police under the control of the Home Secretary. A Metropolitan Buildings Office was created in 1840 and a Metropolitan Commission of Sewers in 1848. In 1855 these were absorbed in the Metropolitan Board of Works which was set up to undertake major works in the metropolitan area such as the sewerage, roads and bridges. The MBW membership was not directly elected, being chosen by the parish vestries.Saint, A., "Politics and the people of London: the London County Council (1889-1965)", (1989)]

Ad-hoc bodies

The period from 1800 to 1889 is marked by an expansion in the number of ad-hoc boards and bodies. Each was able to set and claim its own rates and provided only particular services; often without universal coverage. The parish began to reduce in significance; it lost responsibility for poor relief in 1834. Ad-hoc "Boards of Guardians" covered new areas known as Poor Law Unions. [ [http://www.visionofbritain.org.uk/types/status_page.jsp?unit_status=PLU Vision of Britain] - Status details for Poor Law Union. Retrieved on 22 October 2006.] Local boards of health were set up under the Public Health Act 1848.

In 1862 parishes were grouped into Highway districts, with responsibility for roads passing to Highway Boards.

In 1870 school boards were set up under the Education Act 1870. However, their coverage was not universal and ratepayers would request creation of a board. The Public Health Act 1872 made it mandatory for each local board and board of guardians to appoint a medical officer of health.Sanitary authorities were created in 1875 by the Public Health Acts 1873 and 1875 with a limited role, mainly to improve sanitary conditions. Existing municipal boroughs and local board districts became in addition "urban sanitary districts" [ [http://www.visionofbritain.org.uk/types/status_page.jsp?unit_status=USD Vision of Britain] - Status details for Urban Sanitary District. Retrieved 22 October 2006.] while "rural sanitary districts" were formed based on the poor law unions. [ [http://www.visionofbritain.org.uk/types/status_page.jsp?unit_status=RSD Vision of Britain] - Status details for Rural Sanitary District. Retrieved 22 October 2006.] These were to form a direct precursor of future local government districts.

By the late 19th century several commentators, such as the Royal Sanitary Commission, considered the wide range of ad-hoc bodies and fractured service provision to be a system in 'chaos'.

Elected councils

Elected county councils were set up in 1889 with the functions that were historically organised at county level transferred to the new councils; including the Justices of the Peace, rates, licensing, asylums, highways, weights and measures and police. The area of London that had been the responsibility of the Metropolitan Board of Works became the County of London; with responsibility for local government passing to the London County Council. Initially the parishes and ad-hoc boards remained the principal service providers in the counties but the situation was not to last.

Also created in 1889 were county boroughs. They covered major towns and provided all services in their areas. [ [http://www.visionofbritain.org.uk/types/status_page.jsp?unit_status=CB Vision of Britain] - Status details for County Borough. Retrieved 22 October 2006.] Many of the larger councils, such as Birmingham City Council, had radical and extensive programmes of social and municipal service provision.

The Local Government Act 1894 largely replaced the functions of the ad-hoc boards with urban districts and rural districts; based on the sanitary districts set up in 1872. Outside London, local government now had a consistent pattern of county boroughs, non-county boroughs (the reformed boroughs), urban districts and rural districts. In rural areas the role of the parish was revived under the Act. The districts gained limited functions from the county councils and responsibility for public health and highways from the ad-hoc boards.


Scottish burghs were reformed earlier in 1833 by the Burgh Police (Scotland) Act and the Parliamentary Burghs (Scotland) Act, but not all burghs were covered by the Act. In Ireland the reform did not come until 1840.Hampton, W., "Local Government and Urban Politics", (1991)]

In 1889, Scotland's four largest cities became counties of cities.

20th century

Golden age

The period from 1900 to 1939 is generally described as a "golden age" of service expansion and consensus with central government. Much of the expansion of local authority role in England and Wales in the period is consolidated by the Local Government Act 1933.

In 1900 the district pattern was completed in England and Wales by the introduction of metropolitan boroughs in the County of London; they gained a few functions from the London County Council and replaced the functions of the various vestries. In Scotland the lower tier of local government was not reformed until 1929. The Local Government (Scotland) Act 1929 created a system of counties of cities, large burghs, small burghs, counties and districts. The Scottish parishes were abolished for the purpose of local government. The districts in rural areas provided only a limited number of services compared with the rural districts in England.

