I was watching old episodes of Prisoner (Prisoner: Cell Block H) and old Australian soap opera and Judy who runs a halfway house says “We have to get council approval to sell things in the shop.” She’s always fretting about “council approval”
Now I was watching Keeping Up Appearences and Hyacinth mentions things like the “council” is going to raise taxes.
This is obviously some sort of governmental agency, but what exactly is it? Is it elected or is it like a city or town government in the United States?
A council in this context is the local government authority. It’s elected exactly like any other layer of government. The council is commonly headed by a Mayor, although the equivalent position might be titled Shire Chairman, Senior Alderman and so forth in different locales.
Councils look after the local, day-to-day stuff: animal control and dog registration, local roads, water and sewage, public libraries, development zoning and approval etc. In England, for some reason, councils also traditionally had responsibility for providing low-cost public housing, hence you will often here references to council houses… and CHAVs.
Councils have a reputation of being the home of frustrated dictators and obstructionist bureaucrats; people who couldn’t succeed in “real” politics. Hand in hand with that goes an impression that they seek to stop people from doing almost anything at all, including dictating what they can and can’t sell in a shop. This reputation is largely undeserved in my experience. By their nature councils are concerned with regulating day-to-day life, and so they come into contact (and conflict) with people more often than other branches of government.
In the context mentioned by the OP (and in real-life situations of general complaint), it can sometimes be a sort of conversational shorthand for ‘them’ - meaning whichever agency is responsible for this thing I don’t like - which may in reality be a parish council, a city, district or county council, the police, central government, or various regulatory bodies.
Literally, “the Council” is the governing body, i.e., the aldermen or councillors who meet regularly to govern the city, municipality, borough, etc. But it’s often used to refer to the local government body that’s run by that council. If a person says, “I complained to the council,” they probably did not attend a meeting of the council and address the whole governing body: they probably rang up, or went to the council offices or city hall, and complained to an employee of the local government corporation.
FWIW, there are city councils in at leas some American cities. New York, Los Angeles, and New Orleans are examples. However, the colloquial references to local polititcians are different than they are in the UK or Australia – in the U.S., you’ll hear references to “the city” instead of “the council”. “City approval” instead of “council approval.”