Unitary authority

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A unitary authority is a local authority responsible for all local government functions within its area or performing additional functions that elsewhere are usually performed by a higher level of sub-national government or the national government.


Typically unitary authorities cover towns or cities which are large enough to function independently of a council or other authority. An authority can be a unit of a county or combined authority.


In Canada, each province creates its own system of local government, so terminology varies substantially.

In certain provinces (e.g. Alberta, Nova Scotia) there is only one level of local government in that province, so no special term is used to describe the situation.

British Columbia has only one such municipality, Northern Rockies Regional Municipality, which was established in 2009. [1]

In Ontario the term single-tier municipalities is used, for a similar concept. Their character varies, and while most function as cities with no upper level of government, some function as counties or regional municipalities with no lower municipal subdivisions below them. They exist as individual census divisions, as well as separated municipalities.

Central Europe

In Germany, kreisfreie Stadt (literally circle-free city) is the equivalent term for a city with the competences of both the Gemeinde (municipality) and the Kreis (district, literally circle) administrative level. The directly elected chief executive officer of a kreisfreie Stadt is called Oberbürgermeister (literally Superior Burgomaster, in English "Chief Mayor" or "Lord Mayor"). The British counties have no directly corresponding counterpart in Germany. This German system corresponds to statutory cities in Austria and in the Czech Republic.


Until 1 January 2007, the municipalities of Copenhagen, Frederiksberg and Bornholm were not a part of a Danish county.


The city of Paris works like a department council and a municipal council. Administratively at state level, it is both a department with a single departmental arrondissement (not to be confused with the 20 city districts of Paris, or arrondissements municipaux, which are local subdivisions existing in very populated municipalities, including Paris, Lyon and Marseille, with their own arrondissement councils and arrondissement mayors also elected during municipal elections), however the prefecture of Paris is split between the prefecture of police of Paris (which covers the 3 other surrounding departments in the first ring) and the department prefecture (which is also the region prefecture, whose competence on police does not cover the 4 departments of Paris and the small ring). As the department of Paris has no department council elected during departmental elections, it is not subdivided into cantons, but its 20 districts are considered equivalent.

The department councils of the two departments of Corsica and of the region merged into a unitary authority, officially a collectivité territoriale. Its area of competence covers the whole administrative region and the two administrative departments (which were kept at state level with their two prefectures and their respective subprefectures for state-managed services).

The overseas departements and regions were all proposed to merge their single departmental council (conseil départemental) coexisting with their regional council (conseil régional) on the same territory (at state level they are unified as DROM for their prefectures) into a collectivité unique. The proposal was rejected by local referendum in Guadeloupe and in Réunion, but this occurred in Martinique and French Guiana whose former departemental and regional councils were merged into a single unitary authority named assemblée, elected during departmental elections. Mayotte with its newer status of department chose to keep this designation for its unitary authority, named departmental council (no regional council was ever created), but which also has the competence of a regional council (plus a few specific competences transferred from the state like other French overseas).

The Métropole de Lyon was created as a metropole from an earlier EPCI (public establishment of intercommunal cooperation) but gained the competences of the departmental council. The departmental council of Rhône only covers the rest of the administrative department (which is still subdivided into two subprefectures, one of which includes the métropole). So the metropole is not a unitary authority, and no longer an EPCI (like other French metropoles), but it has a specific status, considered equivalent to a department council, except that its seats are elected during the municipal French elections (at the same time as its municipal councils in each member commune), and that (like departments and regions, but unlike other French EPCI's including other metropoles) it is a territorial collectivity, with legal personality and fiscal autonomy.

New Zealand

In New Zealand, a unitary authority is a territorial authority (district, city or metropolitan area) that also performs the functions of a regional council (first-level division). There are five unitary authorities, they are (with the year they were constituted): Gisborne District Council (1989), Tasman District Council (1992), Nelson City Council (1992), Marlborough District Council (1992), and Auckland Council (2010). [2] [3]

The Chatham Islands, located east of the South Island, have a council with its own special legislation, constituted (1995) with powers similar to those of a regional authority. [4] [5]


In Poland, a miasto na prawach powiatu, or shortly powiat grodzki (city with powiat rights, or urban county in short) is a, typically big, city which is also responsible for district (poviat) administrative level, being part of no other powiat (e.g. Kraków, Łódź, Wrocław, Poznań). In total, 65 cities in Poland have this status.


Most cities in Taiwan, in contrast to counties, have only one tier of local government. Unlike the three county-administered cities (Chiayi, Keelung, and Hsinchu), they are independent of their surrounding county. Special municipalities, with the exception of a few mountain indigenous districts within them, are also unitary.

