What do councils do?

keep-calm-im-a-councillorFollowing the recent district council elections I was asked to explain the role of the different councils which we have. It is confusing and it’s not necessarily the most effective way of organising local government (see below) but it’s what we’ve got.

There’s a fairly good summary on the government web-site. Click here to go to the page on ‘how your council works’.

County councils are responsible for:

  • education including adult education: but less so than in the past because most secondary schools and some primaries are now independent of the local authority and funded directly by the government;
  • transport and highways: so it’s the County Council which is responsible for maintaining roads and repairing potholes;
  • planning: that’s economic planning and not spatial planning which is a district council responsibility;
  • fire and public safety: this is disappearing as a responsibility as first of all the independent Police & Crime Commissioners have been set up and now it seems that the Fire Authority will be brought under his/her remit;
  • social care: that’s children and adults including older people;
  • libraries;
  • waste management: that means waste disposal not waste collections (see below);
  • public health; and
  • trading standards.

District councils are responsible for:

  • waste collection and recycling;
  • Council Tax collections;
  • housing: that’s ‘council houses’ as we’ve always known it and not necessarily ‘affordable housing’;
  • planning applications;
  • spatial planning: that’s the planning of the mix of new housing and green space well into the future to ensure that there’s the opportunity for sufficient new houses to be built to meet the needs to the growing economy; and
  • environmental health: this includes air and water quality

Unitary councils do all of the above under one roof. That makes so much sense and you wonder why on earth Cambridge City and South Cambridgeshire don’t constitute one unitary council.

The above is complicated by the existence of another level of government vis the Cambridgeshire & Peterborough Combined Authority with its associated Mayor. This was set up a couple of years ago to enable the government to devolve certain centrally held powers. It can:

  • invest in local priorities to improve Cambridgeshire and Peterborough through a new Investment Fund, worth £600 million over 30 years;
  • set the rules for local bus services, including the routes, timetables and fares;
  • manage local transport and the most important local roads to help people get around more easily;
  • invest in housing to meet the area’s needs;
  • give grants to encourage and help local businesses to employ apprentices; and
  • control adult education services to help local people get the skills they

This means that it takes over some powers and duties which otherwise would be discharged by the other councils.

The Combined Authority (CA) is run by a board populated largely by the leaders of the councils within Cambridgeshire and Peterborough. This means that the new leader of South Cambs will have influence over the powers exercised by this authority. Click here for more information about the CA.

There’s also something called the Greater Cambridge Partnership. It has been set up to be the local delivery body for a City Deal with central Government. This is bringing powers and investment worth up to £1 billion over 15 years for vital improvements in infrastructure which will support and accelerate the creation of 44,000 new jobs, 33,500 new homes and 420 additional apprenticeships.  The leader of South Cambs is also on the executive board of this body. Click here for more information about the GCP.

Finally there are the parish councils which work locally just to make things happen. The government web-site says that they generally look after

  • allotments
  • public clocks
  • bus shelters
  • community centres
  • play areas and play equipment
  • grants to help local organisations
  • consultation on neighbourhood planning

Histon & Impington Parish Council and Orchard Park Community Council are deeply involved in all of the above except, as far as I am aware, public clocks.

Historically they’ve also had a statutory responsibility to provide bath houses but that doesn’t seem to feature much in their activities these days.

They also have the power to issue fixed penalty fines for things like:

  • litter
  • graffiti
  • fly posting
  • dog offences

Increasingly parish and community councils are spending money to cover activities which previously would have been paid for by district and county councils. By and large parish and community councillors are able to get things done more quickly and with more immediate accountability than those on the ‘higher’ authorities. It’s just that they have less money to spend.


  1. County have no responsibility for Fire or Public Safety. Fire, and Police are separate precepting authorities. There may be some County Councillors involved in the management roles, or were in the past. But they are independent of the County Council


    • Yes they are independent but there was a time (quite recently) when they reported to an ‘authority’ which ‘reported’ to the county council. re public safety isn’t CCC responsible for ’emergency planning’?


      • County Council has not been responsible for Fire for at least 10 years, and has never been responsible for Police. That is, at no point has a motion of the County Council controlled the workings of the Police.

        County has 1 manager and two officers in emergency planning. District Councils also have emergency planning responsibilities. Coordination responsibility of the Local Resilience Forum.


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