Local government in Scotland

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Local government in Scotland is organised through 32 unitary authorities [1] designated as councils [2] which consist of councillors elected every five years by registered voters in each of the council areas.


Councils receive the majority of their funding from the Scottish Government, [3] through aggregate external finance (AEF). AEF consists of three parts: Revenue support grants, non-domestic rates, and income and specific grants. [4] The level of central government support for each authority is determined by the Cabinet Secretary for Finance and the Constitution, currently Kate Forbes MSP, and is distributed by the Finance and Central Services Department of the Scottish Government. Councils obtain additional income through the Council Tax, that the council itself sets.

Scottish councils co-operate through, and are represented collectively by, the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities (COSLA).



The history of Scottish local government mainly surrounds involves the counties of Scotland. The counties have their origins in the sheriffdoms or shires over which a sheriff (a contraction of shire reeve ) exercised jurisdiction.

Malcolm III appears to have introduced sheriffs as part of a policy of replacing native "Celtic" forms of government with Anglo Saxon and Norman feudal structures. [5] This was continued by his sons Edgar, Alexander I and in particular David I. David completed the division of the country into sheriffdoms by the conversion of existing thanedoms. [6] [7]

From the seventeenth century the shires started to be used for local administration apart from judicial functions. In 1667 Commissioners of Supply were appointed in each sheriffdom to collect the land tax. [8] The commissioners eventually assumed other duties in the county. In 1858 police forces were established in each county under the Police (Scotland) Act 1857.

As a result of the dual system of local government, burghs (of which there were various types) often had a high degree of autonomy.

Modern history

Between 1890 and 1975 local government in Scotland was organised with county councils (including four counties of cities) and various lower-level units. Between 1890 and 1929, there were parish councils and town councils, but with the passing of the Local Government (Scotland) Act 1929, the functions of parish councils were passed to larger district councils and a distinction was made between large burghs (i.e. those with a population of 20,000 or more) and small burghs. This system was further refined by the passing of the Local Government (Scotland) Act 1947.

Effective from 1975, the Local Government (Scotland) Act 1973 passed by the Conservative government of Edward Heath introduced a system of two-tier local government in Scotland (see Local government areas of Scotland 1973 to 1996), divided between large Regional Councils and smaller District Councils. The only exceptions to this were the three Island Councils, Western Isles, Shetland and Orkney which had the combined powers of Regions and Districts. The Conservative government of John Major (1990–1997) decided to abolish this system and merge their powers into new unitary authorities. The new councils vary wildly in size some are the same as counties, such as Clackmannanshire, some are the same as former districts, such as Inverclyde and some are the same as the former regions, such as Highland. The changes took effect in 1996 with shadow councillors elected in 1995 to oversee the smooth transition of control.

In 2007, Council elections moved to the Single Transferable Vote system, with wards represented by either three or four councillors. The transition has resulted in no uncontested seats and has ended single-party controlled Councils [9]

In 2016 there were ward boundary changes in 25 local authority areas, following the Scottish Government accepting some of the recommendations of Local Government Boundary Commission for Scotland. [10]



  1. Inverclyde
  2. Renfrewshire
  3. West Dunbartonshire
  4. East Dunbartonshire
  5. Glasgow
  6. East Renfrewshire
  7. North Lanarkshire
  8. Falkirk
  9. West Lothian
  10. Edinburgh
  11. Midlothian
  12. East Lothian
  13. Clackmannanshire
  14. Fife
  15. Dundee
  16. Angus
  17. Aberdeenshire
  18. Aberdeen
  19. Moray
  20. Highland
  21. Na h-Eileanan Siar
  22. Argyll and Bute
  23. Perth and Kinross
  24. Stirling
  25. North Ayrshire
  26. East Ayrshire
  27. South Ayrshire
  28. Dumfries and Galloway
  29. South Lanarkshire
  30. Scottish Borders
  31. Orkney
  32. Shetland

