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Borough Council in United Kingdom


The municipal borough and the Borough Council

A municipal borough is a place which has been incorporated by royal charter. In the year 1835 the Municipal Corporations Act was passed, which made provision for the constitution and government of certain boroughs which were enumerated in a schedule. That act was from time to time amended, until in 1882 by an act of that year the whole of the earlier acts were repealed and consolidated.

A few ancient corporations which were not enumerated in the schedule to the act of 1835 continued to exist after that year, but by an act of 1883 all of these, save such as should obtain charters before 1886, were abolished, the result being that all boroughs are now subject to the act of 1882. A place is still created a borough by royal charter on the petition of the inhabitants, and when that is done the provisions of the act of 1882 are applied to it by the charter itself. The charter also fixes the number of councillors, the 434 boundaries of the wards (if any), and assigns the number of councillors to each ward, and provides generally for the time and manner in which the act of 1882 is first to come into operation. The charter is supplemented by a scheme which makes provision for the transfer to the new borough council of the powers and duties of existing authorities, and generally for the bringing into operation of the act of 1882. If the scheme is opposed by the prescribed proportion (one-twentieth) of the owners and ratepayers of the proposed new borough, it has to be confirmed by parliament. The governing body in a borough is the council elected by the burgesses.

The qualification of a burgess has been incidentally mentioned in connexion with that of a county elector, and need not be further noticed. A borough councillor must be qualified in the same manner as a county councillor, and he is disqualified in the same way, with this addition, that a peer or ownership voter is not qualified as such, and that a person is disqualified for being a borough councillor if he is in holy orders or is the regular minister of a Dissenting congregation. Women, other than married women, are eligible. Borough councillors are elected for a term of three years, one-third of the whole number going out of office in each year, and if the borough is divided into wards, these are so arranged that the number of councillors for each ward shall be three or a multiple of three. The ordinary day of election is the 1st of November. At an election for the whole borough the returning officer is the mayor; at a ward election he is an alderman assigned for that purpose by the council. The nomination and election of candidates and the procedure at the election are the same as have already been described in the case of the election of county councillors.

The law as to corrupt and illegal practices at the election is also similar, and the election may be questioned by petition in exactly the same way. A borough councillor must, within five days after notice of his election, make a declaration of acceptance of office under a penalty, in the case of an alderman or councillor of £50, and in the case of a mayor of £100, or such other sums as the council may by by-law determine. A councillor may be disqualified in the same way as a county councillor, by bankruptcy or composition with creditors, or continuous absence from the borough (except in case of illness). In short it may be said that as the provisions relating to the election of borough councillors were merely extended to county councillors by the Local Government Act of 1888 with a few modifications, these provisions, as already stated when dealing with county councils, apply generally to the election of borough councillors. After the annual election on the 1st of November the first quarterly meeting of the council is held on the 9th, and at that meeting the mayor and aldermen are elected. The election of the mayor and aldermen is again the same as has already been described in connexion with the election of the chairman and aldermen of a county council.


The officers of a borough council are the town clerk and the treasurer, but the council have power to appoint such other officers as they think necessary. All these officers receive such remuneration as the council from time to time think fit, and hold office during pleasure. The provisions with respect to the transaction of the business of the council are also the same in the case of a borough as in that of a county council.

Finance audit

The entire income of the borough council is paid into the borough fund, and that fund is charged with certain payments, which are specifically set out in the 5th schedule to the act of 1882. These include the remuneration of the mayor, recorder and officers of the borough, overseers’ expenses, the expenses of the administration of justice in the borough, the payment of the borough coroner, police expenses and the like. An order of the council for the payment of money out of the borough fund must be signed by three members of the council and countersigned by the town clerk, and any such order may be removed into the king’s bench division of the High Court of Justice by writ of certiorari and may be wholly or partly disallowed or confirmed on the hearing. This is really the only way in which the validity of a payment by a borough council can be questioned, for, as will be seen hereafter, the audit in the borough is not an effective one. The borough fund is derived, in the first instance, from the property of the corporation. If the income from such property is insufficient for the purposes to which it is applicable, as usually is the case, it has to be supplemented by a borough rate, which may be a separate rate made by the council or may be levied through the overseers as part of the poor rate by means of a precept addressed to them. In the event of the borough fund being more than sufficient to meet the demands upon it without recourse to a borough rate, any surplus may be applied in payment of any expenses of the council as a sanitary authority or in improving the borough or any part thereof by drainage, enlargement of streets or otherwise. The borough treasurer is required to make up his accounts half-yearly, and to submit them, with the necessary vouchers and papers, to the borough auditors. These auditors are three in number—two of them elected annually by the burgesses. An elective auditor must be qualified to be a councillor, but may not be a member of the council. The third auditor is appointed by the mayor and is called the mayor’s auditor. The auditors so appointed are charged with the duty of auditing the accounts of the treasurer, but they have no power of disallowance or surcharge, and their audit is therefore quite ineffective.

Jurisdiction of justices; quarter sessions

Where a borough has not a separate court of quarter sessions, but has a separate commission of the peace, the justices of the county in which the borough is situate have a concurrent jurisdiction with the borough justices in all matters arising within the borough. Where, however, the borough has a court of quarter sessions, the county justices have no jurisdiction within the borough. In all cases, whether the borough has quarter sessions or a separate commission or not, the mayor, by virtue of his office, is a justice for the borough, and continues to be such justice during the year next after he ceases to be mayor. He takes precedence over all justices in and for the borough, and is entitled to take the chair at all meetings at which he is present by virtue of his office of mayor. A separate commission of the peace may be granted to a borough on the petition of the council. A borough justice is required to take the oaths of allegiance and the judicial oaths before acting; he must while acting reside in or within 7 m. of the borough, or occupy a house, warehouse or other property in the borough; but he need not be a burgess nor have the qualification by estate required of a county justice.

