|Category||Local authority districts|
|Number||58 (as of 2021)|
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 provide a single authority for small counties where division into districts would be impractical. Unitary authorities do not cover all of England. Most were established during the 1990s, though further tranches were created in 2009 and 2019-21. Unitary authorities have the powers and functions that are elsewhere separately administered by councils of non-metropolitan counties and the non-metropolitan districts within them.
The term "unitary authority" was first used in the Redcliffe-Maud Report in 1969 in its current sense of a local government authority which combines the functions of a county council and a district council. Strictly speaking, the term does not necessarily mean a single level of local government within an area, because in some cases there are also parish councils in the same area.
Although the term was not applied to them, county boroughs between 1889 and 1974 were effectively unitary authorities, that is, single-tier administrative units. Before 1889, local government authorities had different powers and functions, but from medieval times some cities and towns had a high degree of autonomy as counties corporate. Some smaller settlements also enjoyed some degree of autonomy from regular administration as boroughs or liberties.
The Local Government Act 1972 created areas for local government where large towns and their rural hinterlands were administered together. The concept of unitary units was abandoned with a two-tier arrangement of county and district councils in all areas of England, except the Isles of Scilly where the small size and distance from the mainland made it impractical. In 1986 a broadly unitary system of local government was introduced in the six metropolitan counties and Greater London, where the upper-tier authorities were abolished and their functions were split between central government, the borough councils and joint boards.
A review in the 1990s was initiated to select non-metropolitan areas where new unitary authorities could be created. The resulting structural changes were implemented between 1995 and 1998. Bristol, Herefordshire, the Isle of Wight and Rutland were established as counties of a single district; the district councils of Berkshire became unitary; the counties of Avon, Humberside and Cleveland were broken up to create several unitary authorities; and a number of districts were split off from their associated counties. The changes caused the ceremonial counties to be defined separately, as they had been before 1974. The review caused 46 unitary authorities to be created.
A further review was initiated in 2007 and was enacted in 2009. The review established Cornwall and Northumberland as counties of a single district; established unitary authorities in County Durham, Shropshire and Wiltshire covering the part of the county that was not already split off in the 1990s review; and divided the remainder of Bedfordshire and Cheshire into two unitary authorities. The review caused nine unitary authorities to be created.
In 2016, Oxfordshire County Council put forward a 'One Oxfordshire' proposal which would see Oxford City Council and the four other district councils in Oxfordshire abolished and replaced with a single unitary county council for Oxfordshire. In 2017, Oxford City Council voiced their opposition to the proposal. A decision on whether the proposal will go ahead was to have been announced in March 2017.
In 2017, it was proposed that two unitary authorities be formed to cover the ceremonial county of Dorset. One of the authorities would consist of the existing unitary authorities of Bournemouth, Poole and the non-metropolitan district of Christchurch, the other would be composed of the remainder of the county. In November 2017, Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, Sajid Javid stated that he was "minded to approve the proposals" and a final decision to implement the two unitary authority model was confirmed in February 2018. Statutory instruments for the creation of two unitary authorities, to be named Bournemouth, Christchurch and Poole Council and Dorset Council, have been made and shadow authorities for the new council areas were formed ahead of their creation on 1 April 2019.
Buckinghamshire County Council and the non-metropolitan districts of Aylesbury Vale, Chiltern, South Bucks, and Wycombe in Buckinghamshire were replaced by a single unitary authority known as Buckinghamshire Council on 1 April 2020. The existing unitary authority of Milton Keynes was not affected; from 1 April 2020, therefore, the ceremonial county of Buckinghamshire has been composed of two unitary authorities.
In March 2018, an independent report commissioned by the Secretary of State for Housing, Communities and Local Government, proposed structural changes to local government in Northamptonshire. These changes would see the existing county council and district councils abolished and two new unitary authorities created in their place. One authority would consist of the existing districts of Daventry, Northampton and South Northamptonshire and the other authority would consist of Corby, East Northamptonshire, Kettering and Wellingborough districts. This was confirmed in May 2019, with the new councils being created in April 2021.
Unitary authorities combine the powers and functions that are normally delivered separately by the councils of non-metropolitan counties and non-metropolitan districts. These functions are housing, waste management, waste collection, council tax collection, education, libraries, social services, transport, planning, consumer protection, licensing, cemeteries and crematoria. The breakdown of these services is as follows:
|Service||Non-metropolitan county||Non-metropolitan district||Unitary authority|
|Leisure and recreation|
Most unitary authorities are divided into a number of multiple member wards from which councillors are elected in the same way as in two-tier district council elections. The exceptions, which are divided into electoral divisions as in county council elections, are Cornwall, County Durham, the Isle of Wight, Northumberland, Shropshire and Wiltshire.