Governance and administration

The power vested in local authorities is administered by elected councillors. There are currently 1,227 councillors, [10] each paid a part-time salary for the undertaking of their duties. In total, there are 32 unitary authorities, the largest being the City of Glasgow with more than 600,000 inhabitants, the smallest, Orkney, with just over 20,000 people living there (population of 21,670 in 2015). [13]

Councillors are subject to a Code of Conduct instituted by the Ethical Standards in Public Life etc. (Scotland) Act 2000 and enforced by the Standards Commission for Scotland. [14] If a person believes that a councillor has broken the code of conduct they make a complaint to the Commissioner for Ethical Standards in Public Life in Scotland (CESPLS). The Commissioner makes a determination on whether there is a need for an investigation, and then whether or not to refer the matter to the Standards Commission. [15]

Convener (Provost)

Each council elects a convener from among the members of the council to chair meetings and to act as a figurehead for the area. [16] A council may also elect a depute convener, though this is not required. In the four city councils in Scotland - Glasgow, Edinburgh, Aberdeen and Dundee - the convener is called a Lord Provost, whilst in other councils the council may choose another title for their conveners. [16] Most councils use the term 'provost'.

The office of provost or convener is roughly equivalent to that of a mayor in other parts of the United Kingdom. Traditionally these roles are ceremonial and have no significant administrative functions. Lord provosts in the four city councils have the additional duty of acting as Lord Lieutenant for their respective city.

Leader of the Council

The Leader of the Council is elected as the leader of the largest political grouping of councillors. The Leader of the Council has no executive or administrative powers designated by statute, but the position is salaried. [17] There is also a Depute Leader of the Council appointed.

Each political group within the council typically appoints a leader, with the largest grouping's leader becoming 'Leader of the Council', and being the central figure of de facto political authority.


Officers of a council are administrative, non-political staff of the council. Generally the composition of the council's officers are a matter for the council, but there are a number of statutory officers whose roles are defined by the central government.

The most significant of these officers is the Head of Paid Service, usually titled the Chief Executive. The Chief Executive is similar in function to a city manager, though certain councillors have executive authority and there is no clear division of powers. [18]

There is also a statutory Monitoring Officer, who usually heads the Legal Services division of the council, as well as a Chief Financial Officer. [18]

2017 election results

Following boundary changes:


Summary of the 3 May 2017 Scottish council election results
PartyFirst-preference votesCouncils+/-2012 seats2017 seatsSeat change
Seats won NotionalSeats wonSeat %vs Notional
Scottish National Party 610,45432.3%Steady2.svg0.00Decrease2.svg142543843135.1%Decrease2.svg7
Conservative 478,07325.3%Increase2.svg12.0%0Steady2.svg11511227622.5%Increase2.svg164
Labour 380,95720.2%Decrease2.svg11.4%0Decrease2.svg339439526221.4%Decrease2.svg133
Independents 199,26110.5%Decrease2.svg1.3%3Steady2.svg19619817214.1%Decrease2.svg26
Liberal Democrats 128,8216.8%Increase2.svg0.2%0Steady2.svg7170675.5%Decrease2.svg3
Scottish Greens 77,6824.1%Increase2.svg1.8%0Steady2.svg1414191.6%Increase2.svg5
No Overall Control 29Increase2.svg4

Note: There were boundary changes in many of these councils. Notional seats and seat change are based on a notional 2012 result calculated by the BBC. [20] The methodology was officially revealed on 9 May 2017. The relevant explanation is available on the BBC Website. Comparisons with the actual results from 2012 are inconsistent, as the number of seats and seat changes will be different because of an increase in council seats across the country from 1,223 to 1,227 and the different boundaries.


