In recent reports, the BBC has used this superlative in relation to the City of Birmingham multiple times:

The largest local authority in Europe is to halt all spending other than services it must provide by law such as social care, waste collection, and protecting the vulnerable.

Wikipedia grants it second place after Kent:

Birmingham City Council is the second largest local authority in Europe (after Kent County Council) in terms of the population it covers.

Now Birmingham is a large city, no doubt. but under the European cities, 1.14 million inhabitants place it not even near the top of the list (Place 27, in fact). That seems to imply that the term "local authority" is meant to be used in such a way as to discount the city governments of all other, larger cities. Somehow, they all seem not to fulfill some criterion of a supposedly unitary (?) governance.

As I understand it, the administrative subdivisions of Birmingham as a metropolitan borough, the 10 Constituency committees have a limited ability to decide on some services and budgets only affecting their area. If they do not take precedence as "local authority", in other cities their divisions seem to do so. Are they so different?

Take a look at some examples:

  • Istanbul (15.9 million) might be discounted here as it is not completely situated inside Europe.

  • Moscow (13 million) is a "federal subject" of the Russian Federation, but also a city governed by a mayor and a city duma. Its subdivision seems to be quite complex with 12 "okrugs", 125 districts and 21 settlements, but the 146 municipal formations seem to be tasked with "managing local affairs through local self-government", so they might be fit to be called independent local authorities.

  • (My own home town) Berlin (3.8 million) has also a comparable double role as federal state and city. But its constitution it is also a single municipality (Einheitsgemeinde) and its 12 "Bezirke" are "not territorial corporations of public law, but simple administrative agencies of Berlin's state and city government":

    The district board is in charge of most local administrative matters directly relevant to local citizens; however, all of its decisions can at any moment be revoked by the Berlin Senate.

  • Rome (2.8 million) has the same status as a municipality as other Italian cities. Its 15 "Circoscrizione" are also not "local entities", but "organs" of their municipality:

    Le circoscrizioni comunali non sono enti locali, in quanto prive di personalità giuridica, ma organi del comune, seppur complessi e dotati di autonomia (e, quindi, di una certa soggettività giuridica, se si tiene questo concetto distinto dalla personalità).

    Municipal districts are not local authorities, as they lack legal personality, but organs of the municipality, albeit complex and endowed with autonomy (and, therefore, a certain legal subjectivity, if one keeps this concept distinct from personality).

I could go on with the Juntas Municipales de Distrito of Madrid, the Arrondissements of Paris and many more, but they all seem to have a common theme: While they have some limited autonomy and have a local elected body, their powers of governance are less than those of a "full" municipality.

What makes this so different from Birmingham? Who came up with this title, and what were their criteria?

origimbo, in his answer, pointed out the EUROSTAT Nomenclature of Territorial Units for Statistics, which also defines subdivisions called Local Administrative Units. Its latest validated list is from 2019 and covers EU-28, EFTA and EU candidates (for the last, a few are missing, but none with million cities). Its largest entries, all above 2 million, are

Name Population
Berlin, Stadt 3,644,826
Madrid 3,266,126
Roma 2,856,133
Paris (see note below) 2,234,105
Municipiul Bucuresti 2,113,362

Birmingham (pop. 1,137,123) is listed in place 14.

Population numbers for France are missing, but Paris is listed as a single LAU. The number in the table is from an older file. Istanbul, in contrast, is divided into 39 units, the largest being Esenyurt (pop. 891,120, ranked 21).

  • In case of Moscow - Mosgorduma and the mayor of Moscow are authorities of Moscow as a federal subject. According to the 2002 law on self-government of Moscow, executive bodies of local self-government are the municipal districts (which have their own elective representative bodies). Sep 6, 2023 at 5:14
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    The constituency committees are not local authorities, because they are simply sub-committees of Birmingham City Council composed of Birmingham city councillors, and do not have their own councillors.
    – Mike Scott
    Sep 6, 2023 at 6:15
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    My guess would be that this is some word playing meaning that a 'city council' in the precise British legal meaning of the word only exists in the UK and therefore the biggest city council in the UK is by definition also the biggest city council in the EU or the world as a whole.
    – quarague
    Sep 6, 2023 at 6:41
  • @MikeScott I suspect that could form the basis of an answer, always respecting that the original statement does suffer the "world's busiest airport" problem of not fully defining terms, allowing different groups to use different statistics.
    – origimbo
    Sep 6, 2023 at 9:27
  • @MikeScott Note that I can form sentences like "they are not local authorities because of" for most other city subdivisions – Moscow probably excluded. Even the "not their own councillors" has at least some resemblance to the Budapest city council, which is composed of the (directly elected, just like constituency representatives) district mayors plus a minority of extras.
    – ccprog
    Sep 6, 2023 at 13:02

1 Answer 1


This is a somewhat ill-formed title (rather like world's busiest airport or world's most powerful car) since different definitions can be used for "local authority" (indeed the UK uses this for two separate levels of local government, hence the differing statements on Wikipedia) and for "biggest", but using the Nomenclature of Territorial Units for Statistics definitions, a candidate for a well-formed version of the statement might be:

Birmingham City Council covers the largest population of all Local Administrative Units (LAUs) which are not also a division of NUTS level 3 or higher.

In the case of Birmingham, it is a subdivision of the West Midlands Combined Authority, which is the NUTS-3 level unit. Kent County Council is a NUTS-3 level unit which has LAUs below it (various district councils). Due to various quirks of local governance in England, combined authorities (which do not have directly elected representatives) are not generally considered local authorities (a title which applies to various NUTS-3 and LAU units), and the directly elected bodies in the UK which do cover more people are devolved regional authorities.

Since NUTS is an EU standard, this would be easiest to check for the EU27, the candidate countries (and of course the UK as a former member) however I haven't actually done so.

  • I am not sure I understand that sentence. Do you mean "a LAU that does not have itself a NUTS code"? In this case, Rome would qualify as a subdivision of the Province of Rome (ITI43). The city of Rome, a comune, is designated as LAU2 (Italy does not define LAU1).
    – ccprog
    Sep 7, 2023 at 14:55
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    The same distinction seems to hold for the Community of Madrid (ES3) and the city of Madrid.
    – ccprog
    Sep 7, 2023 at 15:00
  • I still don't get it. This table lists Birmingham as being identical to NUTS-3 code UKG31, West Midlands being listed as level 2 UKG3, for example on the map herethis direct link will not load form me.
    – ccprog
    Sep 7, 2023 at 15:39
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    Actually, digging a little deeper, it seems a pre 2017 list of LAU1s would be topped by Birmingham, since neither Italy or Spain reported them. This may be the answer.
    – origimbo
    Sep 8, 2023 at 6:00
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    The UK also used both LAU1 and LAU2 numbers, but in just the opposite way to France: in France, LAU1, cantons, are electoral constituencies, and LAU2 are municipalities with a unitary administration. In the UK, LAU1 are the municipalities and LAU2 are wards, used for electoral purposes. So the whole thing could be just a misunderstanding what these levels are supposed to mean. France and UK were both outliers, most other countries used LAU2 for municipalities and only entered LAU1 numbers if there was a fourth regional administrative tier.
    – ccprog
    Sep 8, 2023 at 14:51

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