The structure set up in the latter half of the previous century had legitimacy in the eyes of the public due to its democratically elected officials. Its significance increased in the first fifty years of the new century with an expanding role; local authorities also enjoyed a period of consensus with central government on their important and growing purpose.

The demise of the ad-hoc bodies came in the early part of the century. The Education Act 1902 abolished the school boards and transferred responsibility to the elected local authorities. Spending on education has represented the biggest financial responsibility of local government since the Act. The poor law was abolished in 1930 with the responsibilities of the unions transferred to the county and county borough councils.

Councils during this period were not limited to the functions sanctioned by central government only. In addition councils could promote private bills to provide other services.Hull City Council was the last to retain provision of a telephone service; electricity and gas services from local councils were widespread.

The Tramways Act 1870 allowed local authorities to compulsorily acquire tram undertakings in their areas after twenty-one years of operation, and every seven years thereafter. From the beginning of the twentieth century local councils thus became major public transport operators, electrifying the tramways with power supplied by the municipal electricity utility. Trams were subsequently supplemented or replaced with trolleybuses and omnibuses.

New functions during this period included from 1905 the ability to set up local labour bureaus and from 1910 an early careers service could be set up to advise young people looking for work or even fund their emigration. As they expanded with new functions, local authorities also became significant employers.

Significantly, the old age pension of the Old Age Pensions Act 1908 was not provided by local government; instead it was administered by the Post Office to remove any possibility of stigma arising from association with poor relief.Gazeley, I., "Poverty in Britain 1900-1945", (2003)] Similarly, the unemployment benefit created in 1934 was administered by a new ad-hoc Unemployment Assistance Board.

From 1890, and particularly after World War I, local authorities had an increasing role in low-cost housing provision; such that by 1976 a third of all housing would be council-owned. In London, the London County Council constructed vast housing estates often outside its formal boundaries. [Olechnowicz, A., "Working-Class Housing in England Between the Wars: The Becontree Estate", (1997)] Attempts to expand its scope in the 1920s to administer services in the Greater London area were to fail.

In 1921, there was a dispute between Poplar Council and central government over their use, for social welfare provision, of rates money that was already earmarked for ad-hoc boards and other precepting authorities. The councillors were found to be acting "ultra vires", or beyond their powers, and were briefly imprisoned. The ideological clash between local and national government would foreshadow similar conflict in the 1980s.

Although the local government structure had been put in place to meet the demands of increasing urbanisation, there was further growth in the towns and cities. In 1922 there were 82 county boroughs, 21 more than the original 61; they had a total population of 3 million people. This was significant as it was reducing the tax-earning potential of the county councils. In the shires, the rural districts increasingly came under review and slowly had new urban districts carved out of them.

Welfare State

The Labour government of 1945-1951 meant radical change to the services provided by local government. It did not, however, cause only an expansion of services. The nationalisation of the health service removed responsibility from local authorities for certain hospitals [Thomson, D., "England in the Twentieth Century (1914-1979)", (1981)] and the nationalised utilities meant the end to localised gas and electricity supply by councils. The era was marked instead by an increase in the social care provision of local authorities. The Education Act 1944 gave local authorities new autonomy to create whatever kind of education system they favoured; within a broad framework.Glennerster, H., "British Social Policy since 1945", (2003)]

The Town and Country Planning Act 1947 gave local government power to control development and required councils to produce development plans. The legislation was amended for Scotland in 1973 and for England in 1971 to require upper and lower tier authorities to produce structural and local plans respectively.Hill, D., "Urban Policy and Politics in Britain", (2000)]


By 1940 there had been a significant further drift from the country to the cities and commentators felt that the structures set up in the 1890s were failing to meet the demands of the growing cities.Atkinson, H. & Wilks-Heeg, S., "Local Government from Thatcher to Blair: The Politics of Creative Autonomy", (2000)] After a period of lengthy and ineffective review in the 1950s, a series of major reforms throughout the 1960s and 1970s made significant changes to the boundaries of counties, significantly reduced the number of local government districts; thus increasing their size; and also made changes to the way service provision was distributed.Redcliffe-Maud & Wood, B., "English Local Government Reformed", (1974)]

In England the existing county structure was adapted and in Wales new counties created. [Arnold-Baker, C., "Local Government Act 1972", (1973)] In Scotland a new system of regions and districts, based on travel-to-work patterns, was put in place. The reforms sought to end the urban-rural dichotomy in areas outside of the major conurbations. The county boroughs, which by 1970 accounted for 25% of the population, were abolished and usually merged with their less-urbanised hinterlands.

