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County Council in United Kingdom

Definition of County Council

In accordance with the work A Dictionary of Law, this is a description of County Council : A *local authority whose area is a *county. A county council has certain exclusive responsibilities (e.g. education, fire services, highways, and refuse disposal) and shares others (e.g. recreation, town and country planning) with the councils of the districts in its area. The *Local Government Commission for England began work in 1992 on restructuring local government areas with a view to establishing single-tier local authorities (See unitary authority), which has led to the abolition of certain county councils.


Of the (country council), the chief are the clerk, the treasurer, and the surveyor. Before 1888 the clerk of the peace was appointed in a county by the custos rotulorum. Officers. He held office for life during good conduct, and had power to act by a sufficient deputy. Under the act of 1888 existing clerks of the peace became clerks of the councils of their counties, holding office by the same tenure as formerly, except in the county of London, where the offices were separated. Thereafter a new appointment to the offices of clerk of the peace and clerk of the county council was to be made by the standing joint-committee, at whose pleasure he is to hold office. The same committee appoint the deputy-clerk, and fix the salaries of both officers. The clerk of the peace was formerly paid by fees which were fixed by quarter sessions, but he is now generally, if not in every case, paid by salary, the fees received by him being paid into the county fund. The county council may also employ such other officers and servants as they may think necessary.

Subject to a few special provisions in the Local Government Act of 1888, the business of the county council is regulated by the provisions laid down in the Municipal Corporations Act 1882, with regard to borough councils. There are four Business. quarterly meetings in every year, the dates of which may be fixed by the council, with the exception of that which must be held on the 16th March or some day within ten days after the 8th of March as already noticed when treating of elections. Meetings are convened by notices sent to members stating the time and place of the meeting and the business to be transacted. The chairman, or in his absence the vice-chairman, or in the absence of both an alderman or councillor appointed by the meeting, presides.

All questions are determined by the votes of the majority of those present and voting, and in case of equality of votes the chairman has a casting vote. Minutes of the proceedings are taken, and if signed by the chairman at the same or the next meeting of the council are evidence of the proceedings. In all other respects the business of the council is regulated by standing orders which the council are authorized to make. Very full power is given to appoint committees, which may be either general or special, and to them may be delegated, with or without restrictions or conditions, any of their powers or duties except that of raising money by rate or loan. Power is also given to appoint joint-committees with other county councils in matters in which the two councils are jointly interested, but a joint-committee so appointed must not be confounded with the standing joint-committee of the county council and the quarter sessions, which is a distinct statutory body and is elsewhere referred to. The finance committee is also a body with distinct duties.

Relation of county to boroughs

In order to appreciate some of the points relating to the finance of a county council, it is necessary to indicate the relations between an administrative county and the boroughs which are locally situated within it. The act of 1888 created a new division of boroughs into three classes; of these the first is the county borough. A certain number of boroughs which either had a population of not less than 50,000, or were counties of themselves, were made counties independent of the county council and free from the payment of county rate. In such boroughs the borough council have, in addition to their powers under the Municipal Corporations Act 1882, all the powers of a county council under the Local Government Act. They are independent of the county council, and their only relation is that in some instances they pay a contribution to the county, e.g. for the cost of assizes where there is no separate assize for the borough. The boroughs thus constituted county boroughs enumerated in the schedule to the Local Government Act 1888 numbered sixty-one, but additional ones are created from time to time.

The larger quarter sessions boroughs, i.e. those which had, according to the census of 1881, a population exceeding 10,000, form part of the county, and are subject to the control of the county council, but only for certain special purposes. The reason for this is that while in counties the powers and duties under various acts were entrusted to the county authority, in boroughs they were exercised by the borough councils. In the class of boroughs now under consideration these powers and duties are retained by the borough council; the county council exercise no jurisdiction within the borough in respect of them, and the borough is not rated in respect of them to the county rate. The acts referred to include those relating to the diseases of animals, destructive insects, explosives, fish conservancy, gas meters, margarine, police, reformatory and industrial schools, riot (damages), sale of food and drugs, weights and measures. But for certain purposes these boroughs are part of the county and rateable to county rate, e.g. main roads, cost of assizes and sessions, and in certain cases pauper lunatics. The county councillors elected for one of these boroughs may not vote on any matter involving expenditure on account of which the borough is not assessed to county rate.

