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Unitary authorities of England

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

Unitary authority
English unitary authorities map 2021.svg
CategoryLocal authority districts
Found inRegions
Number58 (as of 2021)
Possible status

The unitary authorities of England are those local authorities which are responsible for the provision of all local government services within a district. They are constituted under the Local Government Act 1992, which amended the Local Government Act 1972 to allow the existence of counties that do not have multiple districts. They typically allow large towns to have separate local authorities from the less urbanised parts of their counties and originally provided a single authority for small counties where division into districts would be impractical. However the government has more recently proposed the formation of much larger unitary authorities, including a single authority for North Yorkshire, the largest non-metropolitan county in England, at present divided into seven districts.[1]

Unitary authorities do not cover all of England. Most were established during the 1990s, though further tranches were created in 2009 and 2019–21. Unitary authorities have the powers and functions that are elsewhere separately administered by councils of non-metropolitan counties and the non-metropolitan districts within them.



The term "unitary authority" was first used in the Redcliffe-Maud Report in 1969 in its current sense of a local government authority which combines the functions of a county council and a district council.[2] Strictly speaking, the term does not necessarily mean a single level of local government within an area, because in some cases there are also parish councils in the same area.

Although the term was not applied to them, county boroughs between 1889 and 1974 were effectively unitary authorities, that is, single-tier administrative units. Before 1889, local government authorities had different powers and functions, but from medieval times some cities and towns had a high degree of autonomy as counties corporate. Some smaller settlements also enjoyed some degree of autonomy from regular administration as boroughs or liberties.

The Local Government Act 1972 created areas for local government where large towns and their rural hinterlands were administered together. The concept of unitary units was abandoned with a two-tier arrangement of county and district councils in all areas of England, except the Isles of Scilly where the small size and distance from the mainland made it impractical. In 1986 a broadly unitary system of local government was introduced in the six metropolitan counties and Greater London, where the upper-tier authorities were abolished and their functions were split between central government, the borough councils and joint boards.[3]

1990s reform

A review in the 1990s was initiated to select non-metropolitan areas where new unitary authorities could be created.[4] The resulting structural changes were implemented between 1995 and 1998. Bristol, Herefordshire, the Isle of Wight and Rutland were established as counties of a single district; the district councils of Berkshire became unitary; the counties of Avon, Humberside and Cleveland were broken up to create several unitary authorities; and a number of districts were split off from their associated counties.[3] The changes caused the ceremonial counties to be defined separately, as they had been before 1974. The review caused 46 unitary authorities to be created.[3]

2009 changes

A further review was initiated in 2007 and was enacted in 2009. The review established Cornwall and Northumberland as counties of a single district; established unitary authorities in County Durham, Shropshire and Wiltshire covering the part of the county that was not already split off in the 1990s review; and divided the remainder of Bedfordshire and Cheshire into two unitary authorities. The review caused nine unitary authorities to be created.

Further reform

In 2016, Oxfordshire County Council put forward a 'One Oxfordshire' proposal which would see Oxford City Council and the four other district councils in Oxfordshire abolished and replaced with a single unitary county council for Oxfordshire. In 2017, Oxford City Council voiced their opposition to the proposal. A decision on whether the proposal will go ahead was to have been announced in March 2017.[citation needed]

In 2017, it was proposed that two unitary authorities be formed to cover the ceremonial county of Dorset. One of the authorities would consist of the existing unitary authorities of Bournemouth, Poole and the non-metropolitan district of Christchurch, the other would be composed of the remainder of the county.[5] In November 2017, Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, Sajid Javid stated that he was "minded to approve the proposals" and a final decision to implement the two unitary authority model was confirmed in February 2018. Statutory instruments for the creation of two unitary authorities, to be named Bournemouth, Christchurch and Poole Council and Dorset Council, have been made and shadow authorities for the new council areas were formed ahead of their creation on 1 April 2019.[6][7]

Buckinghamshire County Council and the non-metropolitan districts of Aylesbury Vale, Chiltern, South Bucks, and Wycombe in Buckinghamshire were replaced by a single unitary authority known as Buckinghamshire Council on 1 April 2020. The existing unitary authority of Milton Keynes was not affected; from 1 April 2020, therefore, the ceremonial county of Buckinghamshire has been composed of two unitary authorities.[8][9]

In March 2018, an independent report commissioned by the Secretary of State for Housing, Communities and Local Government, proposed structural changes to local government in Northamptonshire. These changes would see the existing county council and district councils abolished and two new unitary authorities created in their place.[10] One authority, West Northamptonshire, would consist of the existing districts of Daventry, Northampton and South Northamptonshire and the other authority, North Northamptonshire would consist of Corby, East Northamptonshire, Kettering and Wellingborough districts.[11] This was confirmed in May 2019, with the new councils being created in April 2021.

