A county council is the elected administrative body governing an area known as a county. This term has slightly different meanings in different countries.
County councils were formed in the late 19th century. In the various constituent countries of the United Kingdom councils had different powers and different memberships. Following local government reforms in the 1970s, county councils no longer exist in Scotland or Northern Ireland. In England they generally form the top level in a two-tier system of administration; in Wales they are unitary authorities.
In England county councils were introduced in 1889, and reformed in 1974. Since the mid-1990s a series of local government reorganisations has reduced the number of county councils as unitary authorities have been established in a number of areas. County councils are very large employers with a great variety of functions including education (schools and youth services), social services, highways, fire and rescue services, libraries, waste disposal, consumer services and town and country planning. Until the 1990s they also ran colleges of further education and the careers services. That decade also saw the privatisation of some traditional services, such as highway maintenance, cleaning and school meals.
County councils were created by the Local Government Act 1888, largely taking over the administrative functions of the unelected county courts of quarter sessions. County councils consisted of councillors, directly elected by the electorate; and county aldermen, chosen by the council itself. There was one county alderman for every three councillors (one for every six in the London County Council). The first elections to the councils were held at various dates in January 1889, and they served as "provisional" or shadow councils until 1 April, when they came into their powers. Elections of all councillors and half of the aldermen took place every three years thereafter. The areas over which the councils had authority were designated as administrative counties. The writ of the county councils did not extend everywhere: large towns and some historic counties corporate were constituted county boroughs by the same act. County borough councils were independent of the council for the county in which they were geographically situated, and exercised the functions of both county and district councils. The new system was a major modernisation, which reflected the increasing range of functions carried out by local government in late Victorian Britain. A major accretion of powers took place when education was added to county council responsibilities in 1902. County councils were responsible for more strategic services in a region, with (from 1894) smaller urban district councils and rural district councils responsible for other activities. The Local Government Act 1929 considerably increased the powers of county councils, who took charge of highways in rural districts.
In 1965 there was a reduction in the number of county councils. The London Government Act 1963 abolished those of London and Middlesex and created the Greater London Council. Greater London was declared to be an "area" and not to lie in any county. In addition two pairs of administrative counties were merged to become Cambridgeshire and Isle of Ely and Huntingdon and Peterborough under recommendations made by the Local Government Commission for England. The Local Government Act 1972 completely reorganised local authorities in England and Wales. County boroughs were abolished and the whole of England (apart from Greater London) was placed in a two-tier arrangement with county councils and district councils. In the six largest conurbations metropolitan county councils, with increased powers, were created. The post of county alderman was abolished, and the entire council was thereafter directly elected every four years. In 1986 the six metropolitan county councils were abolished, with their functions transferred to the metropolitan boroughs and joint boards. The Local Government Act 1992 established a new Local Government Commission whose remit was to conduct a review of the structure of local administration, and the introduction of unitary authorities where appropriate. Accordingly, the number of county councils was reduced: Avon, Berkshire, Cleveland, Hereford and Worcester and Humberside were abolished, while Worcestershire County Council was re-established. The reforms somewhat blurred the distinction between county and district council. The Isle of Wight county council became a unitary authority, renamed the "Isle of Wight Council". Conversely, two unitary district councils added the word "county" to their titles to become "Rutland County Council District Council" and "County of Herefordshire District Council".
A further wave of local government reform took place in April 2009 under the Local Government and Public Involvement in Health Act 2007. Following invitations from central government in 2007, a number of County Councils and their associated districts examined ways in which local government provision could be rationalised, mainly in the form of abolishing the existing County and District councils and establishing one-tier authorities for all or parts of these existing counties. As a result, the status of some of these (mainly) more rural counties changed. Cornwall, Durham, Northumberland, Shropshire and Wiltshire became unitary authorities providing all services. Some of these councils have dropped the word "county" from their titles. Bedfordshire and Cheshire County Councils were abolished with more than one unitary council established within the boundaries of the abolished council. Other county councils remained unchanged, particularly in the heavily populated parts of England such as the south-east.
Since 1996 Wales has been divided into unitary principal areas. Councils were designated by the legislation that created them as either "county councils" or "county borough councils". County and county borough councils have identical powers.
Prior to 1996 local government in Wales was similar to that in England. Thus the county councils introduced in 1889 were identical to their English counterparts. The Local Government Commission for Wales appointed under the Local Government Act 1958 recommended a reduction in the number of county councils in Wales and Monmouthshire from thirteen to seven, but reform did not take place until 1974.
From 1 April 1974 the number of counties and county councils was reduced to eight in number. Like the county councils introduced in England at the same time, the whole council was elected every four years. There was a slightly different division of powers between county and district councils, however. The county and district councils were abolished twenty-two years later, when the present system of principal areas was introduced.
In Scotland county councils existed from 1890 to 1975. They were created by the Local Government (Scotland) Act 1889 and reconstituted forty years later by the Local Government (Scotland) Act 1929. County councils were abolished in 1975 when a system of large regional councils was introduced. Regions were themselves abolished in 1996 and replaced by the current unitary council areas.