Where the borough has a separate commission, the borough justices have power to appoint a clerk, who is now paid by salary, the fees and costs pertaining to his office being paid into the borough fund, out of which his salary is paid. The council may by petition obtain the appointment of a stipendiary magistrate for the borough. The crown may also on petition of the council grant a separate court of quarter sessions for the borough, and in that event a recorder has to be appointed by the crown. He must be a barrister of not less than five years’ standing, and he holds office during good behaviour; he receives a yearly salary. The recorder sits as sole judge of the court of quarter sessions of the borough. He has all the powers of a court of quarter sessions in a county, including the power to hear appeals from the borough justices; but to this there are a few exceptions, notably the power to grant licences for the sale of intoxicating liquor. The grant of a separate court of quarter sessions also involves the appointment by the council of a clerk of the peace for the borough. It should be added that the grant of a court of quarter sessions to any borough other than a county borough after the passing of the Local Government Act 1888, does not affect the powers, duties or liabilities of the county council as regards that borough, nor exempt the parishes in the borough from being assessed to county rate for any purposes to which such parishes were previously liable to be assessed.

Sheriff, coroner

When a borough is a county of itself the council appoint a sheriff on the 9th of November in every year. And where the borough has a separate court of quarter sessions the council appoint a fit and proper person, not an alderman or councillor, to be the borough coroner, who holds office during good behaviour. If the borough has a civil court the recorder, if there is one, is judge of it. If there is no recorder, the judge of the court is an officer of the borough appointed under the charter.

Power to acquire land

The provisions of the Municipal Corporations Act 1882 relate chiefly to the constitution of the municipal corporation. It does not itself confer many powers or impose many duties upon the council as a body. It does, however, enable a municipal corporation to acquire corporate land and buildings, the buildings including a town hall, council house, justices’ room, police stations and cells, sessions house, judges’ lodgings, polling stations and the like. The council may borrow money for the erection of such buildings; they may acquire and hold land in mortmain by virtue of their charter, or with the consent of the Local Government Board. Corporate land cannot be alienated without the consent of the same board. The council may convert corporate land, with the approval of the Local Government Board, into sites for workmen’s dwellings.

Borough bridges

Another duty imposed upon a borough council by the act of 1882 is the maintenance of bridges within the borough which are not repairable by the county in which the borough is locally situate. It may here be mentioned that a city or borough which is a county of itself is liable at common law to repair all public bridges within its limits. In a borough which is not a county of itself the inhabitants are only liable to repair bridges within the borough by immemorial usage or custom.


Of the other powers possessed by the council of a borough under the act of 1882, one of the most important is the power to make by-laws for the good rule and government of the borough, and for the prevention and suppression of nuisances not already punishable in summary manner by virtue of an act in force throughout the borough. It will be observed that these by-laws are of two classes. The former do not come into force until the expiration of forty days after a copy of them has been sent to the secretary of state, during which forty days the sovereign in council may disallow any by-law or part thereof. The latter require to be confirmed by the Local Government Board.


Under the act of 1882 every municipal borough might have its own separate police force. As has already been stated when dealing with county councils, boroughs having a population of less than 10,000 according to the census of 1881 can no longer have a 435 separate police force. But for some time before that year it had become the rule not to grant to any new borough with a population of less than 20,000 a separate police force. The subject of police is separately treated in the Encyclopaedia Britannica, and it is not necessary to supplement what is there stated. Under an act of 1893 the borough police may, in addition to their ordinary duties, be employed to discharge the duties of a fire brigade.

The district and the district council

The powers and duties of a borough council in the Municipal Corporations Act do not arise or exist to any great extent under that act. In a few cases, those namely of county boroughs, the councils have the powers of county councils. In the quarter sessions boroughs other than county boroughs they have some only of these powers. But in every case the council of the borough have the powers and duties of an urban district council, and, except where they derive their authority from local acts, it may be said that their principal powers and duties consist of those which they exercise or perform as an urban council. These will now be considered.

Before the year 1848 there was not outside the municipal boroughs any system of district government in England. It is true that in some populous places which were not corporate boroughs local acts of parliament had been passed appointing improvement commissioners for the government of these places. In many boroughs similar acts had been obtained conferring various powers relating to sanitary matters, streets and highways and the like. But there was no general system, nor was there, save by special legislation, any means by which sanitary districts could be constituted.

In the year 1848 the first Public Health Act was passed. It provided for the formation of local boards in boroughs and populous places, such places outside boroughs being termed local government districts. In boroughs the town council were generally appointed the local board for purposes of the act. It was not, however, until 1872 that a general system of sanitary districts was adopted. By the Public Health Act of that year the whole country was mapped out into urban and rural sanitary districts, and that system has been maintained until the present time, with some important changes introduced by the Public Health Acts 1875 to 1907, and the Local Government Act 1894. (1)


Notes and References

  1. Encyclopedia Britannica (11th Edition)

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  • Article Name: Borough Council
  • Author: International
  • Description: History The municipal borough and the Borough Council A municipal borough is a place which has been incorporated by royal [...]

This entry was last updated: November 7, 2016

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