The BBC notional calculation is as follows:
Party2012 seats2012 notional
Scottish National Party 425438
Conservative 115112
Labour 394395
Liberal Democrats 7170
Scottish Greens 1414

Council control

Political control may be held by minority governments (min), coalitions (co), joint leadership arrangements (j.l.) or partnership working arrangements (p.w.). [22]

Last update 10 May 2021. [23] [24]

CouncilControlWebTotalSNPCONLABLDSGPOtherVacantUpcoming by-elections
Aberdeen NOCCON+ALAB [s 1] +IND co URL 451999 [s 1] 34
Aberdeenshire NOCCON+LD+IND co URL 7019181131191East Garioch (LD) - TBC
Angus NOCCON+IND+LD co URL 289829
Argyll & Bute NOCCON+LD+IND co [25] URL 361110510
Clackmannanshire NOCSNP min [26] URL 188451
Dumfries & Galloway NOCLAB+SNP co URL 431016917
Dundee NOCSNP+IND co URL 29143822
East Ayrshire NOCSNP min URL 3214693
East Dunbartonshire NOCLD+CON co [27] URL 2276261
East Lothian NOCLAB min URL 22679
East Renfrewshire NOCSNP+LAB co URL 1855413
Edinburgh NOCSNP+LAB co [28] URL 63161711685
Falkirk NOCSNP min [29] URL 3012792
Fife NOCSNP+LAB j.l. [30] URL 7529142372
Glasgow NOCSNP min [31] URL 853573067
Highland NOCIND+LD+LAB co URL 74181039133
Inverclyde NOCLAB min URL 2262815
Midlothian NOCLAB min URL 18756
Moray NOCSNP min URL 268918
Na h-Eileanan Siar INDIND URL 317123
North Ayrshire NOCLAB min URL 33107115
North Lanarkshire NOCLAB min URL 772883110
Orkney INDIND URL 21120
Perth & Kinross NOCCON+LD+IND co URL 401318153
Renfrewshire NOCSNP min URL 431981311Paisley Southeast (Ind) - Vacant, due to Councillor being disqualified for 14 months [32]
Scottish Borders NOCCON+IND co URL 3481529
Shetland INDIND URL 22121
South Ayrshire NOCSNP+LAB+IND p.w. URL 2891252
South Lanarkshire NOCSNP min URL 6425121737
Stirling NOCSNP+LAB URL 2379412
West Dunbartonshire NOCSNP+IND URL 229283
West Lothian NOCLAB min URL 33137121
  1. 1 2 9 Aberdeen Labour (Councillors suspended by Labour from party for their coalition with Conservatives).

2012 election results

Council control

The 32 unitary authorities were controlled as follows. The figures incorporate the results from the 2012 local government election, plus gains and losses from subsequent local by-elections, and party defections.

Council area Political control [33] Lab SNP LD Con Grn Ind/OthTotal
City of Aberdeen Lab-Con-Ind1716520343
Aberdeenshire [34] Conservative/Liberal Coalition226101611368
Angus SNP (minority)114140929
Argyll and Bute Ind-LD-Con184302036
Clackmannanshire Lab (minority)89010018
Dumfries and Galloway Lab-Ind (minority)1391901547
City of Dundee SNP1016110129
East Ayrshire SNP-Con1415020132
East Dunbartonshire Lab-Con-LD98320224
East Lothian Lab-Con-Ind108030223
East Renfrewshire Lab-SNP84060220
City of Edinburgh Lab-SNP21172115258
Comhairle nan Eilean Siar (Outer Hebrides)Ind240002531
Falkirk Lab-Ind-Con1413020332
Fife Lab (minority)33261030678
City of Glasgow Lab4030114278
Highland SNP-Lab71713004280
Inverclyde Lab (minority)96210220
Midlothian SNP-Ind (minority)88001118
Moray Ind-Con2110301026
North Ayrshire Lab (minority)1211010630
North Lanarkshire Lab (minority)31220001770
Orkney Ind000002121
Perth and Kinross SNP (minority)4185110341
Renfrewshire Lab2016110240
Scottish Borders Ind-SNP-LD086901134
Shetland Ind000002222
South Ayrshire Con-Lab990100230
South Lanarkshire Lab3821130467
Stirling Lab-Con89041022
West Dunbartonshire Lab3821130422
West Lothian Lab (minority)1615010132

2007 election results

Following the introduction of the Local Governance (Scotland) Act 2004 local elections are held using the single transferable vote, with this taking place for the first time in 2007. This change in voting system saw all but five councils end up with no one party in control. Labour retained control of the City of Glasgow and North Lanarkshire, while Orkney, Shetland and Na h-Eileanan Siar continue to be controlled by Independent councillors.

