Definitions

Unitary authority

Unitary authority

A unitary authority is a type of local authority that has a single tier and is responsible for all local government functions within its area or performs additional functions which elsewhere in the relevant country are usually performed by national government or a higher level of sub-national government.

Typically unitary authorities cover towns or cities which are large enough to function independently of county or other regional administration. Sometimes they consist of national sub-divisions which are distinguished from others in the same country by having no lower level of administration.

Canada

More commonly referred to as single-tier municipalities, they exist as a single level of government in a province that otherwise has two levels of local government. One should not confuse municipalities in provinces with no upper-level of local government as single-tier municipalities, as these are the only level of local government in that province.

Structure of a single-tier municipality 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. The vast majority of Canadian single-tier municipalities are located in Ontario, where they exist as individual census divisions, as well as separated municipalities.

Germany

In Germany, kreisfreie Stadt is the equivalent term for a city which is responsible for the local and the Kreis (district) administrative level (the British counties having no directly corresponding counterpart in Germany).

New Zealand

In New Zealand a unitary authority is a territorial authority (district or city) which also performs the functions of a regional council. New Zealand has four unitary authorities: Gisborne District, Nelson City, Tasman District and Marlborough District. The Chatham Islands Council is not usually considered a unitary authority, although it acts as a regional council for the purposes of the Resource Management Act 1991.

Poland

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

United Kingdom

In the United Kingdom, "unitary authorities" are English or Welsh local authorities set up by the Local Government Act 1992 which form a single tier of local government, and are responsible for almost all local government functions within their areas.

This is opposed to the two-tier system of local government, which still exists in most of England, where local government functions are divided between county councils and district councils. Until 1996 similar two-tier systems existed in Scotland and Wales, but these have now been replaced by fully unitary systems. A unitary system has existed in Northern Ireland since 1973.

England

Although most of England is still two-tier, during the 1990s, some cities, large towns and groups of neighbouring towns became unitary authorities and thus independent from county councils, with the local council taking over both county and district functions.

In some English counties with small populations, such as Rutland, Herefordshire and the Isle of Wight, the entire county is a unitary authority. The counties of Cornwall, Wiltshire, Shropshire, County Durham and Northumberland are also set to become unitary authorities in April 2009, and the counties of Cheshire and Bedfordshire are each to be replaced by two unitary authorities after legislation was passed in December 2007. In Kent, the City of Rochester upon Medway and the Borough of Gillingham and Chatham merged to become the unitary Medway Council.

In practice, most unitary authorities in England are not entirely unitary, as they often run some services on a joint basis with other authorities; these typically include policing, fire services, and sometimes waste disposal and public transport. In addition, some unitary authorities contain civil parishes, which effectively form another limited tier of local government.

History

When county councils were first established in 1889, a type of unitary authority was created called a County Borough which was independent of county council administration. County boroughs typically covered large towns and cities. However, in 1974 county boroughs were abolished and a two-tier system was put in place everywhere. Since the mid-1990s, however, many large urban councils have regained their unitary status, effectively returning to the pre-1974 system, although without using the term "county borough".

The creation of each unitary authority has been subject to public consultation. The concept has not always been widely accepted and often has not gained the support of district councils, county councils or sections of the local public. It is likely, for example, that the proposal to form a unitary authority in northwestern Kent consisting of Dartford and neighbouring Gravesham failed in part because the local population opposed the move, fearing that a small administration separated from Kent would eventually be swallowed up by Greater London immediately to their west.

The term "unitary authority" itself first surfaced in the Redcliffe-Maud Report, to describe the sort of authority the report recommended should cover most of England.

Creation of unitary authorities

Under the Local Government Act 1992, unitary authorities can be created in England by statutory instrument and do not require separate legislation. . Typically a district of a non-metropolitan county is designated as a new non-metropolitan de jure county, but without a county council. The borders of the original county are adjusted to exclude the unitary authority area. In common usage unitary authority areas are not usually referred to as counties (since they are not ceremonial counties), although there are exceptions such as Herefordshire and Rutland, which are reinstatements of administrative counties lost in the 1974 reorganisation; and the Isle of Wight, (the first unitary authority created after the 1992 Act, and arguably one of the simplest and least controversial to create) which was, and remains, a separate county, but now with only a single council.

In some cases, such as the boroughs of the six metropolitan counties and the county of Berkshire, a different process was followed, where the county council was abolished and its functions were merely transferred to the districts. However, the new Wiltshire Council which will start operations in 2009 will operate as one council, and the district councils will be abolished and the functions transferred to the new council. Government approval has also now been given for county-wide single-tier authorities to commence in April 2009 in Cornwall, Durham, Northumberland, and Shropshire. The government has announced that Cheshire will be split into two unitaries, to be called Cheshire West and Chester, and Cheshire East. Bedfordshire will also be split into two unitaries, called Bedford and Central Bedfordshire (Luton split from the county to form its own unitary in 1997). However, the government has decided against granting permission for a unitary county in Somerset following a referendum in 2007, in which 82% of voters rejected the proposal. Proposals for unitary counties in Cumbria and North Yorkshire were also turned down.

London Boroughs and the City of London are also counted as unitary authorities for most purposes. The Isles of Scilly have a special council that is neither a district nor a county, but is in practice a sui generis unitary authority.

For listings of unitary authorities in England, see Regions of England or Subdivisions of England.

Legal definition

Unitary authorities in England are typically defined in current legislation as "any authority which is the sole principal council for its local government area

While some legislation includes London Boroughs as "unitary authorities" for the purposes of those individual pieces of legislation, they do not fit the above description, as for various purposes they are subsidiary to the Greater London Authority). They are commonly listed separately along with the City of London and the Inner and Middle Temples, the two latter being within the boundary of the City of London but remaining as self-governing liberties.

Scotland

Local authorities in Scotland are unitary in nature but not in name. There are 32 Councils, one of which (Comhairle nan Eilean Siar, formerly the Western Isles Council) has elected use the Gaelic designation "Comhairle". The phrase "unitary authority" is not used as a designation for councils in Scottish legislation (whether from the Scottish Parliament or the UK Parliament), although there are some councils that incorrectly use the description in publications as well as numerous examples of such incorrect use by United Kingdom government departments.

Wales

Local authorities in Wales (other than "communities") are unitary in nature and are described by the Local Government (Wales) Act 1994 as "principal councils". Various other legislation includes the counties and county boroughs of Wales within their individual interpretations of the phrase "unitary authority". In s.2 of the Act each council formed from a county is allocated the respective Welsh and English descriptions of "Cyngor" or "County Council", each council formed from a County Borough is allocated the respective descriptions of "Cyngor Bwrdeistref Sirol" or "County Borough Council"; in all cases the shorter alternative forms "Cyngor" or "Council" can be used.

References

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