Why Do We Have Two-Tiered Local Government? Laura Fallon lfallon@arlingclose.com

The Hundreds of Reasons

Many but not all parts of England have a two-tiered local government structure. County Councils are the bigger authorities: they typically do things like the schools, adult social care, children’s services, registration of births and deaths and public health. Smaller district or borough councils within the county region typically do things such as housing, collecting your bins and planning applications. District or borough councils are the ones that collect your council tax: they then keep some of it for themselves and pass the rest onto the bigger county council, and other authorities such as police and fire.

This council structure is often confusing and poorly understood by most of the general public. Wales and Scotland have now got rid of this system - they just have ‘unitary’ authorities: one Council that does everything. Although sometimes talked about, plans to convert all local authorities in England to a unitary structure haven’t happened yet and are probably not going to happen anytime soon. That said local authorities are typically nudged towards becoming Unitaries when the opportunity arises: think Northamptonshire County Council and Dorset Council.

Why do we have this structure? The reasons are historical: local authorities are built upon centuries of meandering history into how you organised society, paid taxes and got stuff done. The two-tier system has its roots in Anglo-Saxon times: think before the Norman invasion in 1066 and possibly as long ago as the 7th century. The Anglo-Saxons divided their land first into Shires which were overseen by a ‘Shire Reeve’ or Sheriff. The next tier of division was the hundred. A hundred was generally an area of approximately 100 hides: a ‘hide’ being an area of land deemed big enough to support a household. A hide was used as a basic measure of land for tax purposes. The system continued after the Norman invasion, with Shires usually being administered by a group of knights (equivalent to your local councillors today), with two knights being assigned to every hundred. Sheriffs and Knights did not inherit their positions: appointments were generally meritocratic if not democratic.

The hundred as a unit would pay taxes to their knights, who would pass some of the taxes to the Sherriff of the Shire who would in turn pass on some of the taxes to the central government exchequer. This is very likely to be the reasons why still, one thousand years later, district councils are the ones that collect the council tax. As well as paying taxes hundreds were responsible for keeping law and order for their residents and ran monthly or fortnightly courts in their area.

The system of local government evolved over time. Feudalism as a social system ended and the population became increasingly urbanised. Towns developed their own system of government known as ‘boroughs’. District councils as we think of them today were first formerly created by the Local Government Act 1894. Most of these were direct descendants of the Anglo-Saxon Hundreds and many are still named after them. Then as now however the whole population was not covered by a two-tier structure: some particularly large urban areas have always functioned as what we now think of as unitary authorities. It was rural areas that inherited a structure from a time when almost everyone lived off the land.

So next time you find yourself having to explain to someone that you are a ‘district’ council and how that is different from the other council where they live you can blame the Anglo-Saxons.

Related Insights

What is a Section 5 Report for a Local Authority?

Why Local Authorities Really Matter

Lessons from 30 Years of Attempting to Devolve Power in the UK