United Kingdom


Bournemouth: Unitary Authority tree. The tree on the left, on the concourse of the Bournemouth Town Hall, was planted on 1 April 1997 to mark the occasion of Bournemouth council becoming a unitary authority on that day. This was part of the local government reorganisation of the late 1990s, when certain more urban districts were essentially separated from the relevant county council, with no services for Bournemouth residents now being carried out by Dorset County Council. Bournemouth, Unitary Authority tree - geograph.org.uk - 1038887.jpg
Bournemouth: Unitary Authority tree. The tree on the left, on the concourse of the Bournemouth Town Hall, was planted on 1 April 1997 to mark the occasion of Bournemouth council becoming a unitary authority on that day. This was part of the local government reorganisation of the late 1990s, when certain more urban districts were essentially separated from the relevant county council, with no services for Bournemouth residents now being carried out by Dorset County Council.

In England, "unitary authorities" are those local authorities set up in accordance with the Local Government Changes for England Regulations 1994 made under powers conferred by the Local Government Act 1992 to form a single tier of local government in specified areas and which are responsible for almost all local government functions within such areas. While outwardly appearing to be similar, single-tier authorities formed using older legislation are not unitary authorities thus excluding e.g. the Council of the Isles of Scilly or any other single-tier authority formed under the older legislation and not since given the status of a unitary authority.

This is distinct from the two-tier system of local government which still exists in most of England, where local government functions are divided between county councils (the upper tier) and district or borough councils. Until 1996 two-tier systems existed in Scotland and Wales, but these have now been replaced by systems based on a single tier of local government with some functions shared between groups of adjacent authorities. A single-tier system has existed in Northern Ireland since 1973.

For many years the description of the number of tiers in UK local government arrangements has routinely ignored any current or previous bodies at the lowest level of authorities elected by the voters within their area such as parish (in England and Wales) or community councils; such bodies do not exist or have not existed in all areas.

Rest of the United Kingdom

The definitive description "unitary authority" is specific to England alone in UK legislation. Thus single-tier authorities elsewhere in the UK are not properly styled as unitary authorities; also their rights, privileges and responsibilities are not the same.

Northern Ireland

Districts of Northern Ireland NI11w.jpg
Districts of Northern Ireland

Northern Ireland is divided into eleven districts for local government purposes. In Northern Ireland local councils have no responsibility for education, road building or housing (though they do nominate members to the advisory Northern Ireland Housing Council). Their functions include waste and recycling services, leisure and community services, building control and local economic and cultural development. Since their reorganisation in 2015 councils in Northern Ireland have also taken on responsibility for planning functions. The collection of rates is handled by the Land and Property Services agency.


Local authorities in Scotland are unitary in nature but not in name. The Local Government etc. (Scotland) Act 1994 created a single tier of local government throughout Scotland. On 1 April 1996, 32 local government areas, each with a council, replaced the previous two-tier structure, which had regional, islands and district councils. Comhairle nan Eilean Siar (formerly the Western Isles Council) uses the alternative Gaelic designation Comhairle. While the phrase "unitary authority" is not used in Scottish legislation (whether from the Scottish Parliament or the UK Parliament), the term can be encountered (used either descriptively or erroneously) in a few official publications [6] and in (usually erroneous) use by United Kingdom government departments. [7]


Local authorities in Wales are unitary in nature but are described by the Local Government (Wales) Act 1994 as "principal councils", and their areas as principal areas. [8] Various other legislation (e.g. s.91(1) Environment Act 1995) includes the counties and county boroughs of Wales within their individual interpretations of the phrase "unitary authority" as an interpretive not a definitive description. In s.2 of the Act each council formed for a county is allocated the respective English and Welsh descriptions of "County Council" or "Cyngor Sir", each council formed for a County Borough is allocated the respective descriptions of "County Borough Council" or "Cyngor Bwrdeistref Sirol"; in all cases the shorter alternative forms "Council" or "Cyngor" can be used.

United States

There are several types of single-tier governments in the United States. In the states of Connecticut, Rhode Island, and much of Massachusetts, county government has been abolished, and the municipalities (known as New England towns) are the only governing tier below the state government, though the former counties still exist in the ceremonial sense. In some areas, the reverse is true; for example, Howard County, Maryland and Arlington County, Virginia are examples of counties that, despite being densely developed, have no municipalities and are thus the only tier of general-purpose local government.

In Virginia, all municipalities with city status are, by definition, independent from any county. Three other cities across the United States are also independent of any county government: Baltimore, Maryland, St. Louis, Missouri, and Carson City, Nevada. There are also several consolidated cities where the county government and municipal government are unified. San Francisco and Philadelphia are two examples, wherein the city and county are coterminous and have one singular governing body.

The District of Columbia has had no lower tiers of government since 1871. Arlington County and Alexandria, Virginia were returned to Virginia in 1847. The District of Columbia Organic Act of 1871 abolished all local governments including single remaining county and its two municipalities, Washington and Georgetown.

See also

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Local government Lowest tier of administration within a sovereign state

Local government is a generic term for the lowest tiers of public administration within a particular sovereign state. This particular usage of the word government refers specifically to a level of administration that is both geographically-localised and has limited powers. While in some countries, "government" is normally reserved purely for a national administration (government), the term local government is always used specifically in contrast to national government – as well as, in many cases, the activities of sub-national, first-level administrative divisions. Local governments generally act only within powers specifically delegated to them by law and/or directives of a higher level of government. In federal states, local government generally comprises a third or fourth tier of government, whereas in unitary states, local government usually occupies the second or third tier of government.

