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District Councils in United Kingdom


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.

Constitution of district councils

Before that time there was practically no sanitary authority outside the urban district, for although the vestry of a parish had in some cases power to make sewers and had also some other sanitary powers, there was no authority for such a district as now corresponds to a rural district. There were, indeed, highway boards and burial boards which had powers for special purposes, but district authority in the sense in which it is now understood there was none. Before the year 1894 the rural district consisted of the area of the poor-law union, exclusive of any urban district which might be within it, and the guardians of the poor were the rural sanitary authority. Since 1894 this has been changed. By the Local Government Act of that year the guardians ceased to be the rural sanitary authority. The union was preserved as the rural sanitary district, with this qualification, that if it extended into more than one county it was divided so that no rural district should extend into more than one county.

Rural district councillors are elected for each parish in the rural district, and they become by virtue of their office guardians of the poor for the union comprising the district, so that there is now no election of guardians in a rural district. Guardians are still elected as such for urban districts, but the rural district council have ceased to be the same body as the guardians and are now wholly distinct. A district councillor, whether urban or rural, holds office for a term of three years. One-third of the whole council retire in each year, the annual elections being held in March, but there may be a simultaneous retirement of the whole council in every third year if the county council at the instance of the district council so order. The qualification and disqualification of district councillors, whether urban or rural, now depend upon the Local Government Act 1894. Property qualification is abolished. Any person may be elected who is either a parochial elector of some parish within the district or has during the whole of the twelve months preceding his election resided in the district, and no person is disqualified by sex or marriage. The electors both in urban and rural districts are the body called the parochial electors. These are practically the persons whose names appear in the parliamentary register or in the local government register as being entitled to vote at elections for members of parliament or county or parish councillors as the case may be.

Local United districts

The election takes place subject to rules made by the Local Government Board, these rules being largely founded upon adaptations of the Municipal Corporations Act 1882. The election is by ballot on the same lines as those prescribed for a municipal election, and the Corrupt Practices Act, the provisions of which have been referred to when dealing with county councils, applies to the elections of district councils. The provisions with reference to election petitions, the grounds upon which they may be presented and the procedure upon them, are the same in every respect as have already been mentioned when dealing with county councils. It may be convenient here to state that the Government Board has power to unite any number of districts or parts of districts into what is called a united district for certain special purposes such as water-supply, sewerage or the like. This is done by means of a provisional order made by the board and confirmed by parliament. In such a united district the governing body is a joint board constituted in manner provided by the order, and it has under the order such of the powers of a district council as are necessary for the purposes for which the united district is created. Thus a joint sewerage board would generally be invested by the order with all the powers of a district council relating to the provision and control of sewers and the disposal of sewage.

Port sanitary authority

It may also be convenient here to mention another special kind of district authority, that is, a port sanitary authority. It is also constituted by order of the Local Government Board, and it may include one or more sanitary districts or parts of districts abutting upon a port. In this case also the authority consists of such members and is elected in such manner as the order determines, and it has such of the powers of an ordinary district council as the order may confer upon it. These relate for the most part to nuisances and infectious disease, having special reference to ships.

Powers of urban and rural councils compared

It has been thought convenient to deal here with district councils, whether urban or rural, together, but the powers of the former are much more extensive than those of the latter, and as the consideration of the subject proceeds it will be necessary to indicate what powers and duties are conferred or imposed upon urban district councils only. It must be pointed out, however, that when the necessity arises for conferring upon a rural district council any of the powers exercisable only by an urban district council, that can be done by means of an order of the Local Government Board. The necessity for this provision arises because it sometimes happens that in a district otherwise rural there are some centres of population, hardly large enough to be constituted urban districts, which nevertheless require the same control as an urban district.

