Local government facts and figures: Scotland

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Quick facts

  • Today’s council areas have been in existence since 1 April 1996, under the provisions of the Local Government (Scotland) Act 1994
  • Orkney Islands is the council with the smallest population, with about 21,600 people – while the City of Glasgow has the largest population, with around 600,000 people
  • At 11,838 square miles, Highland is the largest local authority by area – and at 21 square miles, Dundee City is the smallest
  • The local authority with the most inhabited islands is Argyll and Bute, which has 23
  • 29% of Scottish councillors are women (up from 24% in the previous local elections)
  • Scotland’s youngest councillor is North Lanarkshire’s Cameron McManus (19, SNP).

Councils and councillors

How is local government structured?

In Scotland, local government is organised in to unitary authorities. Each local authority is governed by a council, which is made up of councillors directly elected by the residents of the area they represent.

Sitting below these principal councils are community councils, which bridge the gap between the local authority and the community and are composed of elected volunteers from the community.

There are 32 unitary authorities in Scotland, and around 1200 community councils.

How many councillors are there?

Scotland currently has 1,227 elected councillors who are elected every 4 years. The last local elections were held in May 2017, having been postponed for a year to avoid clashing with the May 2016 Holyrood elections.

As of the May 2017 elections, there are 431 SNP councillors; 276 Conservative councillors; 262 Labour councillors; 66 Liberal Democrat councillors; 173 Independent or non-aligned councillors; and 19 Green councillors.

In the previous elections, there were 425 SNP councillors; 394 Labour councillors; 204 Independent, other or non-aligned councillors; 115 Conservative councillors; 71 Liberal Democrat councillors; and 14 Green councillors.

What do councillors do?

Councillors are responsible for:

  • Executive decision making – councillors attend full meetings of the council, and some hold executive posts
  • Scrutiny of decisions – councillors may serve on scrutiny panels, responsible for the scrutiny of existing policies and service delivery
  • Representing their ward – councillors represent and meet with residents and groups within their ward, and address the issues that they raise

Councillors can sometimes be involved in other areas, such as the development of new policies for the council. They may also sit on the boards of other organisations whose remit is related to that of the council.

What other roles are there in a council?

  • Administration– a group of councillors within a council who are able to command majority support and thus control the running of the council.
  • Council Leader– leads the council and is normally elected by the party or coalition that forms the administration of the council.
  • Chief Executive – The council’s Chief Executive is normally the head of its paid staff, employed by and responsible to the council.
  • Convenor– chairs council meetings and represents the council on civic and ceremonial occasions. In the cities of Glasgow, Edinburgh, Aberdeen and Dundee, the Convenor is known as the Lord Provost.
  • Officers – staff of the council who work to to carry out its various functions, such as teachers, social workers and planning officers

What do councils do?

Local authorities in Scotland provide a range of public services, such as education, housing and planning, social care, roads and transport, economic development, environmental protection, and waste management.

Councils have different types of powers and duties which are set out in various different pieces of legislation:

  • Mandatory duties – things that councils are required by law to provide, such as social care, and primary/secondary education
  • Permissive powers – things that councils do not have to provide, but normally do, such as recreation services and economic development
  • Regulatory powers – such as trading standards, and alcohol licensing

What is the political control of councils in Scotland?

CouncilPolitical control
Aberdeen CityConservative, Independent
AberdeenshireConsevative, Independent, Lib Dem
AngusConservative, Independent, Lib Dem
Argyll and ButeConservative, Independent, Lib Dem
ClackmannanshireSNP minority
Comhairle nan Eilean SiarIndependent
Dumfries and GallowayLabour, SNP
DundeeSNP, Independent
East AyrshireSNP minority
East DunbartonshireConservative, Lib Dem
East LothianLabour minority
East RenfrewshireSNP, Labour, Independent
EdinburghSNP, Labour
Falkirk SNP minority
FifeSNP, Labour
GlasgowSNP minority
HighlandIndependent, Lib Dem, Labour
InverclydeLabour minority
MidlothianLabour minority
MorayConservative, Independent
North AyrshireLabour minority
North LanarkshireLabour minority
Orkney IslandsIndependent
Perth and KinrossConservative, Lib Dem, Independent
RenfrewshireSNP minority
Scottish BordersConservative, Independent
Shetland IslandsIndependent
South AyrshireSNP, Labour, Independent
South LanarkshireSNP minority
StirlingSNP, Labour
West DunbartonshireSNP, Independent
West LothianLabour minority


Who pays for local government in Scotland?

Scottish councils are given a block grant from the Scottish Government, which amounts to around 85% of their net revenue expenditure. The remainder of their expenditure is funded mostly from local taxation.

How much do councils spend and on what?

For 2016-17 Scotland’s local authorities have set a net revenue expenditure budget of £11.7 billion for spending on all services. This is £153 million less (1.3%) than the budget set for 2015-16. Of this, £4.8 billion is for Education, and £3.1 billion is for Social Work.

How many people work for local government in Scotland?

In Q1 of 2016, total employment in Scottish local government was 244,300.

In April 2013, approximately 29,000 staff were reclassified as central government employees as a result of the introduction of the single police and fire services.

How did local government evolve in Scotland?

Over the last millennium, Scottish society evolved from small, self-sufficient communities into our present democratic structures.

Feudalism was introduced by David I in the 12th century, who also founded burghs such as Stirling, Dunfermline, Perth and Edinburgh. The new royal burghs enjoyed trading privileges in return for providing the crown with tolls and duties. Gradually, they became more independent and formed early town councils. The first Royal Burghs were Berwick and Roxburgh, quickly followed by Edinburgh, Perth, Stirling, Dunfermline and Scone. By 1326, burghs were sending representatives to sit alongside the nobility and the senior clergy in the Scottish Parliament. By 1707 there were around 70 of these burghs. Nobles were also able to establish and own burghs from the early 13th century. Over 300 of these ‘burghs of barony’ were created between 1450 and 1846. In 1833, three acts of parliament (‘the Burgh Reform Acts’) were passed in order to enable the burghs to adapt to the changing needs of communities. These reforms included the established of Police Burghs and a duty to hold elections.

David I also expanded the system of ‘shires’, or sheriffdoms. The word ‘shire’ remained in usage until 1889, when control of the shires was taken over by county councils. Meanwhile, parish councils were abolished in 1930 and their powers transferred to the county councils. Also in 1930, three classes of burgh were established with different powers.

During the 1960s, a Royal Commission reported that there were too many local authorities, with low public standing and with unequal resources. Following this, Scotland was divided into 9 regions and 53 districts, plus 3 unitary island authorities. Community councils were also introduced. Burgh councils were abolished.

Regional councils were accused of being too remote from the people and too expensive. In 1996, they were abolished and the district councils were aggregated into unitary councils – 32 including the island authorities.

You can read more about the history of Scottish local government on the Scotland’s Community Councillors website.