In the major conurbations of England, metropolitan counties were created with county councils which provided only the most strategic services such as transport and planning while most social welfare services were provided by the districts; in the shire counties the situation was reversed with more services provided by the upper tier authorities. In London an enlarged Greater London Council shared power with the London boroughs. [http://www.london.gov.uk/london-life/city-government/history.jsp Greater London Authority] - "A short history of London government". Retrieved 22 October 2006.] By 1985, one third of the UK population were living in Greater London and the metropolitan counties.


The period from 1979 to 1990 is marked by decline in the relationship between local and national government and a series of laws designed to reduce its importance, independence and spending.Pierre, J. et al, "Peters Handbook of Public Administration", (2003)]

The Local Government Finance and Planning Act 1980 and the Local Government Finance Act 1982 applied individual spending targets for each authority; failure to meet these targets led to the loss of central grant money. [Atkinson, H. & Wilks-Heeg, S., "British Local Government Since 1979: The End of an Era?", (1997)] The Rates Act 1984 allowed central government to cap increases to local taxation made by each authority.Loughlin, M., "Legality and Locality: The Role of Law in Central-Local Government Relations", (1996)] The Act was successfully used to force councils to comply with government limits. Councillors in Lambeth and Liverpool refused to accept the legislation and were found to be acting "ultra vires"; they were prosecuted, fined and banned from office for ten years.

The role of councils as housing providers was challenged by the right to buy scheme. In the period from 1980 to 1996 the amount of money paid to councils in general grants, which they could spend as they wish, reduced from 65% of income to 51%; instead grant money was provided for centrally specified purposes.Atkinson, R, & Moon, G., "Urban Policy in Britain", (1994)]

The animosity and ideological differences between the Thatcher government and the Labour-controlled councils came to a head in the middle 1980s. Direct responsibility for public transport, which had only been gained in 1970, was removed from the Greater London Council in 1984 and passed to London Regional Transport. Finally, the Local Government Act 1985 abolished the metropolitan county councils and the Greater London Council Elcock, H., "Local Government", (1994)] and distributed their responsibilities between joint-boards, special arrangements, quangos, and the boroughs.Jones, B. et al, "Politics UK", (2004)]

Thatcher's reform of local taxation would ultimately lead to her demise. The replacement for property-based rates, the Community Charge or 'poll tax' was unpopular from the outset.Pilkington, D., "Devolution in Britain Today", (2002)] Designed to expose overspending councils, it cost £7bn to administer during the 1991/2 tax year alone.Dorey, P., "British Politics Since 1945", (1995)]

In this period there was some change in the way local government is financed:

† - rates only before 1995/6 | * - includes subsidies from 1995/6

Review and regions

A review of local government was undertaken during the 1990s which led to the creation of unitary authorities throughout Scotland and Wales and in some non-metropolitan areas of England. Essentially a recreation of the county boroughs, they provide all local government functions in their areas.Kelly, R., "Changing Party Policy in Britain", (1999)]

Since the 1990s there has been an increasing role for the regions. [ [http://www.visionofbritain.org.uk/types/type_page.jsp?unit_type=MOD_REG Vision of Britain] - Type details for Government Office Region] A regional Greater London Authority was created in 2000 to replace the Greater London Council. [ [http://www.opsi.gov.uk/ACTS/acts1999/19990029.htm OPSI] - "Greater London Authority Act 1999". Retrieved 22 October 2006.] Indirectly elected regional chambers have been set up in the other regions. A referendum [ [http://www.opsi.gov.uk/acts/acts2003/20030010.htm OPSI] - "Regional Assemblies (Preparations) Act 2003". Retrieved 22 October 2006.] proposing the introduction of further unitary authorities and an elected regional assembly in the North East was unsuccessful in 2004.


First under Thatcher and Major, but increasingly under the Blair government, local government services have been provided by the private sector.Chandler, J., "Local Government Today", (2001)] The most controversial such arrangement was the Private Finance Initiative for maintenance of the London Underground. ["What the Mayor has done for London", New Law Journal.5 October 2001.] Control was only handed back to local government after the contract had been agreed and despite a high profile campaign against it. ["Passengers join court protest over Tube", The Times.23 July 2001.]

ee also

*List of articles about local government in the United Kingdom


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