Regions of New Zealand List of the top tier administrative divisions in New Zealand

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District Administrative division, in some countries, managed by local government

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Subdivisions of England Administrative division or non-administrative ceremonial area of England

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Territorial authorities of New Zealand

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Districts of England Local government sub-divisions of England

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County borough Borough or city independent of county council control

County borough is a term introduced in 1889 in the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland, to refer to a borough or a city independent of county council control, similar to the unitary authorities created since the 1990s. An equivalent term used in Scotland was a county of city. They were abolished by the Local Government Act 1972 in England and Wales, but continue in use for lieutenancy and shrievalty in Northern Ireland. In the Republic of Ireland they remain in existence but have been renamed cities under the provisions of the Local Government Act 2001. The Local Government (Wales) Act 1994 re-introduced the term for certain "principal areas" in Wales. Scotland did not have county boroughs but instead had counties of cities. These were abolished on 16 May 1975. All four Scottish cities of the time—Aberdeen, Dundee, Edinburgh, and Glasgow—were included in this category. There was an additional category of large burgh in the Scottish system, which were responsible for all services apart from police, education and fire.

Local Government etc. (Scotland) Act 1994 United Kingdom legislation

The Local Government etc. (Scotland) Act 1994 is an Act of the Parliament of the United Kingdom which created the current local government structure of 32 unitary authorities covering the whole of Scotland.

Local government in England broadly consists of three layers: regional authorities, local authorities and parish councils. Legislation concerning English local government is passed by Parliament, as England does not have a devolved parliament.

A county council is the elected administrative body governing an area known as a county. This term has slightly different meanings in different countries.

In England and Wales local government legislation, a principal area is one of the sub-national areas established for control by a principal council. They include most of the areas governed by the lowest level of local government above that of Parish or Community council.

The local government areas of Scotland were redefined by the Local Government (Scotland) Act 1973 and redefined again by the Local Government etc (Scotland) Act 1994.

The structure of local government in the United Kingdom underwent large changes in the 1990s. The system of two-tier local government introduced in the 1970s by the Local Government Act 1972 and the Local Government (Scotland) Act 1973 was abolished in Scotland and Wales on 1 April 1996 and replaced with single-tier authorities. In England, some areas remained two-tier but many single-tier authorities were created. No changes were made to local government in Northern Ireland.

Local government in the Republic of Ireland Tier of administration in Ireland

The functions of local government in the Republic of Ireland are mostly exercised by thirty-one local authorities, termed County, City, or City and County Councils. The principal decision-making body in each of the thirty-one local authorities is composed of the members of the council, elected by universal franchise in local elections every five years from multi-seat local electoral areas using the single transferable vote. Many of the authorities' statutory functions are, however, the responsibility of ministerially appointed career officials termed Chief executives. The competencies of the city and county councils include planning, transport infrastructure, sanitary services, public safety and the provision of public libraries. Each local authority sends representatives to one of three Regional Assemblies.

Non-metropolitan district Type of local government district in England

Non-metropolitan districts, or colloquially "shire districts", are a type of local government district in England. As created, they are sub-divisions of non-metropolitan counties in a two-tier arrangement. Non-metropolitan districts with borough status are known as boroughs, able to appoint a mayor and refer to itself as a borough council.

Metropolitan and non-metropolitan counties of England Subdivisions of England

Metropolitan and non-metropolitan counties are one of the four levels of subdivisions of England used for the purposes of local government outside Greater London and the Isles of Scilly. As originally constituted, the metropolitan and non-metropolitan counties each consisted of multiple districts, had a county council and were also the counties for the purposes of Lieutenancies. Later changes in legislation during the 1980s and 1990s have resulted in counties with no county council and 'unitary authority' counties with no districts. Counties for the purposes of Lieutenancies are now defined separately, based on the metropolitan and non-metropolitan counties.

A municipal council is the legislative body of a municipality or local government area. Depending on the location and classification of the municipality it may be known as a city council,town council, town board, community council, rural council,village council, or board of aldermen.

Unitary authorities of England Local government in some parts of England

The unitary authorities of England are those local authorities which are responsible for the provision of all local government services within a district. They are constituted under the Local Government Act 1992, which amended the Local Government Act 1972 to allow the existence of counties that do not have multiple districts. They typically allow large towns to have separate local authorities from the less urbanised parts of their counties and originally provided a single authority for small counties where division into districts would be impractical. However the government has more recently proposed the formation of much larger unitary authorities, including a single authority for North Yorkshire, the largest non-metropolitan county in England, at present divided into seven districts.

A council area is one of the areas defined in Schedule 1 of the Local Government etc. (Scotland) Act 1994 and is under the control of one of the local authorities in Scotland created by that Act.


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  4. "Chatham Islands Council Act 1995 No 41 (as at 01 July 2013), Public Act Contents – New Zealand Legislation". Parliamentary Counsel Office. Retrieved 5 February 2017.
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