In Scotland control of county administration was in the hands of Commissioners of Supply. This was a body of the principal landowners liable to pay land tax, and was unelected. The first elections to Scottish county councils took place in February 1890. Only the councillors for the "landward" part of the county were elected however. The remainder of the council were co-opted by the town councils of the burghs in the county. Scottish county councils also differed from those in England and Wales as they were required to divide their county into districts. A district committee of the county councillors elected for the area were an independent local council for some administrative purposes.
In 1930 the Scottish county councils were completely reconstituted. Their powers were increased in small burghs. On the other hand, large burghs became independent of the county for most purposes. The district committees created in 1890 were abolished and replaced by district councils, partly consisting of county councillors and partly of directly elected district councillors. Two joint county councils were created, for Perthshire and Kinross-shire and Moray and Nairnshire. The county councils also gained the duties of the abolished education authorities.
The Local Government (Ireland) Act 1898 introduced county councils to Ireland. The administrative and financial business carried by county grand juries and county at large presentment sessions were transferred to the new councils. Principal among these duties were the maintenance of highways and bridges, the upkeep and inspection of lunatic asylums and the appointment of coroners. The new bodies also took over some duties from poor law boards of guardians in relation to diseases of cattle and from the justices of the peace to regulate explosives.
The Irish county councils differed in constitution from those in Great Britain. Most of the council was directly elected: each county was divided by the Local Government Board for Ireland into electoral divisions, each returning a single councillor for a three-year term. In addition urban districts were to form electoral divisions: depending on population they could return multiple county councillors. The county councils were also to consist of "additional members":
The first county council elections were held on 6 April 1899, and the first business of their inaugural meetings being the appointment of additional members. The triennial elections were postponed in 1914 on the outbreak of World War I.
The Local Government (Ireland) Act 1919 introduced proportional representation to county councils: all councillors were to be elected by single transferable vote from multi-member electoral areas. There was only one election under the new system, held in January 1920 (in urban areas) and on 2 June 1920 (in rural areas), during the Irish War of Independence.
County councils existed in Northern Ireland from 1922 – 1973.
Following partition, six administrative counties remained within the United Kingdom as part of Northern Ireland. Local government came under the control of the Parliament of Northern Ireland, who quickly introduced the Local Government Act (Northern Ireland) 1922, abolishing proportional representation. Electoral districts were redrawn, and a property qualification for voters introduced, ensuring Unionist controlled councils in counties with Nationalist majorities. In 1968 Fermanagh County Council was reconstituted as a unitary authority. County councils were abolished under the Local Government Act (Northern Ireland) 1972 in 1973. The only local authorities since that date have been district councils.
The county councils created under British rule in 1899 continue to exist in Ireland, although they are now governed under legislation passed by Oireachtas Éireann, principally the Local Government Act 2001.
The Irish Free State inherited the local authorities created by the United Kingdom legislation of 1898 and 1919, and elections were held on 23 June 1925. The first native legislation was the Local Government Act 1925. The act abolished rural district councils (except in County Dublin) and passed their powers to the county councils. At the following election all county councils were to be increased: the number of extra councillors was to be twice the number of abolished rural districts. The act set out the powers and duties of county councils and also gave the Minister for Local Government the power to dissolve councils if he was satisfied that "the duties of a local council are not being duly and effectually discharged". He could order new elections to be held, or transfer the power and properties of the council "to any body or persons or person he shall think fit". The power was widely used by ministers of all parties. For example, Kerry County Council was dissolved from 1930 to 1932, and from 1945 to 1948, with commissioners appointed to perform the council's function.
The number of county councils was increased from twenty-seven to twenty-nine in 1994 when the Local Government (Dublin) Act 1993 split County Dublin into three counties: Dún Laoghaire–Rathdown, Fingal and South Dublin.
In the United States, most of the individual states have counties as a form of local government; in nine states, they are headed by a county council. These states are South Carolina (all counties), Indiana (all but one county), Louisiana (19 parishes), Maryland (11 counties), Utah (7 counties), Washington (5 counties), Pennsylvania (4 counties), Ohio (2 counties), Florida (1 county), In other states, each county is headed by a county commission, county board of supervisors, a board of chosen freeholders in New Jersey, a Commissioner's (or Quorum/Fiscal) Court in Texas, Missouri, Arkansas, and Kentucky, or a Police Jury in Louisiana.
New England has the weakest county governments in the nation. Counties were abolished in Connecticut and much of Massachusetts. In Vermont, counties are a means of re-distributing funds authorized by the state. There is no actual county government.
In the Republic of China, a county council governs each county. Members of the councils are elected through local elections held every 4–5 years. From the two provinces of the Republic of China, their county councils are:
County councils of Taiwan Province are Changhua County Council, Chiayi County Council, Hsinchu County Council, Hualien County Council, Miaoli County Council, Nantou County Council, Penghu County Council, Pingtung County Council, Taitung County Council, Yilan County Council and Yunlin County Council.
The term county council is sometimes used in English for regional municipal bodies in other countries.