Helping you understand Welsh law

Principal councils

Local government in Wales essentially involves the administration by locally elected councils of a series of powers and duties set out in various statutes. For the purpose of local government, Wales is divided into 22 county and county boroughs, which are also described as ‘principal areas’. In respect of each principal area there is a 'county' or 'county borough' council, also referred to as a ‘principal council’.

The law relating to the constitution and general powers of principal councils is set out in the Local Government Act 1972 (LGA 1972) which simplified the more complex structure that existed previously. The Local Government (Wales) Act 1994 completely restructured local government in Wales and much of this was effected by amendments to LGA 1972. While LGA 1972 has, therefore, been amended significantly since its enactment, it continues to provide the basic framework for local government in Wales.

The Welsh Ministers have a general supervisory role in relation to local government in Wales and determine and fund the majority of the annual revenue and capital settlements for principal councils. The majority of the functions of the Secretary of State under LGA 1972 and other enactments relating to principal councils are now exercisable by the Welsh Ministers. The Welsh Ministers therefore have an array of executive powers relating to the organisation and operation of principal councils.

The LGA 1972 (as amended) establishes the 22 principal areas and makes provision in relation to the powers, constitution and membership of principal councils. Each principal council has the name of the county or borough with the addition of ‘council’, ‘county council’ or ‘county borough council’ or in Welsh 'cyngor' 'cyngor sir' or ‘cyngor bwrdeistref sirol’. The 22 principal areas and their English and Welsh names are set out in Schedule 4 to LGA 1972. Section 74 of LGA 1972, however, permits principal councils to change their names by a two thirds majority at a specially convened meeting and several principal councils have exercised their right to do so.

A principal council is a body corporate and has the functions given to it by statute. Principal councils provide services such as education, social care, housing, planning, refuse and recycling, the setting and collection of council tax and the collection of non-domestic rates. Principal councils also act in the capacity of the local education authority, social services authority, licensing authority and planning authority.

Members of principal councils are known as councillors and are elected by the electors for that area in accordance with LGA 1972 and the Representation of the People Act 1983. Councillors are subject to the standards of conduct provided for under the Local Government Act 2000.

All principal councils in Wales operate executive arrangements under Part 2 of the Local Government Act 2000, meaning that many of the powers of the councils are exercised by Cabinets chosen by their members.

A principal council must act in a way that is compatible with rights guaranteed by the European Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms and incorporated into UK law by the Human Rights Act 1998. Decisions made by principal councils in the exercise of their public functions are amenable to judicial review although there are some cases in which a particular appeal mechanism is provided for in statute.

Although the organisation of local government is not directly affected by European Union law, EU law impacts upon the way in which principal councils exercise their functions in certain areas such as public procurement, planning and employment.

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