Why the Confusion?

County identity in Great Britain has caused confusion for years and the common misconception that the historic counties were abolished or changed is no surprise given the fact local government areas were originally based on the counties but over the years have had their boundaries changed time and time again leading people to wrongly assume their local council area represents the county in which they live.

Put simply, local government areas were created in 1888 and although initially based on the historic counties, they were always understood to be separate from them. Therefore, subsequent changes to local government areas have not affected the historic counties, a fact successive Governments has consistently re-affirmed.

Unfortunately and despite reassurances from government, most if not all public bodies, Royal Mail and especially the media have perpetuated the myths, untruths and blatant disregard for the traditional counties by referring to and insisting on the use of the latest round of ‘county’ names.

Most bizarrely the Royal Mail went one further by insisting on their own ‘Postal Counties’ following the local government reorganisation in the Seventies.

The origin of the historic counties goes back to medieval and feudal times. The division of England into shires began in the mid-Saxon period. The Scottish counties have their origins in the shires first created in the reign of Alexander I (1107-24). The present day pattern of the counties of Wales dates from the Laws in Wales Act 1535 and were generally based on earlier traditional areas.

While each county may have originally been set up for some public purpose or other, long before the beginning of the nineteenth century it was their geographical and cultural identities which were paramount. No single administrative function defined them. Rather, the counties were considered to be territorial divisions of the country whose names and areas had been fixed for many centuries and were universally known and accepted. The counties were clearly recognised legal entities. Innumerable Acts of Parliament made reference to them and used them as the basic geographical framework for various administrative functions.

The beginning of the confusion is probably the Local Government Act 1888 when newly defined administrative areas covering the whole of England and Wales were created and named “administrative counties” (two-tier local government areas) and “county boroughs” (single-tier local government areas). The Local Government (Scotland) Act 1889 created similar administrative areas in Scotland.

Initially the combined area of an “administrative county” with its “associated county boroughs” was similar to that of the historic county from which the “administrative county” took its name (e.g. the combined area of the “administrative county” of “Warwickshire” with the “county boroughs” of “Birmingham” and “Coventry” was very similar to that of the historic county of Warwickshire).

However, the local government legislation did not abolish or alter the historic counties. This fact is evident from the General Register Office’s Census Report of 1891. This distinguished between what it dubbed the “Ancient or Geographical Counties” and the new “administrative counties”. It made it clear that the two were distinct entities and that the former still existed. No subsequent local government legislation has ever tried to alter or abolish the historic counties and their continued existence has been consistently reaffirmed by the Government.

However, what is true is that the historic counties are no longer used as the basis for any major form of public administration. Prior to 1888 the areas of the sheriffs and lord-lieutenants were based on the historic counties. The Local Government Act 1888 tied them to the new “administrative counties”. In 1917 parliamentary constituencies were also redrawn and based on the “administrative counties”. This was the end of the last major administrative use to which the historic counties were put.

Whilst the historic counties are no longer used directly as the basis for any major form of public administration they do, of course, remain significant cultural and geographical entities.

The most common myth and probably the source of most confusion are the events of 1974 which came into effect following the Local Government Act 1972. The fact is, no changes were made whatsoever to the historic counties. There were, however, significant changes to local government. Whilst these changes were wide ranging they were by no means unique to 1974. In reality, since 1888 numerous Acts had changed the boundaries of local government areas to suit their needs. Such changes gathered pace in the 1960s, for example with the London Government Act 1963 which created a formal “Greater London” administrative area. The Local Government Act 1972 radically amended local government in the rest of England and Wales. It abolished the administrative counties and county boroughs set up under the Local Government Act 1888 and created a whole new set of local government areas:

“For the administration of local government on and after 1st April 1974 England (exclusive of Greater London and the Isles of Scilly) shall be divided into local government areas to be known as counties and in those counties there shall be local government areas to be known as districts.”

The confusion has been caused by the use of the unqualified word ‘county’ rather than ‘administrative county’ and the retention of the phrase ‘county council’ to describe local authorities whose area was nothing like any historic county. Nonetheless, it is clear that these areas ‘to be known as counties’ are defined solely ‘for the administration of local government’. Nowhere were they imbued with a wider cultural or geographical role.