In July 2021 the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government announced that in April 2023, the non-metropolitan counties of Cumbria, North Yorkshire and Somerset will be reorganised into unitary authorities.[12] The new authorities, Cumberland, Westmorland and Furness, North Yorkshire Council and Somerset Council were first elected in May 2022 and will formally assume their powers on 1 April 2023.


The process of changing from a two-tier local government to a structure based on unitary authorities is called 'restructuring'. The Secretary of State responsible for local government invites proposals from local areas to restructure into unitary authorities, and the Secretary decides whether or not the change should be implemented. The restructuring is carried out by an Order. There are no examples in the UK of councils restructuring back into a two-tier system.[13]


Unitary authorities combine the powers and functions that are normally delivered separately by the councils of non-metropolitan counties and non-metropolitan districts. These functions are housing, waste management, waste collection, council tax collection, education, libraries, social services, transport, planning, consumer protection, licensing, cemeteries and crematoria. The breakdown of these services is as follows:[14]

Service Non-metropolitan county Non-metropolitan district Unitary authority
Education checkY checkY
Housing checkY checkY
Planning applications checkY checkY
Strategic planning checkY checkY
Transport planning checkY checkY
Passenger transport checkY checkY
Highways checkY checkY
Fire checkY checkY
Social services checkY checkY
Libraries checkY checkY
Leisure and recreation checkY checkY
Waste collection checkY checkY
Waste disposal checkY checkY
Environmental health checkY checkY
Revenue collection checkY checkY


Unitary government has been criticised for damaging local democracy. Opponents to unitary authority criticise the 'bigger is better' assumption and highlight that larger councils breed mistrust of councillors and reduction in public engagement and voter turnout. Outside the UK, multi-level local government is the prevailing system, with major towns normally having a local authority. The average size of a local authority in England is 170,000, three times that of Europe.[15]

Electoral arrangements

Most unitary authorities are divided into a number of multiple member wards from which councillors are elected in the same way as in two-tier district council elections. The exceptions, which are divided into electoral divisions as in county council elections, are Cornwall, County Durham, the Isle of Wight, Northumberland, Shropshire and Wiltshire.[16]

Current unitary authorities

Most unitary authorities are legally defined as being coterminous non-metropolitan counties and non-metropolitan districts run by a single council. While it makes no difference, they can either be run by a county council that additionally has district powers and functions, or a district council that additionally has county powers and functions. If there is a county council, the district has no council, and vice versa. Districts can additionally have the status of borough or city, although this has no effect on their powers or functions.