Council control

The 32 unitary authorities are controlled as follows. The figures incorporate the results from the 2007 local government election, plus gains and losses from subsequent local by-elections, and party defections.

Council area Political control [33] Lab SNP LD Con Grn OthTotal
City of Aberdeen LD-SNP10131540143
Aberdeenshire [34] SNP228121411168
Angus Con-LD-Lab-Oth213350629
Argyll and Bute Oth-LD-Con0108301536
Clackmannanshire Lab (minority)88010118
Dumfries and Galloway Con-LD (minority)14103180247
City of Dundee SNP (minority)814230229
East Ayrshire SNP (minority)1414030132
East Dunbartonshire Con-Lab (minority)68350224
East Lothian SNP-LD77620123
East Renfrewshire Lab-SNP-Oth-LD73170220
City of Edinburgh LD-SNP151217113058
Comhairle nan Eilean Siar (Outer Hebrides) Ind 240002531
Falkirk Lab-Oth-Con1413020332
Fife SNP-LD24232150578
City of Glasgow Lab4622515079
Highland Oth-LD-Lab71821003480
Inverclyde Lab-Con-Oth95410120
Midlothian Lab (minority)96300018
Moray Oth-Con290301226
North Ayrshire Lab (minority)128230530
North Lanarkshire Lab4023110570
Orkney Oth000002121
Perth and Kinross SNP-LD3188120041
Renfrewshire SNP-LD1717420040
Scottish Borders Oth-Con-LD0610110734
Shetland Oth000002222
South Ayrshire Con (minority)980120130
South Lanarkshire Lab-Con-LD3024280367
Stirling Lab-Con89040122
West Dunbartonshire SNP-Oth109000322
West Lothian SNP-Oth1413010432

Community councils

Community councils represent the interests of local people. Local authorities have a statutory duty to consult community councils on planning, development and other issues directly affecting that local community. However, the community council has no direct say in the delivery of services. In many areas they do not function at all, but some work very effectively at improving their local area. Elections for community councils are determined by the local authority but the law does state that candidates cannot stand on a party-political ticket.