Whilst the 1972 Act did abolish all the previous local government ‘administrative counties’ and ‘county boroughs’, it did not did not abolish or alter the historic counties. It was solely concerned with local government. An article published in The Times on 1 April 1974, when the Act came into power, quotes an official of the Department of the Environment confirming this:

“They are administrative areas and will not alter the traditional boundaries of counties, nor it is intended that the loyalties of people living in them will change.”

Local government has continued to be subject to continual and often radical change since the early 1970s. Few local authorities now have an area anything like any historic county. Many, however, continue to misuse historic county names and to give themselves the title ‘county council’.

Further confusion was caused with the introduction of ‘Ceremonial Counties’. Prior to 1888 the lord-lieutenants and sheriffs were appointed to areas defined in term of the historic counties. Following the Local Government Act 1888 they were appointed to areas based on the new administrative counties and county boroughs, their boundaries still close to those of the historic counties. In 1972 they were changed and based on the new local government ‘counties’.

These days they are defined by the Lieutenancies Act 1997 and are an utterly bizarre mix of current and former local government areas. In recent years, these areas have been referred to as ‘ceremonial counties’ though this is not a statutory term. In Scotland, the areas are not even called ‘counties’. The ceremonial areas are defined solely for the operation of the office of the lord-lieutenant. They are such a bizarre mix of areas that they have increasingly had no geographical or cultural role and are effectively ignored and unknown to those other than who they directly affect. They are certainly not any kind of replacement for the historic counties in a cultural or geographical context.

Despite reassurances from Government officials and ministers stating that the historic counties have been, and continue to be unaffected by local government boundary changes, many still mistakenly believe otherwise.

It’s easy to see how the concept of the historic counties somehow being abolished spread. The linking of the then new concept of elected local government to the historic counties made it inevitable that the two would become confused in the public and the media’s mind. Changes to local government became seen as changes to the historic counties.

The technical fact of the historic counties continued existence, and that they are still relevant cultural and geographical entities in the modern United Kingdom is clear.

In relation to the English counties this was re-affirmed on 23rd April 2013 by Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government Rt Hon Sir Eric Pickles:

“The tapestry of England’s counties binds our nation together. This government has binned the arbitrary Government Office Euro-regions, and instead, we are championing England’s traditional local identities which continue to run deep.”

“Administrative restructuring by previous governments has sought to suppress and undermine such local identities. Today, on St George’s Day, we commemorate our patron saint and formally acknowledge the continuing role of our traditional counties in England’s public and cultural life.”

The long term solution is to break the link between local government, which can have its boundaries altered to suit population changes, and the traditional counties whose boundaries are static. Some success along these lines has been achieved in Northern Ireland, where even though the six counties may serve no administrative role they remain a frame of reference.

Stop calling local authorities ‘county councils’, stop calling local government areas ‘counties’, stop letting local authorities ape historic county names, stop treating council areas such as ‘Cumbria’ as if they are some ancient county and much clarity will be achieved. Local government is important, but it can foster its own identity, and not try to borrow that of the historic counties.

A return to basing the office of lord-lieutenant on the historic counties so that the boundaries of the modern concept of ‘ceremonial counties’ be aligned to those of the traditional ones will allow historic counties and local government to coexist.

Further local government reorganisation in 1996 restored some non-metropolitan areas to their traditional county for ceremonial purposes but not according to the ancient boundaries.

A precedent has been set in the former local government area of ‘Cleveland’, not only has the area been restored to the correct lord-lieutenant of County Durham for ceremonial purposes, but the borough of Stockton-on-Tees which straddles the ancient boundary has been split for ceremonial purposes between County Durham, north of the river, and North Yorkshire, south of the river.

This proves it can easily be ‘fixed’ and there is no reason the same principle can’t also be applied to other local authority areas which straddle boundaries of historic counties.

As more areas are granted Unitary Authority status and are therefore no longer part of their proper county for administrative purposes the map of Britain becomes more and more fragmented.

We now have the situation whereby these Unitary Authorities are being used on addresses and wrongly referred to as being separate entities for non-administrative purposes.

It is an absolute mess and totally confusing to most people.

The counties of this country are an integral part of our history and culture and it is essential that they are preserved.

Until 1974 the identities of most of the ancient and geographical counties of the United Kingdom had remained essentially unaltered for over a thousand years.

Very little needs to be done to undo the damage to county identity that has occurred over the years, but unless steps are taken now, we run the risk of losing this very important part of our heritage.