How a Council Works

Local councils are made up of council members and officers. Councillors (called members) are voted for by the public in local elections to represent the public in a defined geographical area for a term of 4 years. Councillors are supported by permanent council staff (called officers).

Since the Local Government Act 2000, there have been a range of options for how a local council executive leadership can be constituted:

Source: TASC (Think tank for action on social change)

  • A directly elected mayor: many councils have a civic mayor or chairman of the council. They carry out ceremonial duties and chair meetings, but can’t make decisions about council business. Some councils have an elected mayor. They’re responsible for the day-to-day running of local services.

  • ‘Strong Leader’ and Cabinet Model: Under this model, the Leader of the Council is appointed by the full council in one of its first acts post an election. Then, the Leader appoints a Cabinet of between two and ten Councillors . The Cabinet will make just about all the major financial decisions apart from the council’s budget, and Councillor’s allowances. To keep the executive ‘in-check’ a series of Scrutiny Committees is set up with various powers of call-in. The main job of the Scrutiny Committee is to scrutinise the Cabinet’s policies.

  • Committee system: in a committee system, all major decisions are made by councillors responsible for a certain topic, such as health or young people, coming together to consider the issues in hand. Many councils were run in this way until the committee system was abolished under the Blair Government. However, since 2012 several councils are reverting to this system due to such a small proportion of councillors having direct involvement in decision making under the other models.

  • The final system is a hybrid: in theory, you could cherry pick all the best (or worst) bits of the Cabinet and Committee systems and make a new type of administration. For example, Cambridge Council operates a hybrid scrutiny model where decisions are proposed by scrutiny committees then formally appointed by the cabinet member or leader.

Many parts of England have 2 tiers of local government:

  • County councils

  • District, borough or city councils

In some parts of the country, there’s just 1 (unitary) tier of local government providing all the local services. The 3 main types are:

  • Unitary authorities in shire areas

  • London boroughs

  • Metropolitan boroughs

Scrutiny Boards scrutinise the ongoing council services and what is happening in the council. They also work on policy development. The scrutiny boards are less party political.

District, borough and city councils

These cover a smaller area than county councils. They’re usually responsible for services like:

  • rubbish collection

  • recycling

  • Council Tax collections

  • housing

  • planning applications

County Councils:

These are responsible for services across the whole of a county including:

  • education

  • transport

  • planning

  • fire and public safety

  • social care

  • libraries

  • waste management

  • trading standards

Local Enterprise Partnerships (LEPs)

Local enterprise partnerships (LEPs) are voluntary partnerships between local authorities and businesses set up in 2011 by the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills to help determine local economic priorities and lead economic growth and job creation within the local area. There are 39 LEPs across England. You can find out your local LEP here.