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Publication - Factsheet

Local authorities: factsheet

Published: 8 May 2017

Information on how local authorities in Scotland work, including who does what and how decisions are made.

Scotland's 32 local authorities are responsible for providing a range of public services. This includes education, social care, roads and transport, economic development, housing and planning, environmental protection, waste management, cultural and leisure services.

Each local authority is governed by a council. The council is made up of councillors directly elected by the residents of the area they represent. Councils must take corporate decisions: there is no legal provision for decisions being made by individual councillors.

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Powers and duties

Local authorities have a number of powers and duties which are set out in legislation:

  • mandatory duties - such as providing schooling for 5-16 year olds and social work services
  • permissive powers - such as economic development and recreation services
  • regulatory powers - such as trading standards, environmental health and licensing for taxis and public houses

Who does what


Within a council, a group of councillors able to command majority support will form the 'Administration' which controls the running of the council.

Council Leader

The council is headed by the Leader of the council, normally elected by the party or coalition that forms the administration of the council.

Civic Head

In addition to the leader, each council elects a Civic Head, who chairs council meetings and represents the council on civic and ceremonial occasions.

In the cities of Glasgow, Edinburgh, Aberdeen and Dundee, the Civic Head is known as the Lord Provost. Other councils may choose their own title for their Civic Head, excluding Lord Provost, and most are titled Provost.

Chief Executive

The council's Chief Executive is normally the head of its paid staff, employed by and responsible to the council.


The council will also employ a staff of officers, including teachers, social workers and planning officers to carry out its functions.

How decisions are made

Full council

The full council meeting is the governing body of the council, where all councillors meet to debate and take key decisions. Some functions of the council can only be discharged by the full council.

These include setting the annual budget and the annual rate of council tax.


Councils can delegate most decision-making to committees or sub-committees of the council. Individual councils set out their arrangements for delegation to committees in their internal governance documents, such as Standing Orders, Orders of Reference or Schemes of Administration and Delegation.

There is no requirement for councils to adopt a particular decision-making and scrutiny structure, it is a matter for each council to decide what is most appropriate for its particular circumstances.


Councils can also delegate decision-making to officers of the council, and do so in their internal governance documents.

Partnership working

Local authorities also work with other public bodies to deliver certain services.

In some cases local authorities work together to provide a service across more than one local authority area through a Joint Board or Joint Committee. Sometimes collaborations can be with a number of other public bodies, for instance to develop Regional Transport Partnerships.

In other cases, local authorities are required by law to work with other public bodies to deliver an integrated approach. Since 2003, local authorities have been required to work in partnership with other agencies (such as health boards, enterprise, police and fire bodies) responsible for public service delivery in an area. This partnership approach is called Community Planning.

More recently, the Public Bodies (Joint Working) (Scotland) Act 2014 put in place a requirement for NHS Boards and local authorities to work together to deliver integrated health and social care services through Health and Social Care Partnerships.


Some local authorities make extensive use of Arm's Length External Organisations (ALEOs) to provide services. ALEOs are organisations established by local authorities to deliver specific services, such as sports and leisure or property maintenance.

ALEOs have a separate identity from the local authority and usually have a separate budget and governance arrangements. However, the local authority retains a degree of influence over the ALEO, and councillors will often sit on the Board of the new organisation.

Publication of information

Local authorities publish information about their policies and services. When doing so, they have regard to the code of practice on local authority publicity (issued under the Local Government Act 1986.

The Code which applies in Scotland was issued in 1988: later versions apply in England (2011) and Wales (2001).

8 May 2017
Local authorities: factsheet