Unitary Authority Council Created Run by Ceremonial County
Bath and North East Somerset[17] Bath and North East Somerset Council 1996 District Somerset
Bedford[18] Bedford Borough Council 2009 District Bedfordshire
Blackburn with Darwen[19] Blackburn with Darwen Borough Council 1998 District Lancashire
Blackpool[19] Blackpool Council 1998 District Lancashire
Bournemouth, Christchurch and Poole[20] Bournemouth, Christchurch and Poole Council 2019 District Dorset
Bracknell Forest[21] Bracknell Forest Borough Council 1998 District[a] Berkshire
Brighton and Hove[22] Brighton and Hove City Council 1997 District East Sussex
Bristol[17] Bristol City Council 1996 District Bristol
Buckinghamshire[23] Buckinghamshire Council 2020 County Buckinghamshire
Central Bedfordshire[18] Central Bedfordshire Council 2009 District Bedfordshire
Cheshire East[24] Cheshire East Council 2009 District Cheshire
Cheshire West and Chester[24] Cheshire West and Chester Council 2009 District Cheshire
Cornwall[25] Cornwall Council 2009 County Cornwall
County Durham[26] Durham County Council 2009 County County Durham
Darlington[27] Darlington Borough Council 1997 District County Durham
Derby[28] Derby City Council 1997 District Derbyshire
Dorset[20] Dorset Council 2019 County Dorset
East Riding of Yorkshire[29] East Riding of Yorkshire Council 1996 District East Riding of Yorkshire
Halton[30] Halton Borough Council 1998 District Cheshire
Hartlepool[31] Hartlepool Borough Council 1996 District County Durham
Herefordshire[32] Herefordshire Council 1998 District Herefordshire
Isle of Wight[33] Isle of Wight Council 1995 County Isle of Wight
Kingston upon Hull[29] Hull City Council 1996 District East Riding of Yorkshire
Leicester[34] Leicester City Council 1997 District Leicestershire
Luton[35] Luton Borough Council 1997 District Bedfordshire
Medway[36] Medway Council 1998 District Kent
Middlesbrough[31] Middlesbrough Council 1996 District North Yorkshire
Milton Keynes[37] Milton Keynes Council 1997 District Buckinghamshire
North East Lincolnshire[29] North East Lincolnshire Council 1996 District Lincolnshire
North Lincolnshire[29] North Lincolnshire Council 1996 District Lincolnshire
North Northamptonshire North Northamptonshire Council 2021 District Northamptonshire
North Somerset[17] North Somerset Council 1996 District Somerset
Northumberland[38] Northumberland County Council 2009 County Northumberland
Nottingham[39] Nottingham City Council 1998 District Nottinghamshire
Peterborough[40] Peterborough City Council 1998 District Cambridgeshire
Plymouth[41] Plymouth City Council 1998 District Devon
Portsmouth[42] Portsmouth City Council 1997 District Hampshire
Reading[21] Reading Borough Council 1998 District[a] Berkshire
Redcar and Cleveland[31] Redcar and Cleveland Borough Council 1996 District North Yorkshire
Rutland[34] Rutland County Council District Council 1997 District Rutland
Shropshire[43] Shropshire Council 2009 County Shropshire
Slough[21] Slough Borough Council 1998 District[a] Berkshire
Southampton[42] Southampton City Council 1997 District Hampshire
Southend-on-Sea[44] Southend-on-Sea City Council 1998 District Essex
South Gloucestershire[17] South Gloucestershire Council 1996 District Gloucestershire
Stockton-on-Tees[31] Stockton-on-Tees Borough Council 1996 District County Durham and North Yorkshire
Stoke-on-Trent[45] Stoke-on-Trent City Council 1998 District Staffordshire
Swindon[46] Swindon Borough Council 1998 District Wiltshire
Telford and Wrekin[47] Telford and Wrekin Borough Council 1998 District Shropshire
Thurrock[44] Thurrock Council 1998 District Essex
Torbay[41] Torbay Council 1998 District Devon
Warrington[30] Warrington Borough Council 1998 District Cheshire
West Berkshire[21] West Berkshire Council 1998 District[a] Berkshire
West Northamptonshire West Northamptonshire Council 2021 District Northamptonshire
Wiltshire[48] Wiltshire Council 2009 County Wiltshire
Windsor and Maidenhead[21] Windsor and Maidenhead Borough Council 1998 District[a] Berkshire
Wokingham[21] Wokingham Borough Council 1998 District[a] Berkshire
York[49] City of York Council 1996 District North Yorkshire


  1. ^ a b c d e f The non-metropolitan county of Berkshire was not abolished. Its council was abolished with districts taking on its functions. Unlike most unitary authorities, Berkshire's districts are not non-metropolitan counties.

Future unitary authorities

Four new unitary authorities will come into operation in 2023:

Unitary Authority Council Created Run by Ceremonial County
Cumberland[50] Cumberland Council 2023 District Cumbria
North Yorkshire[51] North Yorkshire Council 2023 County North Yorkshire
Somerset[52] Somerset Council 2023 County Somerset
Westmorland and Furness[50] Westmorland and Furness Council 2023 District Cumbria

Former unitary authorities

Unit Authority Formed Reformed Ceremonial County Replacement
Bournemouth Bournemouth Borough Council 1997 2019 Dorset Bournemouth, Christchurch and Poole
Poole Poole Borough Council

Similar authorities

The Council of the Isles of Scilly is a sui generis single-tier authority, created in 1890 and since 1930 has held the "powers, duties and liabilities" of a county council.[53] It thus is not a unitary authority as those are such authorities created under the Local Government Act 1992. The 36 metropolitan borough councils are also the sole elected local government units in their areas (except for parish councils in a few locations), but share strategic functions with joint boards and arrangements. On the other hand, the City of London Corporation and the 32 London borough councils, although they have a high degree of autonomy, share strategic functions with the directly elected Mayor of London and London Assembly.