The third class of boroughs comprises those which have a separate court of quarter sessions, but had according to the census of 1881 a population of less than 10,000. All such boroughs form part of the county for the purposes of pauper lunatics, analysts, reformatory and industrial schools, fish conservancy, explosives, and, of course, the purposes for which the larger quarter sessions boroughs also form part of the county, such as main roads, and are assessed to county rate accordingly. And in a borough, whether a quarter sessions borough or not, which had in 1881 a population of less than 10,000, all the powers which the borough council formerly possessed as to police, analysts, diseases of animals, gas meters, and weights and measures cease and are transferred to the county council, the boroughs becoming in fact part of the area of the county for these purposes.

It will be seen, therefore, that for some purposes, called in the act general county purposes, the entire county, including all boroughs other than county boroughs, is assessed to the county rate; while for others, called special county purposes, certain boroughs are now assessed. This explanation is necessary in order to appreciate what has now to be said about county finance. But before leaving the consideration of the area of the county it may be added that all liberties and franchises are now merged in the county and subject to the jurisdiction of the county council.


The county council is a body corporate with power to hold lands. Its revenues are derived from various sources which will presently be mentioned, but all receipts have to be carried to the county fund, either to the general county account if applicable to general county purposes, or to the special county account if applicable to special county purposes. For information about the county council finances, click here.

Revenue of county council

The sources of revenue of the council are the exchequer contribution, income from property and fees, and rates. Before 1888 large grants of money had been made annually to local authorities in aid of local taxation. Such grants represented a contribution out of taxation for the most part arising out of property other than real property, while local taxation fell on real property alone. For information about the revenue of the county council, click here.

Powers transferred from quarter sessions

Of the powers and duties of county councils, it may be convenient to treat of these first, in so far as they are transferred to or conferred on them by the Local Government Act 1888, under which they were created, and afterwards in so far as they have been conferred by subsequent legislation. Before the passing of the Local Government Act 1888, the only form of county government in England was that of the justices in quarter sessions (q.v.). Quarter sessions were originally a judicial body, but being the only body having jurisdiction over the county as a whole, certain powers were conferred and certain duties imposed upon them with reference to various matters of county government from time to time. The principal object of the act of 1888 was to transfer these powers and duties from the quarter sessions to the new representative body—the county council; and it may be said that substantially the whole of the administrative business of quarter sessions was thus transferred.

The subjects of such transfer include:

  • the making, assessing and levying of county, police, hundred and all rates, and the application and expenditure thereof, and the making of orders for the payment of sums payable out of any such rate, or out of the county stock or county fund, and the preparation and revision of the basis or standard for the county rate (1);
  • the borrowing of money;
  • the passing of the accounts of, and the discharge of the county treasurer;
  • shire halls, county halls, assize courts, the judges’ lodgings, lock-up houses, court houses, justices’ rooms, police stations and county buildings, works and property;
  • the licensing under any general act of houses and other places for music or for dancing, and the granting of licences under the Racecourses Licensing Act 1879;
  • the provision, enlargement, maintenance and management and visitation of, and other dealing with, asylums for pauper lunatics;
  • the establishment and maintenance of, and the contribution to, reformatory and industrial schools;
  • bridges and roads repairable with bridges, and any powers vested by the Highways and Locomotives Amendment Act 1878 in the county authority (2);
  • the tables of fees to be taken by and the costs to be allowed to any inspector, analyst or person holding any office in the county other than the clerk of the peace and the clerks of the justices;
  • the appointment, removal and determination of salaries of the county treasurer, the county surveyor, the public analysts, any officer under the Explosives Act 1875, and any officers whose remuneration is paid out of the county rate, other than the clerk of the peace and the clerks of the justices;
  • the salary of any coroner whose salary is payable out of the county rate, the fees, allowances and disbursements allowed to be paid by any such coroner, and the division of the county into coroners’ districts and the assignments of such districts;
  • the division of the county into polling districts for the purposes of parliamentary elections, the appointment of the places of election, the places of holding courts for the revision of the lists of voters, and the costs of, and other matters to be done for the registration of parliamentary voters;
  • the execution as local authority of the acts relating to contagious diseases of animals, to destructive insects, to fish conservancy, to wild birds, to weights and measures, and to gas meters, and of the Local Stamp Act 1869;
  • any matters arising under the Riot (Damages) Act 1886. Under this act compensation is payable out of the police rate to any person whose property has been injured, stolen or destroyed by rioters;
  • the registration of rules of scientific societies, the registration of charitable gifts, the certifying and recording of places of religious worship, the confirmation and record of the rules of loan societies. These duties are imposed under various statutes.

