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Wednesday, 3 October 2023

How your local council works

Learn about different types of councils, from county councils to unitary authorities, and how councils make decisions. Also, find out how to make a complaint, and what help is available for non-English speakers or people with disabilities accessing council services.

Different types of councils

Find your local council

In the UK, there are several types of local councils. Each of these has responsibility for a particular range of local services.

The types of councils in your area depend on where in the UK you live. The information on this page relates to England.

Many parts of the country have two tiers of local government:

  • county councils
  • district, borough or city councils

In some parts of the country, there's just one tier of local government providing all the functions (known as a 'unitary' authority). This can be a city, borough or county council (or it may just be called 'council').

Many areas also have parish or town councils.

County councils

These are responsible for services across the whole of a county, like education, transport, planning, fire and public safety, social care, libraries, waste management and trading standards.

District, borough and city councils

District, borough and city councils cover a smaller area than county councils. They are usually responsible for services like rubbish collection and recycling, council tax collection and housing.

Unitary authorities

In some parts of the country, local services are provided by one tier of local government, called a unitary authority.

Parish and town councils

These operate at a level below district and borough councils. Parish or town councils are elected and can help on a number of local issues, like planning applications or running local sports grounds and community halls.

Council decision making

Council meetings

Every council must publish in advance when key decisions will be taken and publish meeting papers at least five working days beforehand. The minutes of the meeting, summarising decisions, must also be published. You can attend most meetings of the council, although usually you won’t be able to speak at them.

The full council (a meeting of all members of the council) is theoretically responsible for all the decisions made. However, in practice most of the work is delegated to smaller groups of councillors or council officers (paid employees).

Mayors and ceremonial duties

A few councils have elected mayors who take greater responsibility for decision making. Councils without elected mayors will also have a mayor or chairman of the council to undertake civic ceremonial duties.

Your local councillor

Thinking about becoming a councillor?

Find out what's involved

A councillor is elected by the local community and is there to represent its views.

To voice any issues with your local councillor, contact them via your local authority or attend an advice surgery. Advice surgeries are available to anyone seeking information and advice, making a complaint or asking about local authority services.

Councillors’ interests

All local councillors have to declare any interests, gifts or hospitality they receive that could influence decisions they make. Your local authority has to publish these declarations and you can usually access this information on the authority’s website or at the town hall.

Become a local councillor

You might also consider becoming a councillor, or working for your local council. See ‘Local Councillors’ to find out more.

If you need help with English to access local council services

If you need help with English to access local council services and information, your council may provide a confidential translation service.

If you visit a council office or have an appointment to see a council officer, you can ask in advance for an interpreter. This includes sign language interpreters for people who are deaf or hard of hearing.

Your council may be able to provide advice in some languages over the phone. They may also publish key leaflets and booklets in a range of languages. These will usually be available from the council's website.

Your council may also offer booklets in Braille or large print, for people who are blind or who have visual impairments.

Complaining to your council

If you feel that a council service hasn’t been properly delivered, you can make an official complaint.

Step one: contact the council service provider

If you have a concern or suggestion about a service, first write or speak to a member of staff or the service manager. Contact information for this is listed on your local council’s website or in the phone book.

A service manager normally sends you a written reply within a certain number of working days from receiving your complaint.

Step two: contact your council’s complaints officer

If you are still not happy, contact your council’s complaints officer. The officer will confirm they have received your complaint and, after investigation with the department concerned, send you a written reply.

Step three: contact the Local Government Ombudsman

The Local Government Ombudsman investigates complaints about local councils where someone has suffered injustice as a result of the council’s maladministration. It is independent of central and local government to ensure that investigations are impartial.

The Ombudsman usually only considers your complaint after it has been looked at under your local council’s complaints procedure.

You can call the Ombudsman on 0300 061 0614 for advice or to submit a complaint over the phone. You can also make a formal complaint in writing, by email, by fax or online.

Useful contacts

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