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A unitary authority is a type of local authority that has a single tier and is responsible for all local government functions within its area or performs additional functions which elsewhere in the relevant country are usually performed by national government or a higher level of sub-national government.
Typically unitary authorities cover towns or cities which are large enough to function independently of county or other regional administration. Sometimes they consist of national sub-divisions which are distinguished from others in the same country by having no lower level of administration.
More commonly referred to as single-tier municipalities, they exist as a single level of government in a province that otherwise has two levels of local government. One should not confuse municipalities in provinces with no upper-level of local government as single-tier municipalities, as these are the only level of local government in that province.
Structure of a single-tier municipality varies, and while most function as cities with no upper level of government, some function as counties or regional municipalities with no lower municipal subdivisions below them. The vast majority of Canadian single-tier municipalities are located in Ontario, where they exist as individual census divisions, as well as separated municipalities.
In Germany, kreisfreie Stadt is the equivalent term for a city which is responsible for the local and the Kreis (district) administrative level (the British counties having no directly corresponding counterpart in Germany).
In New Zealand a unitary authority is a territorial authority (district or city) which also performs the functions of a regional council. New Zealand has five unitary authorities: Gisborne District, Nelson City, Tasman District, Marlborough District, and the new Auckland Council.
In Poland a miasto na prawach powiatu or powiat grodzki (city with powiat rights or urban county) is a city which is also responsible for district (powiat) administrative level, being part of no other powiat (e.g. Poznań, Kraków, Łódź). In total 65 cities in Poland have this status.
In the United Kingdom, "unitary authorities" are English local authorities set up by the Local Government Act 1992 which form a single tier of local government, and are responsible for almost all local government functions within their areas.
This is distinct from the two-tier system of local government which still exists in most of England, where local government functions are divided between county councils (the upper tier) and district or borough councils. Until 1996 two-tier systems existed in Scotland and Wales, but these have now been replaced by systems based on a single-tier of local government with some functions shared between groups of adjacent authorities. A single-tier system has existed in Northern Ireland since 1973.
For many years the description of the number of tiers in UK local government arrangements has routinely ignored any current or previous bodies at the lowest level of authorities elected by the voters within their area such as parish (in England and Wales) or community councils; such bodies do not exist or have not existed in all areas.
Northern Ireland is divided into 26 single tier local government districts. The councils do not carry out the same range of functions as those in the rest of the United Kingdom, e.g. they have no responsibility for education, for road building or for housing. The districts are often combined for various purposes including Education Boards, Health Boards and Eurostat statistical units. Districts are variously styled 'District Council', 'Borough Council', 'City Council' and 'City and District Council'.
Local authorities in Scotland are unitary in nature but not in name. The Local Government etc. (Scotland) Act 1994 created a single tier of local government throughout Scotland. On 1 April 1996, 32 local government areas, each with a council, replaced the previous two-tier structure, which had regional, islands and district councils. Comhairle nan Eilean Siar (formerly the Western Isles Council) uses the alternative Gaelic designation Comhairle. The phrase "unitary authority" is not used in Scottish legislation (whether from the Scottish Parliament or the UK Parliament), although the term is encountered (used either descriptively or erroneously) in publications and in (usually erroneous) use by United Kingdom government departments.
Local authorities in Wales are unitary in nature (although the term has no legal status in Wales) and are described by the Local Government (Wales) Act 1994 as "principal councils", and their areas as principal areas. Various other legislation includes the counties and county boroughs of Wales within their individual interpretations of the phrase "unitary authority". In s.2 of the Act each council formed for a county is allocated the respective English and Welsh descriptions of "County Council" or "Cyngor Sir", each council formed for a County Borough is allocated the respective descriptions of "County Borough Council" or "Cyngor Bwrdeistref Sirol"; in all cases the shorter alternative forms "Council" or "Cyngor" can be used.
Similar to the civil parishes in England, the lowest tier of local government in Wales are the communities. All of the unitary principal councils are fully divided into communities, but not all such communities have established community councils.
There are several types of single-tier governments in the United States. In the states of Connecticut, Rhode Island, and much of Massachusetts, county government has been abolished and the municipalities (known as New England towns) are the only governing tier below the state government, though the former counties still exist in the ceremonial sense. In Virginia, municipalities with city status are, by definition, independent from any county, meaning there is no intermediate governing tier between state-level government and municipal-level government for these independent cities. In Nevada, the state capital of Carson City is also an independent city, free of any county. There are also several consolidated cities where the county government and municipal government are unified. San Francisco and Philadelphia are two examples, wherein the city and county are coterminous and have one singular governing body.
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