In addition to the business of quarter sessions thus transferred, there was also transferred to the county council certain business of the justices of the county out of session, that is to say, in petty or special sessions. This business consists of the licensing of houses or places for the public performance of stage plays, and the execution, as local authority, of the Explosives Act 1875. Power was given by the act to the Local Government Board to provide, by means of a provisional order, for transferring to county councils any of the powers and duties of the various central authorities which have been already referred to; but although such an order was at one time prepared, it has never been confirmed, and nothing has been done in that direction.


Apart from the business thus transferred to county councils, the act itself has conferred further powers or imposed further duties with reference to a variety of other matters, some of which must be noticed. But before passing to them it is necessary here to call attention to one important subject of county government which has not been wholly transferred to the county council, namely, the police. It was matter of considerable discussion before the passing of the act whether the police should remain under the control of the justices, or be transferred wholly to the control of the county council. Eventually a middle course was taken.

The powers, duties and liabilities of the quarter sessions and justices out of session with respect to the county police were vested in the quarter sessions and the county council jointly, and are now exercised through the standing joint-committee of the two bodies. That committee consists of an equal number of members of the county council and of justices appointed by the quarter sessions, the number being arranged between the two bodies or fixed by the secretary of state. The committee are also charged with the duties of appointing or removing the clerk of the peace, and they have jurisdiction in matters relating to justices’ clerks, the provision of accommodation for quarter sessions or justices out of session, and the like, and their expenses are paid by the county council out of the county fund. The standing joint-committee have power to divide their county into police districts, and, when required by order in council, are obliged to do so. In such a case, while the general expenditure in respect of the entire police force is defrayed by the county at large, the local expenditure, i.e. the cost of pay, clothing and such other expenses as the joint-committee may direct, is defrayed at the cost of the particular district for which it is incurred (see also Police).

County coroners

Among the powers and duties given to county councils by the Local Government Act 1888, the first to be mentioned, following the order in the act itself, is that of the appointment of county coroners. The duties of a coroner are limited to the holding of inquiries into cases of death from causes suspected to be other than natural, and to a few miscellaneous duties of comparatively rare occurrence, such as the holding of inquiries relating to treasure trove, and acting instead of the sheriff on inquiries under the Lands Clauses Act, &c., when that officer is interested and thereby disabled from holding such inquiries. (For the history of the office of coroner, which is a very ancient one, see that title.)

The county council may appoint any fit person, not being a county alderman or county councillor, to fill the office, and in the case of a county divided into coroners’ districts, may assign him a district. It has been decided, however, that the power hereby conferred does not extend to the appointment of a coroner for a liberty or other franchise who would not under the old law have been appointed by the freeholders. It may be mentioned that though a coroner may have a district assigned to him, he is nevertheless a coroner for the entire county throughout which he has jurisdiction. (3)

Rivers pollution prevention

The county council have the same power as a sanitary authority to enforce the provisions of the Rivers Pollution Prevention Acts in relation to so much of any stream as passes through or by any part of their county. Under these acts a Rivers pollution prevention. sanitary authority is authorized to take proceedings to restrain interference with the due flow of a stream or the pollution of its waters by throwing into it the solid refuse of any manufactory or quarry, or any rubbish or cinders, or any other waste or any putrid solid matter. They may also take proceedings in respect of the pollution of a stream by any solid or liquid sewage matter.

They have the same powers with respect to manufacturing and mining pollutions, subject to certain restrictions, one of which is that proceedings are not to be taken without the consent of the Local Government Board. The county council may not only themselves institute proceedings under the acts, but they may contribute to the costs of any prosecution under the acts instituted by any other county or district council. The Local Government Board is further empowered by provisional order to constitute a joint-committee representing all the administrative counties through or by which a river passes, and confer on such committee all or any of the powers of a sanitary authority under the acts. You can view the full entry about Rivers pollution prevention and the country council here.

