Local Government

Local Government in United Kingdom


The Reform Act of 1832 was the real starting-point for the overhauling of English local government. For centuries before, from the reign of Edward III., under a number of statutes and commissions, the administrative work in the counties had been in the hands of the country gentlemen and the clergy, acting as justices of the peace, and sitting in petty sessions and quarter sessions. Each civil or “poor law” parish was governed by the vestry and the overseers of the poor, dating from the Poor Law of 1601; the vestry, which dealt with general affairs, being presided over by the rector, and having the churchwardens as its chief officials. In 1782 Gilbert’s Act introduced the grouping of parishes for poor law purposes, and boards of guardians appointed by the justices of the peace. The municipal boroughs (246 in England and Wales in 1832) were governed by mayor, aldermen, councillors and a close body of burgesses or freemen, a narrow oligarchy.

Reform began with the Poor Law Amendment Act of 1834, grouping the parishes into Unions, making the boards of guardians mainly elective, and creating a central poor law board in London. The Municipal Corporations Act followed in 1835, giving all ratepayers the local franchise. And as a result of the failure of the Public Health Board established in 1848, the royal commission of 1869-1871 led to the establishment in 1871 of the Local Government Board as a central supervising body. Meanwhile, the school boards resulting from the Education Act of 1870 brought local government also into the educational system; and the Public Health Act of 1875 put further duties on the local authorities. By 1888 a new state of chaos had grown up as the result of the multiplication of bodies, and the new Redistribution Act of 1885 paved the way for a further reorganization of local matters by the Local Government Act of 1888, followed by that of 1894. In London, which required separate treatment, a similar process had been going on. The Metropolis Management Act of 1855 established (outside the city) two classes of parishes—the first class with vestries of their own, the second class grouped under district boards elected by the component vestries; and the Metropolitan Board of Works (abolished in 1888), elected by the vestries and the district boards, was made the central authority.

In 1867 the Metropolitan Asylums Board took over its work from the metropolitan boards of guardians. See further Charity and Charities, Public Health, Education, Justice of the Peace, Vestry, &c.

The system of local government now existing in England (see also the article Local Government) may be said to have been founded in 1888, when the Local Government Act of that year was passed. Since then the entire system of the government of districts and parishes has been reorganized with due regard to the preceding legislation. The largest area of local government is the county; next to that the sanitary district, urban or rural, including under this head municipal boroughs, all of which are urban districts. The parish is, speaking generally, the smallest area, though, as will hereafter be seen, part of a parish may be a separate area for certain purposes; and there may be united districts or parishes for certain purposes. It will be convenient to follow this order in the present article. But before doing so, it should be pointed out that all local bodies in England are to some extent subject to the control of central authorities, such as the privy council, the home office, the Board of Agriculture, the Board of Trade, the Board of Education or the Local Government Board. (1)

History of the Administrative County

The county and the county council

The administrative county includes all places within its area, with two important exceptions. The first of these consists of the county borough. The second is the quarter sessions borough, which forms part of the county for certain specified purposes only. But the county includes all other places, such as liberties and franchises, which before 1888 were exempt from contribution to county rate. For each administrative county a county council is elected. For purposes of election the entire county is divided into divisions corresponding to the wards of a municipal borough, and one councillor is elected for each electoral division.

County council elections

The electors are the county electors, i.e. in a borough the persons enrolled as burgesses, and in the rest of the county the persons who are registered as county electors, i.e. those persons who possess in a county the same qualification as burgesses must have in a borough, and are registered.

