In the United States, there are three levels of government: federal, state, and local (county and city). Britain is similar, with Parliament (and national parliaments in Wales, Northern Ireland, and Scotland) and local authorities (either parish councils or municipal councils). While the whole of London is managed by the Greater London Authority, each of the 32 boroughs and the City of London maintain their own councils. The London Government Act of 1963 created the boroughs and Greater London, which were formally established in 1965. After Margaret Thatcher’s government dissolved the Greater London Council in 1986, leaving the boroughs to self-govern until the creation of the Greater London Authority in 2000.
In the modern arrangement, the Greater London Authority is responsible for housing, strategic planning, transport, highways, fire, and police protection (with the exception of the City of London, which has its own police service). Meanwhile, individual borough councils share authority with the GLA over highways, strategic planning, transportation, and housing. Beyond that, each borough has its power to manage education, social services, libraries, leisure, waste, health, and revenue collection. In some cases, multiple boroughs will pull together to provide these services jointly to their residents. Some services are provided through private corporations or trusts such as hospitals, water, power, etc.
When it comes to structure, each of the thirty-two boroughs is led by a local council. In the case of the City of London, the City of London Corporation is controlled by the Court of Aldermen, of which one person represents each ward, and the Court of Common Council, which encompasses the Mayor, the Aldermen, and a number of Common Councilmen from each ward. As for the other boroughs, the local council is made up of three councilors elected from each ward. Elections in the boroughs, the City of London, and Greater London take place every four years.
In both the boroughs and the City of London, the Lord Mayor is a ceremonial position elected from amongst the council members. Greater London uses a system more like the United States and directly elects its mayor. At least four boroughs have also followed this example: Hackney, Lewisham, Newham, and Tower Hamlets. The directly-elected Lord Mayors typically have more power than their ceremonial counterparts. Lord Mayors will often have an executive cabinet, with an “oversight and scrutiny” committee made up of non-cabinet members from the council to review the cabinet’s decisions. Borough councils often divide the body’s responsibilities into various committees to handle transportation, education, and other borough services.
Decisions are typically made by a simple majority of a full council. For the council to make a decision at its meetings, there must be a quorum, or enough members to constitute a majority, in order to vote on any action taken. Actions decided on by the council are then carried out by the Lord Mayor and the borough’s staff. Borough councils are required by law to publish agendas as well as take and publish minutes of meetings. While council meetings are generally open to the public, it is up to the individual council whether to provide a time for public comment.
Councils are also required to make their budgets available for any amount over £500. For any spending less than that amount, councils must open their detailed financial accounts annually for twenty working days (or roughly one month). If one is unwilling to wait until the council opens up its accounts to the public, it is possible to make a Freedom of Information request. Councils must publish the accounts through their individual websites and give notice to the press of when they will be available to the public.
If you have more questions about the operations of London borough councils, you can visit London Councils at http://www.londoncouncils.gov.uk/.