Small holdings

By the Small Holdings and Allotments Act 1907, Small Holdings Commissioners are appointed by the Board of Agriculture to ascertain the extent of the demand for small holdings, and confer with county councils as to how best to provide them. Local authorities are required to furnish information and give assistance to the commissioners, who report to the board. If the board, after considering the report, consider it desirable, they require the county council concerned to prepare a scheme for the provision of small holdings; if the county council decline to prepare a scheme, the board may direct the commissioners to do so. A county council may also prepare a scheme on its own initiative.

When a scheme has been confirmed, the county council must carry out the obligations imposed on it within a prescribed time; if they make default the board may direct the commissioners to assume all the powers of the county council, and the county council must repay to the board the expenses the commissioners may incur. A county council may delegate, by arrangement, to the council of any borough or urban district in the county their powers in respect of the act. A small holding is defined by the act as one which exceeds 1 acre, but must not exceed 50 acres or £50 annual value. Every county council must establish a small holdings and allotments committee, to which must be referred all matters relating to the exercise and performance by the council of their powers and duties as to small holdings and allotments.

Parliamentary and legal costs

A county council has the same power of opposing bills in parliament and of prosecuting or defending any legal proceedings necessary for the promotion or protection of the interests of the inhabitants of a county as are conferred on the council of a municipal borough by the Borough Funds Act 1872, with this difference, that in order to enable them to oppose a bill in parliament at the cost of the county rate, it is not necessary to obtain the consent of the owners and ratepayers within the county. The power thus conferred is limited to opposing bills. The council are not authorized to promote any bill, and although they frequently do so, they incur the risk that if the bill should not pass the members of the council will be surcharged personally with the costs incurred if they attempt to charge them to the county rate. Of course if the bill passes, it usually contains a clause enabling the costs of promotion to be paid out of the county rate.

It must not be supposed, however, that the county council have no power to institute or defend legal proceedings or oppose bills save such as is expressly conferred upon them by the Local Government Act. In this respect they are in the same position as all other local authorities, with respect to whom it has been laid down that they may without any express power in that behalf use the funds at their disposal for protecting themselves against any attack made upon their existence as a corporate body or upon any of their powers or privileges. You can view the full entry about legal costs here.


The county council have also the same powers as a borough council of making by-laws for the good government of the county and for the suppression of nuisances not already punishable under the general law. This power has been largely By-laws. acted upon throughout England, and the courts of law have on several occasions decided that such by-laws should be benevolently interpreted, and that in matters which directly arise and concern the people of the county, who have the right to choose those whom they think best fitted to represent them, such representatives may be trusted to understand their own requirements. Such by-laws will therefore be upheld, unless it is clear that they are uncertain, repugnant to the general law of the land, or manifestly unreasonable. It may be mentioned that, while by-laws relating to the good government of the county have to be confirmed by the secretary of state, those which relate to the suppression of nuisances have to be confirmed by the Local Government Board. Such confirmation, however, though necessary to enable the council to enforce them, does not itself confer upon them any validity in point of law. You can view more about by-laws here.

Medical officers

The county council have power to appoint and pay one or more medical officers of health, who are not to hold any other appointment or engage in private practice without the express written consent of the council. The council may make Medical officers. arrangements whereby any district council or councils may have the services of the county medical officer on payment of a contribution towards his salary, and while such arrangement is in force the duty of the district council to appoint a medical officer is to be deemed to have been satisfied.

Every medical officer, whether of a county or district, must now be legally qualified for the practice of medicine, surgery and midwifery. Besides this, in the case of a county, or of any district or combination of districts of which the population exceeds 50,000, the medical officer must also have a diploma in public health, unless he has during the three consecutive years before 1892 been medical officer of a district or combination having a population of more than 20,000, or has before the passing of the act been for three years a medical officer or inspector of the Local Government Board.

Alterations of local areas

The only other powers and duties of a county council arising under the Local Government Act itself which it is necessary to notice are those relating to alterations of local areas.For information about alterations of local areas in this legal Encyclopedia, click here.