Combined authorities

Unitary authorities should not be confused with another formation in English local government, the combined authority.

See also


  1. ^ "Next steps for new unitary councils in Cumbria, North Yorkshire and Somerset". GOV.UK. Retrieved 20 December 2021.
  2. ^ Redcliffe-Maud Report I. vi 73, cited in Oxford English Dictionary Online, draft addendum February 2003, s.v. unitary. An earlier citation, in 1936, uses the term for the London County Council in the sense of an elected council for the whole of London.
  3. ^ a b c Atkinson, H. & Wilks-Heeg, S. (2000). Local Government from Thatcher to Blair. Polity.
  4. ^ Jones, Kavanagh, Moran & Norton (2004). Politics UK (5th ed.). Pearson.{{cite book}}: CS1 maint: multiple names: authors list (link)
  5. ^ "Future Dorset - Two new authorities for Dorset". Retrieved 20 September 2018.
  6. ^ "The Bournemouth, Dorset and Poole (Structural Changes) Order 2018". Retrieved 20 September 2018.
  7. ^ "Shadow Dorset Council". Shadow Dorset Council. Retrieved 20 September 2018.
  8. ^ Buckinghamshire unitary council plan gets go-ahead from BBC News
  9. ^ The Buckinghamshire (Structural Changes) Order 2019
  10. ^ "Troubled council 'should be scrapped'". BBC News. 15 March 2018. Retrieved 20 September 2018.
  11. ^ "Northamptonshire County Council 'should be split up', finds damning report". 15 March 2018. Retrieved 20 September 2018.
  12. ^ "Next steps for new unitary councils in Cumbria, North Yorkshire and Somerset". GOV.UK. Retrieved 20 December 2021.
  13. ^ Sandford, Mark (22 July 2021). Unitary local government (Report). House of Commons Library. Retrieved 21 March 2022.
  14. ^ Frequently Asked Questions on the structural reviews of Devon, Norfolk and Suffolk, Boundary Commission for England
  15. ^ "Unitary authorities: the larger local government becomes, the greater the damage to local democracy". British Politics and Policy at LSE. 6 September 2021. Retrieved 28 April 2022.
  16. ^ "Help using the election maps apps". Retrieved 7 November 2017.
  17. ^ a b c d "The Avon (Structural Change) Order 1995". Government of the United Kingdom. Retrieved 4 March 2019.
  18. ^ a b "The Bedfordshire (Structural Changes) Order 2008". Government of the United Kingdom. Retrieved 4 March 2019.
  19. ^ a b "The Lancashire (Boroughs of Blackburn and Blackpool) (Structural Change) Order 1996". Government of the United Kingdom. Retrieved 4 March 2019.
  20. ^ a b "The Bournemouth, Dorset and Poole (Structural Changes) Order 2018". Government of the United Kingdom. Retrieved 6 April 2019.
  21. ^ a b c d e f "The Berkshire (Structural Change) Order 1996". Government of the United Kingdom. Retrieved 4 March 2019.
  22. ^ "The East Sussex (Boroughs of Brighton and Hove) (Structural Change) Order 1995". Government of the United Kingdom. Retrieved 4 March 2019.
  23. ^ "The Buckinghamshire (Structural Changes) Order 2019". Government of the United Kingdom. Retrieved 1 April 2020.
  24. ^ a b "The Cheshire (Structural Changes) Order 2008". Government of the United Kingdom. Retrieved 4 March 2019.
  25. ^ "The Cornwall (Structural Change) Order 2008". Government of the United Kingdom. Retrieved 4 March 2019.
  26. ^ "The County Durham (Structural Change) Order 2008". Government of the United Kingdom. Retrieved 4 March 2019.
  27. ^ "The Durham (Borough of Darlington) (Structural Change) Order 1995". Government of the United Kingdom. Retrieved 4 March 2019.
  28. ^ "The Derbyshire (City of Derby)(Structural Change) Order 1995". Government of the United Kingdom. Retrieved 4 March 2019.
