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Unitary authority (England)
Category Districts
Location England
Found in Ceremonial county
Number 55 (as at 2009)

Unitary authorities of England are areas where a single local authority is responsible for a variety of services for a district that elsewhere are administered separately by two councils.[1] Unitary authorities allow large towns to have separate local authorities to 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 and a further tranche were created in 2009. The unitary authorities combine the powers and functions that are normally associated with the councils of non-metropolitan counties and non-metropolitan districts.[1]





The administration of towns separately from the rest of the country is not a new concept. Various settlements historically enjoyed some degree of autonomy either as boroughs, liberties or counties corporate. The system was refined in 1889 and such areas became known as county boroughs. A reform in 1974 sought to create areas for local government where large towns and their rural hinterlands were administered together; the effect was to abolish county boroughs and abandon the concept of autonomous areas for local government. Instead, the Local Government Act 1972 created a 'two-tier' local government 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 the six metropolitan counties and Greater London the upper-tier authorities were abolished in 1986 and their functions were split between central government, the borough councils and joint boards; creating a broadly unitary system of local government there.[2]

1990s reform

A review in the 1990s was initiated in order to select non-metropolitan areas where new unitary authorities could be created.[1] This established Bristol, Herefordshire, the Isle of Wight and Rutland as counties of a single district; divided Berkshire into a number of unitary authorities; broke up the counties of Avon, Humberside and Cleveland into unitary authorities; and split off a number of districts from their associated counties.[2] 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.[2]

2009 changes

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.


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.

Current list

Unitary authorities in bold are also ceremonial counties and indicates that the county covers a larger area than the unitary authority. Unitary authorities can additionally have the status of borough or city, although this has no effect on their powers or functions.

Type Created Number Units
County gained district functions 2009 5 Cornwall · County Durham · Northumberland · Shropshire · Wiltshire
District gained county functions 2009 4 Bedford · Central Bedfordshire · Cheshire East · Cheshire West and Chester
District gained county functions 1998 15 Blackburn with Darwen · Blackpool · Halton · Herefordshire · Medway · Nottingham · Peterborough · Plymouth · Southend-on-Sea · Stoke-on-Trent · Swindon · Telford and Wrekin  · Thurrock · Torbay · Warrington
District gained Berkshire county functions 1998 6 Bracknell Forest · Reading · Slough · West Berkshire · Windsor and Maidenhead · Wokingham
District gained county functions 1997 11 Bournemouth · Brighton and Hove · Derby · Darlington · Leicester · Luton · Milton Keynes · Poole · Portsmouth · Rutland · Southampton
District gained county functions 1996 13 Bath and North East Somerset · Bristol · East Riding of Yorkshire · Hartlepool · Kingston upon Hull · Middlesbrough · North East Lincolnshire · North Lincolnshire · North Somerset · Redcar and Cleveland · South Gloucestershire · Stockton-on-Tees · York
County gained district functions 1995 1 Isle of Wight
Total 55

Similar authorities

The City of London and the Isles of Scilly are sui generis authorities, predating recent reforms of local government. The 36 metropolitan boroughs and 32 London boroughs in the larger urban areas of England have a high decree of autonomy; but share functions with joint boards and, in London, the Greater London Authority.


  1. ^ a b c Jones, Kavanagh, Moran & Norton (2004). Politics UK (5th ed.). Pearson.  
  2. ^ a b c Atkinson, H. & Wilks-Heeg, S. (2000). Local Government from Thatcher to Blair. Polity.  


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