Previous to the Education Act 1902, county councils had certain optional powers under the Technical Instruction Acts to supply or aid the supply of technical or manual instruction. For information about education in this legal Encyclopedia, click here.


Under the Allotments Acts 1887 to 1907, it is the duty of a county council to ascertain the extent to which there is a demand for allotments in the urban districts and parishes in the county, or would be a demand if suitable land were available, and the extent to which it is reasonably practicable, having regard to the provisions of the acts, to satisfy any such demand, and to co-operate with authorities, associations or persons best qualified to assist, and to take such steps as may be necessary. For information about allotments in this legal Encyclopedia, click here.


Under the Isolation Hospitals Acts 1893 and 1901, a county council may provide for the establishment of isolation hospitals for the reception of patients suffering from infectious diseases on the application of any local authority within the county, or on the report of the medical officer of the county that hospital accommodation is necessary and has not been provided, or it may take over hospitals already provided by a local authority. The council by their order constitute a hospital district and form a committee for its administration. The committee have power to purchase land, erect a hospital, provide all necessary appliances, and generally administer a hospital for the purposes above mentioned.

Parish Councils

The powers and duties of a county council under the Local Government Act 1894 are numerous and varied, and the chief of them are mentioned hereafter in connexion with parish councils. For information about parish councils in this legal Encyclopedia, click here.

Diseases of animals

Among the powers and duties of quarter sessions transferred to county councils were those arising under the acts relating to contagious diseases of animals. These acts were consolidated and amended by a statute of 1894, and the county council remain the local authority for the execution of that act in counties.

Light railways

Under the Light Railways Act 1896 a county council may be authorized by order of the light railway commissioners to construct and work or contract for the construction or working of a light railway, lend money to a light railway company, or join any other council in these matters.


Among other statutes conferring powers or imposing duties upon county councils, mention may be made of such acts as those relating to sea fisheries regulation, open spaces, police superannuation, railway and canal traffic, shop hours, weights and measures, fertilizing and feeding stuffs, wild birds’ protection, land transfer, locomotives on highways and the acquisition of small dwellings. Sufficient has been said to indicate that the legislature from time to time recognizes the important position of the county council as an administrative body, and is continually extending its functions. (4)


Notes and References

  1. With regard to the county rate, a few words of description may be sufficient here. The council appoint a committee called a county rate committee, who from time to time prepare a basis or standard for county rate, that is to say, they fix the amount at which each parish in the county shall contribute its quota to the county rate. As a general rule the poor-law valuations are followed, but this is not universally the case, some county councils adopting the assessment to income tax, schedule A, and others forming an independent valuation of their own. The overseers of any parish aggrieved by the basis may appeal against it to quarter sessions, and it is to be noticed that this appeal is not interfered with, the transfer of the duties of justices relating only to administrative and not to judicial business. When a contribution is required from county rate, the county council assess the amount payable by each parish according to the basis previously made, and send their precept to the guardians of the unions comprising the several parishes in the county, the guardians in their turn requiring the overseers of each parish to provide the necessary quota of that parish out of the poor rate, and the sum thus raised goes into the county fund. The police rate is made for the purpose of defraying the expenses of the county police. It is made on the same basis as the county rate, and is levied with it. The hundred rate is seldom made, though in some counties it may be made for purposes of main roads and bridges chargeable to the hundred as distinguished from the county at large.
  2. It may be observed that bridges have always been at common law repairable by the county, although, with regard to bridges erected since the year 1805, these are not to be deemed to be county bridges repairable by the county unless they have been erected under the direction or to the satisfaction of the county surveyor. The common-law liability to repair a bridge extends also to the road or approaches for a distance of 300 ft. on each side of the bridge. Of the powers vested in the county authority under the Highway Act 1878, the most important are those relating to main roads, which are specially noticed hereafter.
  3. Encyclopedia Britannica (11th Edition)
  4. Id.

See Also

Local Government
Urban District

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  • Article Name: County Council
  • Author: Agostino Von Hassell
  • Description: Definition of County Council In accordance with the work A Dictionary of Law, this is a description of County Council : A [...]

This entry was last updated: November 7, 2016


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