Division of Powers
Latest update: 2012
The United Kingdom is a parliamentary democracy. The Parliament is bicameral and composed of the House of Commons and the House of Lords. The Government is led by the Prime Minister and the Head of State is the (King or) Queen.

The United Kingdom is an asymmetrically decentralised unitary state, but comprises England and three countries with devolved governments: Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales. Although the UK Parliament retains absolute sovereignty, the Scottish Parliament, the Northern Ireland Assembly and the National Assembly for Wales have acquired differing degrees of legislative powers since devolution in 1999. The arrangements established by the respective devolution Acts are not symmetrical – the powers of the three bodies have varied in nature and scope.  There are no formal positive lists of devolved powers in the cases of Scotland and Northern Ireland. These are taken to be those powers which are not specified to be “reserved powers” of the UK Parliament (nor “excepted powers” in the case of Northern Ireland).

The Scottish Parliament has primary and secondary legislative powers, as well as the power to vary internal tax rates (by up to three pence in the pound). The Scotland Act 2012 has made changes to the finances of the Scottish Parliament, including a new Scottish rate of income tax, and make a number of adjustments to the boundary of devolved responsibilities. The Northern Ireland Assembly has primary and secondary powers. The National Assembly for Wales received new powers in 2006. Following the referendum of March 2011, it has primary legislative powers in 20 specified areas and adopts “Acts of the Assembly”, as well as secondary powers generally vested in Welsh Ministers.

It should be noted that these are not complete and absolute transfers of power: a) There are specified exceptions within both reserved and devolved powers. b) The UK Parliament retains the right to legislate on all matters in all parts of the UK, but would not normally do so without the consent of the devolved Assembly or Parliament.

There are three legal systems within the UK: the laws of England and Wales, N. Irish, and Scottish laws.

Successive reforms have produced a complex set of bodies which are responsible for delivering public services at the local level. As of 2011, England has 27 “County Councils” (traditional two-tier areas in which there also 201 District Councils).

There are 55 unitary authorities (“Councils”) in England which are responsible for all local services; Wales is divided into 22 unitary Councils; Scotland has 32 directly-elected unitary Councils; N. Ireland has 26 local Councils to be reduced to 11 following the 2011 Local Government Reform Programme.

The “regional” level is being reduced in England. The Government Offices for the Regions were abolished in 2011; the nine Regional Development Agencies cease operations in 2012 and are being replaced inter alia by Local Enterprise Partnerships. Town and Parish Councils exist in some parts of England, and others, known as Community Councils, in Scotland and Wales. There are no such bodies in N. Ireland.

The UK has no written constitution. UK legislation is available at the following site: http://www.legislation.gov.uk/

The financing of local government in the United Kingdom remains relatively centralised, except in Northern Ireland. Overall, local governments’ revenues are derived mainly from grants (48.5%), taxation (27.3%) and other revenue sources such as fees and sales (24.2%). English local governments’ revenue is composed of about 15.4% autonomous taxation, 13.1% shared taxation, 48.2% grants, and 23.3% other revenue sources (including 7.5% sales, fees and charges). Scottish local government revenue is composed of about 10.4% autonomous taxation, 10% shared taxation, 59.9% grants and 20% other revenue sources (including 11% sales, fees and charges). In Wales local revenue is composed of about 13.7% autonomous taxation, 9.1% shared taxation, 60.3% grants and 16.9% other revenue sources (including 8.7% sales, fees and charges). In Northern Ireland revenue is composed of about 66.5% autonomous taxation, 9.5% grants and 24% sales, fees and charges.
General division of powers​​
Central level

Information below lists the reserved and excepted powers as laid down in the Scottish and Northern Irish acts of devolution.

Regional (in UK = devolved national) level

Information below gives a general overview of the main areas in which there are devolved powers in each case.

Local Level 

In the two-tier areas in England: 

County councils are responsible for: 

  • Providing schools, social services, and public transport services 

District councils are responsible for: 

  • Providing local services, including council housing, gyms and leisure facilities, local planning, recycling and refuse collection.  

Unitary authorities in England, Wales and Scotland, and district councils in Northern Ireland, are responsible for all local services. 

The Greater London Authority (GLA) shares responsibilities with the London Boroughs in the areas of:

  • Economic development;
  • Transport;
  • Health;
  • Police;
  • Fire and emergency planning;
  • Environment, including waste and climate change;
  • Culture;
  • Housing, and
  • Planning.