Business and offices

A district council may from time to time make regulations with respect to summoning, notice, place, management and adjournment of their meetings, and generally with respect to the transaction and management of their business. Three members must be present to constitute a quorum. At the annual meeting, which is held as soon as convenient after the 15th April in each year, a chairman for the succeeding year has to be appointed. He presides at all meetings, and in his absence another member appointed by the meeting takes his place. Questions are determined by the majority present and voting, the chairman having the casting vote. Minutes are taken and, if signed at the meeting or the next ensuing meeting, are made evidence. The officers of the council consist of a clerk, a medical officer, a surveyor, one or more inspectors of nuisances and a treasurer. Of these all but the medical officer of health and inspectors of nuisances hold office at pleasure and receive such remuneration as the council may determine. If the urban district is a borough, the town clerk and borough treasurer fulfil the same office for purposes of the Public Health Acts.

The salaries of the medical officer of health and inspectors of nuisances are, as to one moiety thereof, paid out of “the exchequer contribution account” by the county council, if they are appointed in accordance with the requirements of the Local Government Board as to qualification, appointment, duties, salary and tenure of office. The orders of the Local Government Board as to these matters are set out in the Statutory Rules and Orders. District councils may also employ such other officers and servants as may be necessary and proper for the fulfilment of their duties. Officers and servants are prohibited from being concerned or interested in any bargain or contract made with their council, and from receiving under cover of their office or employment any fee or reward whatsoever other than their proper salaries, wages and allowances, under penalty of being rendered incapable of holding office under any district council, and of a pecuniary penalty of £50. There are some exceptions to this provision somewhat similar to those already mentioned with respect to the disqualification of members of the council. It may be mentioned here that by an act, called the Public Bodies’ Corrupt Practices Act 1889, severe penalties are imposed alike upon members and officers of public bodies for corruption in office.


A district council may appoint committees consisting wholly or partly of members of their own body for the exercise of any powers which in their opinion can properly be exercised by such committees. Such committees do not, however, hold office beyond the next annual meeting of the council, and their acts must be submitted to the council for their approval. If they are appointed for any purposes of the Public Health or Highway Acts, the council may authorize them to institute any proceedings or do any act which the council might have instituted or done, other than the raising of any loan or the making of any rate or contract. A rural district council may delegate their entire powers in any parish to a parochial committee. Such committee may consist wholly of members of their own body or of members of the parish council, or partly of members of both. Such a committee may be subject to any regulations and restrictions imposed upon it by the rural district council.

Public Health Acts

In dealing with the powers and duties of district councils it will be convenient to treat of these first as they arise under the Public Health Acts, and afterwards as they arise under other statutes. In so far as such powers and duties are common to urban and rural district councils alike they will be referred to as appertaining to district councils. When reference is made to any power or duty of an urban council it is to be understood that the rural council have no such power or duty unless conferred or imposed upon them by order of the Local Government Board. And it must be borne in mind that in a borough the borough council is the urban district council.

Sewerage and drainage

The district council are required to cause to be made such sewers as may be necessary for effectually draining their district. This duty may be enforced by the Local Government Board on complaint made to them that the council have failed in performing it, and in the case of a rural district by the county council on complaint of the parish council. All sewers, whether made by the council, by their predecessors, or by private persons, vest in the district council, that is to say, become their property, with some exceptions, of which the principal is sewers made by a person for his own profit. The owner or occupier of any premises is entitled as of right to cause his drain to be connected with any sewer, on condition only of his giving notice and complying with the regulations of the council as to the mode in which the communication is to be made, and subject to the control of any person appointed by the council to superintend the work. Moreover, the owner or occupier of premises without the district has the same right, subject only to such terms and conditions as may be agreed or, in ease of dispute, settled by justices or by arbitration.

