Eric Pickles chose St.George’s Day to announce the restoration of England’s traditional counties. He’s not actually suggesting a re-organisation of local government, of course. He’s just suggesting that councils put up county signs along the old boundaries and start using the traditional names again.
A lot of people will think this is a good idea. Even though I was too young to really remember the old counties, I’ve always thought they were more aesthetically pleasing than the new ones.
There are a couple of problems with this, though. Firstly, what boundaries do you use because even the ‘historic counties’ have had their boundaries tweaked over the centuries. I was rather disappointed to find that there is no campaign to restore Winchcombeshire, which was merged with Gloucestershire by King Cnut in 1017. Given that this is a classic example of Europeans meddling with English county boundaries, I would have thought some people would have been cross enough to seek its reversal.
Secondly, what do we mean by a county? Originally counties were administrative units but that began to change when county boroughs were effectively given independence from their counties and, in terms of administrative functions, became counties in their own right. I remember having a long, alcohol-fuelled argument with a woman from Birmingham about whether or not Birmingham was in Warwickshire. She insisted that it had, for years, been its own county. In administrative terms, she was right. But if you said Birmingham wasn’t in Warwickshire, you’d have to say that Derby wasn’t in Derbyshire and Nottingham wasn’t in Nottinghamshire because they, too, had county borough status and ran their own affairs.
The situation was further complicated by the introduction of unitary authorities in the 1990s and 2000s, effectively re-creating the county boroughs and extending them to other parts of the country. Counties like Berkshire and Cheshire ceased to exist as administrative entities because their component boroughs became unitary authorities providing all services and their county councils were abolished. Ceremonial counties were defined by the Lieutenancies Act 1997, for the most part along the 1974 county lines, to unify counties and unitary authorities for, well, ceremonial purposes.
So we now have 3 types of county: the authorities which look after major local government functions, either a unitary authority or a traditional 2-tier county council, the ceremonial counties, based on the 1974 boundaries, and the historic counties, based on the 1844 boundaries. The Department for Communities and Local Government has produced an interactive map to help you work out which ones you are in. It’s possible to be in three different ones. For example, if you live in Slough, you are in the unitary authority of Slough, the ceremonial county of Berkshire and the historic county of Buckinghamshire. In Peterborough, you are in the unitary authority of Peterborough, the ceremonial county of Cambridgeshire and the historic county of Northamptonshire. Had they chosen a later version of the historic counties, you’d be in the historic county of Huntingdon and Peterborough.
Perhaps the most ridiculous thing about this announcement, though, was the tone of the press release. Remember, this is a government department speaking.
England’s traditional counties date back over a thousand years of English history, but many of the counties have been sidelined by Whitehall and municipal bureaucrats in recent decades.
Sidelined by bureaucrats?!! It’s the sort of thing you’d expect to see on some slightly bonkers conspiracy website. The implication is that some faceless bureaucrats removed our counties by stealth.
Eric Pickles warmed to this theme.
No Westminster officials or European bureaucrats can remove people’s loyalty to the country they were born in. From Cumberland to Huntingdonshire or Middlesex to Westmorland, our local history makes us who we are and do what we do. It’s all part of being English.
Westminster officials? European bureaucrats? The counties were changed by elected governments, Eric, mostly from your party. The 1974 counties, still hated by many, were created by Ted Heath’s government and the further dismemberment by unitary authorities was the work of John Major’s administration. Labour simply finished the job in 2009.
If the much-loved historic counties are no more, it is because politicians, mostly Conservative ones, made it so. Implying that it was something to do with the EU, or imposed by Whitehall bureaucrats, is a cheap stunt. Create a fictitious dragon, then pretend to be the knight in shining armour that slays it. We’ve heard that one somewhere before too.