The qualification of a burgess or county elector is substantially the occupation of rated property within the borough or county, residence during a qualifying period of twelve months within the borough or county, and payment of rates for the qualifying property. A person so qualified is entitled to be enrolled as a burgess, or registered as a county elector (as the case may be), unless he is alien, has during the qualifying period received union or parochial relief or other alms, or is disentitled under some act of parliament such as the Corrupt Practices Act, the Felony Act, &c. The lists of burgesses and county electors are prepared annually by the overseers of each parish in the borough or county, and are revised by the revising barrister at courts holden by him for the purpose in September or October of each year. When revised they are sent to the town clerk of the borough, or to the clerk of the peace of the county, as the case may be, by whom they are printed. The lists are conclusive of the right to vote at an election, although on election petition involving a scrutiny the vote of a person disqualified by law may be struck off, notwithstanding the inclusion of his name in a list of voters.

The qualification of a county councillor is similar to that required of a councillor in a municipal borough, with some modifications. A person may be qualified in any one of the following ways: viz. by being:

  • enrolled as a county elector, and possessed of a property qualification consisting of the possession of real or personal property to the amount of £1000 in a county having four or more divisions, or of £500 in any other county, or the being rated to the poor rate on an annual value of £30 in a county having four or more divisions, or of £15 in any other county;
  • enrolled in the non-resident list, and possessed of the same property qualification (the non-resident list contains the names of persons who are qualified for enrolment in all respects save residence in the county or within 7 m. thereof, and are actually resident beyond the 7 m. and within 15 m.);
  • entitled to elect to the office of county councillor (for this qualification no property qualification is required, but the office of a councillor elected on this qualification only becomes vacant if for six months he ceases to reside within the county);
  • a peer owning property in the county;
  • registered as a parliamentary voter in respect of the ownership of property in the county.

Clerks in holy orders and ministers of religion are not disqualified as they are for being borough councillors, but in other respects the persons disqualified to be elected for a county are the same as those disqualified to be elected for a borough. Such disqualifications include the holding of any office or place of profit under the council other than the office of chairman, and the being concerned or interested in any contract or employment with, by or on behalf of the council. Women, other than married women, are eligible.

County councillors are elected for a term of three years, and at the end of that time they retire together. The ordinary day of election is the 8th March, or some day between the 1st and 8th March fixed by the council. Candidates are nominated in writing by a nomination paper signed by a proposer and seconder, and subscribed by eight other assenting county electors of the division; and in the event of there being more valid nominations than vacancies a poll has to be taken in the manner prescribed by the Ballot Act 1872. Corrupt and illegal practices at the election are forbidden by a statute passed in the year 1894, which imposes heavy penalties and disqualifications for the offences which it creates. These offences include not only treating, undue influence, bribery and personation, but certain others, of which the following are the chief.

Payment on account of the conveyance of electors to or from the poll; payment for any committee room in excess of a prescribed number; the incurring of expenses in and about the election beyond a certain maximum; employing, for the conveyance of electors to or from the poll, hackney carriages or carriages kept for hire; payments for bands, flags, cockades, &c.; employing for payment persons at the election beyond the prescribed number; printing and publishing bills, placards or posters which do not disclose the name and address of the printer or publisher; using as committee rooms or for meetings any licensed premises, or any premises where food or drink is ordinarily sold for consumption on the premises, or any club premises where intoxicating liquor is supplied to members. In the event of an illegal practice, payment, employment or hiring, committed or done inadvertently, relief may be given by the High Court, or by an election court, if the validity of the election is questioned on petition; but unless such relief is given (and it will be observed that it cannot be given for a corrupt as distinguished from an illegal practice), an infringement of the act may void the election altogether. The validity of the election may be questioned by election petition.

Indeed, this is the only method when it is sought to set aside the election on any of the usual grounds, such as corrupt or illegal practices, or the disqualification of the candidate at the date of election. Election petitions against county councillors and members of other local bodies (borough councillors, urban and rural district councillors, members of school boards and boards of guardians) are classed together as municipal election petitions, and are heard in the same way, by a commissioner who must be a barrister of not less than fifteen years’ standing. The petition is tried in open court at some place within the county, the expenses of the court being provided in the first instance by the Treasury, and repaid out of the county rates, except in so far as the court may order them to be paid by either of the parties. If a candidate is unseated a casual vacancy is created which has to be filled by a new election. A county councillor is required to accept office by making and subscribing a declaration in the prescribed form that he will duly and faithfully perform the duties of the office, and that he possesses the necessary qualification. The declaration may be made at any time within three months after notice of election.