  29. ^ a b c d "The Humberside (Structural Change) Order 1995". Government of the United Kingdom. Retrieved 4 March 2019.
  30. ^ a b "The Cheshire (Boroughs of Halton and Warrington) (Structural Change) Order 1996". Government of the United Kingdom. Retrieved 4 March 2019.
  31. ^ a b c d "The Cleveland (Structural Change) Order 1995". Government of the United Kingdom. Retrieved 4 March 2019.
  32. ^ "The Hereford and Worcester (Structural, Boundary and Electoral Changes) Order 1996". Government of the United Kingdom. Retrieved 4 March 2019.
  33. ^ "The Isle of Wight (Structural Change) Order 1994". Government of the United Kingdom. Retrieved 4 March 2019.
  34. ^ a b "The Leicestershire (City of Leicester and District of Rutland) (Structural Change) Order 1996". Government of the United Kingdom. Retrieved 4 March 2019.
  35. ^ "The Bedfordshire (Borough of Luton) (Structural Change) Order 1995". Government of the United Kingdom. Retrieved 4 March 2019.
  36. ^ "The Kent (Borough of Gillingham and City of Rochester upon Medway) (Structural Change) Order 1996". Government of the United Kingdom. Retrieved 4 March 2019.
  37. ^ "The Buckinghamshire (Borough of Milton Keynes) (Structural Change) Order 1995". Government of the United Kingdom. Retrieved 4 March 2019.
  38. ^ "The Northumberland (Structural Change) Order 2008". Government of the United Kingdom. Retrieved 4 March 2019.
  39. ^ "The Nottinghamshire (City of Nottingham) (Structural Change) Order 1996". Government of the United Kingdom. Retrieved 4 March 2019.
  40. ^ "The Cambridgeshire (City of Peterborough) (Structural, Boundary and Electoral Changes) Order 1996". Government of the United Kingdom. Retrieved 4 March 2019.
  41. ^ a b "The Devon (City of Plymouth and Borough of Torbay) (Structural Change) Order 1996". Government of the United Kingdom. Retrieved 4 March 2019.
  42. ^ a b "The Hampshire (Cities of Portsmouth and Southampton) (Structural Change) Order 1995". Government of the United Kingdom. Retrieved 4 March 2019.
  43. ^ "The Shropshire (Structural Change) Order 2008". Government of the United Kingdom. Retrieved 4 March 2019.
  44. ^ a b "The Essex (Boroughs of Colchester, Southend-on-Sea and Thurrock and District of Tendring) (Structural, Boundary and Electoral Changes) Order 1996". Government of the United Kingdom. Retrieved 4 March 2019.
  45. ^ "The Staffordshire (City of Stoke-on-Trent) (Structural and Boundary Changes) Order 1995". Government of the United Kingdom. Retrieved 4 March 2019.
  46. ^ "The Wiltshire (Borough of Thamesdown)(Structural Change) Order 1995". Government of the United Kingdom. Retrieved 4 March 2019.
  47. ^ "The Shropshire (District of The Wrekin) (Structural Change) Order 1996". Government of the United Kingdom. Retrieved 4 March 2019.
  48. ^ "The Wiltshire (Structural Change) Order 2008". Government of the United Kingdom. Retrieved 4 March 2019.
  49. ^ "The North Yorkshire (District of York) (Structural and Boundary Changes) Order 1995". Government of the United Kingdom. Retrieved 4 March 2019.
  50. ^ a b "The Cumbria (Structural Changes) Order 2022". Government of the United Kingdom. Retrieved 9 May 2022.
  51. ^ "The North Yorkshire (Structural Changes) Order 2022". Government of the United Kingdom. Retrieved 9 May 2022.
  52. ^ "The Somerset (Structural Changes) Order 2022". Government of the United Kingdom. Retrieved 9 May 2022.
  53. ^ "Isles of Scilly Order 1930" (PDF). Retrieved 7 November 2017.
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