See also

Notes and references

  1. In this context the phrase is descriptive, not prescriptive; "unitary authority" does not have the specific legal meaning that it has in England.
  2. s.2 Local Government (Scotland) Act 1994.
  3. Local Government Overview Report 2009 (Exhibit 1, Page 7), Audit Scotland.
  4. Core Revenue Funding, Scottish Executive website, accessed 28 April 2007.
  5. John of Fordun wrote that Malcolm II introduced the shire to Scotland and also the thane class. Shires are certainly mentioned in charters by the reign of King Malcolm III, for instance that to the Church of Dunfermline, AD 1070-1093.
  6. Wallace, James (1890). The Sheriffdom of Clackmannan. A sketch of its history with a list of its sheriffs and excerpts from the records of court compiled from public documents and other authorities with preparatory notes on the office of Sheriff in Scotland, his powers and duties. Edinburgh: James Thin. pp. 7–19.
  7. The earliest sheriffdom south of the Forth which we know of for certain is Haddingtonshire, which is named in a charters of 1139 as "Hadintunschira" (Charter by King David to the church of St. Andrews of the church of St. Mary at Haddington) and of 1141 as "Hadintunshire" (Charter by King David granting Clerchetune to the church of St. Mary of Haddington). In 1150 a charter refers to Stirlingshire ("Striuelinschire"). (Charter by King David granting the church of Clackmannan, etc., to the Abbey of Stirling.)
  8. The sheriffdoms listed were Edinburgh (i.e. Midlothian), Hadingtoun (i.e. East Lothian), Berwick, Roxburgh, Selkirk, Peebles, Lanerk, Dumfreize, "the sherifdome of Wigtoun and stewartrie of Kirkcudbright", Air, Dumbartan, Bute, Renfrew, Striviling (i.e. Stirlingshire), Linlithgow (i.e. West Lothian), Perth, Kincairdine, Aberdene, Inverness and Ross, Nairne, Cromarty, Argyle, Fyfe and Kinross, Forfar (i.e. Angus), Bamf (i.e. Banff), Sutherland, Caithnes, Elgine (i.e Moray), Orkney and Zetland, Clakmannan. "Act of the convention of estates of the kingdome of Scotland etc. for ane new and voluntar offer to his majestie of seventie two thousand pounds monethlie for the space of twelve moneths". Records of the Parliaments of Scotland. University of St Andrews. 23 January 1667. Retrieved 23 July 2010.
  9. Adopting the Single Transferable Votefor local elections in England Briefing of the Electoral Reform Society on the website electoral-reform.org.uk, May 2015. Retrieved 30 March 2021.
  10. 1 2 Davidson, Jenni (14 September 2016). "Council ward boundaries to be changed across Scotland". Holyrood . Retrieved 15 July 2017.
  11. Civic Government (Scotland) Act 1982 Overview on the website legislation.gov.uk. Retrieved 30 March 2021.
  12. Renting your property out - Your responsibilities Overview on mygov.scot, 15 July 2020. Retrieved 30 March 2021.
  13. "Orkney Islands Council Area - Demographic Factsheet" (PDF). National Records of Scotland. September 2016. Archived from the original (PDF) on 2 March 2017. Retrieved 14 October 2016.
  14. Ethical Standards in Public Life framework: "Ethical Standards in Public Life". The Scottish Government. Retrieved 15 April 2016.
  15. Commissioner for Ethical Standards in Public Life in Scotland "Commissioner for Ethical Standards in Public Life in Scotland" . Retrieved 15 March 2015.
  16. 1 2 s.4, Local Government etc (Scotland) Act 1994.
  17. "The Local Governance (Scotland) Act 2004 (Remuneration) Regulations 2007". www.oqps.gov.uk.
  18. 1 2 http://www.gov.scot/library/documents3/ethic-07.htm%5B%5D
  19. "BBC News :: Full Scottish council election results published". BBC News. 8 May 2017.
  20. "Scotland Results". BBC News.
  21. "How the BBC calculates local election results". 9 May 2017. Retrieved 10 May 2017.
  22. "Political control | COSLA". www.cosla.gov.uk. Retrieved 25 March 2018.
  23. "Councils". 24 January 2020.
  24. http://www.opencouncildata.co.uk/councils.php?model=S&y=0 [ bare URL ]
  25. "Economic growth and education priorities in Argyll | Press and Journal". Press and Journal. Retrieved 25 March 2018.
  26. "Cooperation and collaboration on the agenda at Clacks Council". Alloa and Hillfoots Advertiser. Retrieved 25 March 2018.
  27. "Protests as new Lib Dem/Tory coalition takes control at East Dunbartonshire Council" . Retrieved 30 March 2018.
  28. Gordon, Rebecca. "Leaders sign coalition agreement to run the Capital". www.edinburgh.gov.uk. Retrieved 25 March 2018.
  29. "SNP minority takes control of Falkirk Council" . Retrieved 25 March 2018.
  30. "Fife Council agree to SNP and Labour joint partnership". Dunfermline Press. Retrieved 25 March 2018.
  31. Glasgow Young Scot, 20 Trongate (18 May 2017). "Councillor Eva Bolander chosen as Glasgow's Lord Provost" . Retrieved 25 March 2018.
  32. https://www.dailyrecord.co.uk/news/controversial-paisley-councillor-disqualified-14-24041563 [ bare URL ]
  33. 1 2 "COSLA". Archived from the original on 29 September 2007.
  34. 1 2 "Archived copy". Archived from the original on 9 July 2012. Retrieved 7 July 2012.CS1 maint: archived copy as title (link)

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