If a house does not possess a sufficient drain, the occupier may be required to provide one, and to cause it to discharge into a sewer if there is one within 100 ft. of the house, otherwise into a cesspool, as the council may direct. In the case of new houses, these may not be built or occupied in an urban district without their being first provided with sufficient drains as the council may require; and in an urban district it is forbidden to cause any building to be newly erected over a sewer without the consent of the council. For the purpose of sewage disposal a district council may construct any works and contract for the use or purchase or lease of any land, buildings, engines, materials or apparatus, and contract to supply for a period not exceeding twenty-five years any person with sewage. It may be pointed out here that these expressions are defined by the act, the effect of the definitions being shortly that a drain is a conduit for the drainage of one building or of several within the same curtilage, while a sewer comprises every kind of drain except that which is covered by the definition of a drain as above stated.

The result has been that district councils frequently find themselves in the position of being responsible for the repair and condition of drains which, by reason of having been laid for more than one house, are sewers vested in and repairable by them. An attempt was made to remedy this state of things by the Public Health Amendment Act 1890, section 19, but the remedy so provided was very partial, and may be said to be confined to the case where two or more houses belonging to different owners are drained into a common drain laid under private land, and ultimately discharging into a sewer in a road or street.

Sanitary accommodation for houses

The district council are charged with the duty of enforcing the provision of proper sanitary accommodation (water-closets, privies, ashpits, etc.) for all dwelling-houses, new or old, and for factories, and the maintenance of such conveniences in proper condition. The urban council have power to provide and maintain and make provision for the regulation of urinals, water-closets, earth-closets, privies, ashpits and other similar conveniences for public accommodation. In the event of a complaint being made to a district council that any drain, closet, privy, ashpit or cesspool is a nuisance or injurious to health, the council may empower their surveyor to enter and examine the premises, and, if the complaint is well founded, they may require the owner to do the necessary works.

Removal of refuse

The district council are not bound to undertake the removal of house refuse from premises, or the cleansing of closets, privies, ashpits and cesspools. They may, however, undertake these duties, and, if the Local Government Board require, they must do so. An urban council and a rural council, if invested with the requisite power by the Local Government Board, may, and when required by order of that board must, provide for the proper cleansing of streets, and may also provide for the proper watering of streets. When they have undertaken, or are required to perform these duties, a penalty is imposed upon them for neglect. If they do not undertake these duties, they may make by-laws imposing on the occupiers of premises the duty of cleansing footways and pavements, the removal of house refuse, and the cleansing of earth-closets, privies, ashpits and cesspools; and an urban council may also make by-laws for the prevention of nuisances arising from snow, filth, dust, ashes and rubbish, and for the prevention of the keeping of animals on any premises so as to be injurious to health. The keeping of swine in a dwelling-house, or so as to be a nuisance, is made an offence punishable by a penalty in an urban district, as also is the suffering of any waste or stagnant water to remain in any cellar, or within any dwelling-house after notice, and the allowing of the contents of any closet, privy or cesspool to overflow or soak therefrom. Provision is also made for enforcing the removal of accumulations of manure, dung, soil or filth from any premises in an urban district, and for the periodical removal of manure or other refuse from mews, stables or other premises.


With regard to water-supply, district councils have extensive powers. They may provide their district or any part of it with a supply of water proper and sufficient for public and private purposes, and for this purpose they may construct and maintain waterworks, dig wells, take on lease or hire any waterworks, purchase waterworks or water, or right to take or convey water either within or without their district, and any rights, powers and privileges of any water company, and contract with any person for the supply of water. They may not, however, commence to construct waterworks within the limits of supply of any water company empowered by act of parliament or provisional order to supply water without giving notice to the company, and not even then so long as the company are able and willing to supply the necessary water.