If the councillor does not make it within that time, he is liable to a fine the amount of which, if not determined by bye-law of the council, is £25 in the case of an alderman or councillor, and £50 in the case of the chairman. Exemption may, however, be claimed on the ground of age, physical or mental incapacity, previous service, or payment of the fine within five years, or on the ground that the claimant was nominated without his consent. If during his term of office a member of the council becomes bankrupt, or compounds with his creditors, or is (except in case of illness) continuously absent from the county, being chairman for more than two months, or being alderman or councillor for more than six months, his office becomes vacant by declaration of the council. In the case of disqualification by absence, the same fines are payable as upon non-acceptance of office, and the same liability arises on resignation. Acting without making the declaration, or without being qualified at the time of making the declaration, or after ceasing to be qualified, or after becoming disqualified, involves liability to a fine not exceeding £50, recoverable by action.


The councillors who have been elected come into office on the 8th March in the year of election. The first quarterly meeting of the newly-elected council is held on the 16th or on such other day within ten days after the 8th as the county council may fix. The first business at that meeting is the election of the chairman, whose office corresponds to that of the mayor in a borough. He is elected for the ensuing year, and holds office until his successor has accepted office. The chairman must be a fit person, elected by the council from their own body or from persons qualified to be councillors.

He may receive such remuneration as the council think reasonable. He is by virtue of his office a justice of the peace for the county. Having elected the chairman, the meeting proceeds to the election of aldermen, whose number is one-third of the number of councillors, except in London, where the number is one-sixth. An alderman must be a councillor or a person qualified to be a councillor. If a councillor is elected he vacates his office of councillor, and thus creates a casual vacancy in the council. In every third year one-half of the whole number of aldermen go out of office, and their places are filled by election, which is conducted by means of voting papers. It will be observed, therefore, that while a county councillor holds office for three years, a county alderman holds office for six. The council may also appoint a vice-chairman who holds office during the term of office of the chairman; in London the council have power to appoint a paid deputy chairman.

Main roads

It was provided by the Highway Act 1878 that every road which was disturnpiked after the 31st of December 1870 should be deemed to be a main road, the expenses of the repair and maintenance of which were to be contributed as to one-half thereof by the justices in quarter sessions, then the county authority. See the entry about roads in this legal Encyclopedia.

County Council

It may be convenient at this point to refer to the officers of the county council. You can view the full entry here.

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. You can view more about Rivers pollution prevention here.

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. You can view the full entry about legal costs and the country council here.


The county council is a body corporate with power to hold lands. For information about the county council finances, click 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. You can view the full entry about by-laws and the country council 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. For information about the revenue of the county council, click 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. You can view the full entry about medical officers and the country council here.

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 Midwives Act 1902, every council of a county or county borough is the local supervising authority over midwives within its area. The duty of the local supervising authority is to exercise general supervision over all midwives practising within their area in accordance with rules laid down in the act; to investigate charges of malpractices, negligence or misconduct on the part of a midwife, and if a prima facie case be established, to report it to the Central Midwives Board; to suspend a midwife from practice if necessary to prevent the spread of infection; to report to the central board the name of any midwife convicted of an offence; once a year (in January) to supply the central board with the names and addresses of all midwives practising within their area and to keep a roll of the names, accessible at all reasonable times for public inspection; to report at once the death of any midwife or change in name and address. The local supervising authority may delegate their powers to a committee appointed by them, women being eligible to serve on it. A county council may delegate its powers under the act to a district council.

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.

The Urban District

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. Information about the urban district, including the municipal borough and the borough council, is here.


Notes and References

  1. Encyclopedia Britannica (11th Edition)

See Also

Further Reading


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