In Scotland, Councils have regulatory competences and/or provide services in the following areas: 

  • Housing  
  • Local Public Transport & Roads  
  • Social work  
  • Primary Education  
  • Certain social services
  • Leisure, Parcs & Recreation  
  • Culture, libraries, museums
  • Waste Management 
  • Environmental Protection 
  • Health & Public Safety 
  • Licencing 
  • Consumer protection 
  • Community Planning & Control 
  • Economic Development & Regeneration 
  • Police & Fire Services (being transferred to Scottish level) 
  • registration (electoral registration); 
  • elections.
UK GENERAL (2) – Areas in which the UK has RESERVED or EXCEPTED (*) powers, 2011  


UK has reserved powers in: 

  • The Crown, the Union of the Kingdoms of Scotland and England, the Parliament of the United Kingdom;
  • International relations, including foreign trade except for observing and implementing EU and European Convention on Human Rights matters;  
  • Defence and national security, treason and provisions for dealing with terrorism;  
  • Fiscal and monetary policy, currency, coinage and legal tender;  
  • Immigration, nationality and extradition;  
  • The criminal law in relation to drugs and firearms, and the regulation of drugs of misuse;  
  • Elections, except local elections;  
  • Official Secrets, national security; 
  • Law on companies and business associations, insurance, corporate insolvency and intellectual property; regulation of financial institutions and financial services;  
  • Competition, monopolies and mergers;  
  • Employment legislation, including industrial relations, equal opportunities, health and safety;  
  • Most consumer protection; data protection;
    Post Office, postal and telegraphy services; 
  • Most energy matters;  
  • Railways and air transport, road safety;
  • Transport safety and regulation; 
  • Social security; 
  • The regulation of certain professions, including medical, dental, nursing and other health professions, veterinary surgeons, architects, auditors, estate agents, insolvency practitioners and insurance intermediaries; 
  • Research Councils; 
  • The designation of assisted areas; 
  • Nuclear safety, control and safety of medicines, and reciprocal health agreements;
  • Broadcasting and film classification, licensing of theatres and cinemas, gambling; 
  • Weights and measures; time zones;
  • Abortion, human fertilisation and embryology, genetics and xenotransplantation; 
  • Equality legislation, and  
  • The regulation of activities in outer space.  

Northern Ireland

UK has reserved powers in:

  • Foreign trade;
  • Domicile;
  • Qualifications and immunities of the Assembly and its members;
  • Regulation of building societies, banking, friendly societies, the investment and securities business.
  • Competition, monopolies and mergers;
  • Some consumer protection matters;
  • Trade marks, copyright, patent and topography rights;
  • Weights and measures;
  • Telecommunications and wireless telegraphy;
  • Consumer safety;
  • Some environmental matters,
  • Data protection;
  • Postal services;
  • Navigation, but not harbours or inland waters.
  • Civil aviation, but not aerodromes;
  • Nuclear installations;
  • The foreshore and the sea bed and subsoil and their natural resources, and
  • The designation of assisted areas.

UK has excepted powers in:

  • The Crown, the Parliament of the United Kingdom;
  • Dignities and titles of honour;
  • International relations, but not the surrender of fugitive offenders between Northern Ireland and Republic of Ireland;
  • Observing and implementing European Union and European Convention on Human Rights matters;
  • Defence and national security, treason, provisions for dealing with terrorism or subversion;
  • Coinage, legal tender and bank notes;
  • Taxes under UK laws or existing stamp duties in Northern Ireland;
  • Immigration and nationality;
  • The appointment and removal of judges and director of Public Prosecutions for Northern Ireland;
  • Elections, including local elections;
  • National security;
  • The National Savings Bank;
  • Research Councils;
  • Xenotransplantation, human fertilisation and embryology, surrogacy and human genetics, and
  • The regulation of activities in outer space.

UK GENERAL (3) – Areas in which there are devolved powers, 2011 – an indicative overview


UK has devolved powers in:

  • Health;
  • Education and training;
  • Housing;
  • Local government;
  • Social work;
  • Planning;
  • Economic development;
  • The administration of the European Structural Funds;
  • Public transport;
  • Law and home affairs, including most civil and criminal law, criminal justice and prosecution system, police and prisons;
  • Fire services;
  • Environment;
  • Agriculture, fisheries and forestry;
  • Tourism;
  • Sport and the arts, and
  • Research and statistics in relation to devolved matters;
  • Other powers expanded through the Scotland Act 2012.


UK has devolved powers in:

  • Health and health services;
  • Education and training;
  • Housing;
  • Local government;
  • Town and country planning;
  • Social welfare;
  • Public administration;
  • Economic development;
  • The administration of the European Structural Funds;
  • Highways and transport;
  • Fire and rescue services and promotion of fire safety;
  • Water and flood defence;
  • Environment;
  • Agriculture, fisheries forestry, rural development;
  • Food;
  • Tourism;
  • Culture;
  • Ancient monuments and historic buildings;
  • Sport and recreation;
  • The Welsh language, and
  • The National Assembly for Wales.

Northern Ireland

UK has devolved powers in:

  • Health;
  • Education and training;
  • Housing;
  • Social work;
  • Planning;
  • Most social security, child support and pensions;
  • Economic development;
  • The administration of the European Structural Funds;
  • Transport;
  • Justice and policing;
  • Fire services;
  • Environment;
  • Energy (except nuclear)
  • Agriculture, fisheries and forestry;
  • Tourism, and
  • Sport and the arts;