Most unitary authorities are legally defined as being coterminous non-metropolitan counties and non-metropolitan districts run by a single council. While it makes no difference, they can either be run by a county council that additionally has district powers and functions, or a district council that additionally has county powers and functions. If there is a county council, the district has no council, and vice versa. Districts can additionally have the status of borough or city, although this has no effect on their powers or functions.
|Unitary Authority||Council||Created||Run by||Ceremonial County|
|Bath and North East Somerset||Bath and North East Somerset Council||1996||District||Somerset|
|Bedford||Bedford Borough Council||2009||District||Bedfordshire|
|Blackburn with Darwen||Blackburn with Darwen Borough Council||1998||District||Lancashire|
|Bournemouth, Christchurch and Poole||Bournemouth, Christchurch and Poole Council||2019||District||Dorset|
|Bracknell Forest||Bracknell Forest Borough Council||1998||District[a]||Berkshire|
|Brighton and Hove||Brighton and Hove City Council||1997||District||East Sussex|
|Bristol||Bristol City Council||1996||District||Bristol|
|Central Bedfordshire||Central Bedfordshire Council||2009||District||Bedfordshire|
|Cheshire East||Cheshire East Council||2009||District||Cheshire|
|Cheshire West and Chester||Cheshire West and Chester Council||2009||District||Cheshire|
|County Durham||Durham County Council||2009||County||County Durham|
|Darlington||Darlington Borough Council||1997||District||County Durham|
|Derby||Derby City Council||1997||District||Derbyshire|
|East Riding of Yorkshire||East Riding of Yorkshire Council||1996||District||East Riding of Yorkshire|
|Halton||Halton Borough Council||1998||District||Cheshire|
|Hartlepool||Hartlepool Borough Council||1996||District||County Durham|
|Isle of Wight||Isle of Wight Council||1995||County||Isle of Wight|
|Kingston upon Hull||Hull City Council||1996||District||East Riding of Yorkshire|
|Leicester||Leicester City Council||1997||District||Leicestershire|
|Luton||Luton Borough Council||1997||District||Bedfordshire|
|Middlesbrough||Middlesbrough Borough Council||1996||District||North Yorkshire|
|Milton Keynes||Milton Keynes Council||1997||District||Buckinghamshire|
|North East Lincolnshire||North East Lincolnshire Council||1996||District||Lincolnshire|
|North Lincolnshire||North Lincolnshire Council||1996||District||Lincolnshire|
|North Northamptonshire||North Northamptonshire Council||2021||District||Northamptonshire|
|North Somerset||North Somerset Council||1996||District||Somerset|
|Northumberland||Northumberland County Council||2009||County||Northumberland|
|Nottingham||Nottingham City Council||1998||District||Nottinghamshire|
|Peterborough||Peterborough City Council||1998||District||Cambridgeshire|
|Plymouth||Plymouth City Council||1998||District||Devon|
|Portsmouth||Portsmouth City Council||1997||District||Hampshire|
|Reading||Reading Borough Council||1998||District[a]||Berkshire|
|Redcar and Cleveland||Redcar and Cleveland Borough Council||1996||District||North Yorkshire|
|Rutland||Rutland County Council||1997||District||Rutland|
|Slough||Slough Borough Council||1998||District[a]||Berkshire|
|Southampton||Southampton City Council||1997||District||Hampshire|
|Southend-on-Sea||Southend-on-Sea Borough Council||1998||District||Essex|
|South Gloucestershire||South Gloucestershire Council||1996||District||Gloucestershire|
|Stockton-on-Tees||Stockton-on-Tees Borough Council||1996||District||County Durham and North Yorkshire|
|Stoke-on-Trent||Stoke-on-Trent City Council||1998||District||Staffordshire|
|Swindon||Swindon Borough Council||1998||District||Wiltshire|
|Telford and Wrekin||Telford and Wrekin Borough Council||1998||District||Shropshire|
|Warrington||Warrington Borough Council||1998||District||Cheshire|
|West Berkshire||West Berkshire Council||1998||District[a]||Berkshire|
|West Northamptonshire||West Northamptonshire Council||2021||District||Northamptonshire|
|Windsor and Maidenhead||Windsor and Maidenhead Borough Council||1998||District[a]||Berkshire|
|Wokingham||Wokingham Borough Council||1998||District[a]||Berkshire|
|York||City of York Council||1996||District||North Yorkshire|
The Council of the Isles of Scilly is a sui generis single-tier authority, created in 1890 and since 1930 has held the "powers, duties and liabilities" of a county council. It thus is not a unitary authority as those are such authorities created under the Local Government Act 1992. The 36 metropolitan borough councils are also the sole elected local government units in their areas (except for parish councils in a few locations), but share strategic functions with joint boards and arrangements. On the other hand, the City of London Corporation and the 32 London borough councils, although they have a high degree of autonomy, share strategic functions with the directly elected Mayor of London and London Assembly.
Unitary authorities should not be confused with another formation in English local government, the combined authority.