Any dispute as to whether the company are able and willing has to be settled by arbitration. Where the council do supply water, they have the same powers of carrying mains under streets or through private lands as they have with respect to the laying of sewers, as already mentioned. They can charge water rents which depend upon agreements with consumers, or they may charge water rates assessed on the net annual value of the premises supplied. It is to be observed that they are not bound to charge for a supply of water at all, unless they are required to do so in an urban district by at least ten persons, rated to the poor rate, or in a parish in a rural district by at least five persons so rated in the parish. Even then the amount of the rate is left to the council, any deficiency in the cost of the water, in so far as it is not defrayed out of water rates or rents, being borne in an urban district by the general district rate, and in a rural district by the separate sanitary rates made for the parish or contributory place supplied. For the purpose of enabling them to supply water, most of the provisions of the Waterworks Clauses Acts are incorporated with the Public Health Act, and are made available for the district council. They are empowered to supply water by measure if they think fit, and may charge a rent for water-meters. The power of the district council to supply water is strictly limited to their own district, but they may, with the sanction of the Local Government Board, supply water to the council of an adjoining district on such terms as may be agreed upon, or as, in case of dispute, may be settled by arbitration. If any house is without a sufficient supply, and it appears that a supply can be furnished at a reasonable cost, as defined in the Public Health Act and the Public Health Water Act 1878, the owner may be required to provide the supply, and, if he fails, the council may themselves provide the supply and charge the owner with the cost.

All public sources of water-supply such as streams, pumps, wells, reservoirs, conduits, aqueducts and works used for the gratuitous supply of water to the inhabitants of the district are vested in the council, who may cause all such works to be maintained and plentifully supplied with pure and wholesome water for the gratuitous use of the inhabitants, but not for sale by them. The council may supply water to public baths or wash-houses, or for trade or manufacturing purposes. In the case of the former the supply may be gratuitous. In the latter case it is to be on terms agreed between the parties. The urban council are required to cause fire-plugs, and all necessary works, machinery and assistance for securing a supply of water in case of fire, to be provided and maintained, and for this purpose they may enter into an agreement with any water company or person. Provision is made for preventing the pollution of water by gas refuse and enabling a district council, with the sanction of the attorney-general, to take any proceedings they may think fit for preventing the pollution of any stream in their district by sewage. The district council are also empowered to obtain an order of justices directing the closing of any well, tank or cistern, public or private, or any public pump the water from which is likely to be used for drinking or domestic purposes, or for manufacturing drinks for the use of man, if such water is found to be so polluted as to be injurious to health.

Cellar dwellings

Power is given to prohibit the use as dwellings of any cellars, vaults or underground rooms built or occupied after 1875, and with regard to such cellars as were occupied as dwellings before 1875, 437 the continued occupation of these is also forbidden unless they comply with certain stringent requirements as to the height of the rooms, height of the ceilings above the surface of the street, open areas in front, effectual drainage, sanitary conveniences appurtenant to the cellars, and the provision of fireplaces.

Common lodging-houses

District councils are required to keep a register of the common lodging-houses in their district. No person is allowed to keep a common lodging-house unless he is registered, and a house may not be registered until it has been inspected and approved for the purpose by an officer of the council. Further, the council may refuse to register a keeper unless they are satisfied of his character and of his fitness for the position. The council are empowered to make by-laws for fixing the number of lodgers and separating the sexes therein, promoting cleanliness and ventilation, giving of notices and taking precautions in case of any infectious disease, and generally for the well-ordering of such houses. The keepers of common lodging-houses are required to limewash their walls and ceilings in the months of April and October in every year, and if paupers or vagrants are received to lodge, they may be required to report as to the persons who have resorted thereto. They must give notice of any infectious disease to the medical officer of health and to the poor-law relieving officer, and they must give free access for inspection. There is no definition of the expression “common lodging-house” in the Public Health Acts, and at one time the courts decided that shelters for the destitute kept by charitable persons were not common lodging-houses. That idea is now exploded, and the acts apply to charitable institutions which receive persons of the class ordinarily received into common lodging-houses.

Houses let in lodgings

By-laws may also be made relating to houses let in lodgings which are not common lodging-houses. These by-laws are in practice limited to those inhabited by the poorer classes, although the act imposes no such restriction. (1)


Notes and References

  1. Encyclopedia Britannica (11th Edition)

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  • Article Name: District Councils
  • Author: International
  • Description: History Before the year 1848 there was not outside the municipal boroughs any system of district government in England. It [...]

This entry was last updated: November 7, 2016

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