Escape from Omnishambleshire: the case for the old county boundaries

I don’t care how local councils are arranged. I just want people in England to know where they live

25 October 2014

9:00 AM

25 October 2014

9:00 AM

Just over 35 years ago, in August 1979, Christopher Booker wrote a cri de coeur in The Spectator calling for the return of England’s ancient counties and the repeal of the 1972 Local Government Act, under which most of them had been either merged, mauled, mangled or murdered.

It drew a large and almost wholly supportive response from figures as distinguished as Professor Richard Cobb (‘Booker has rendered us all a ray of hope’) and Michael Wharton, a.k.a. the Telegraph columnist Peter Simple: ‘What strange beings, in what strange offices, on what strange drawing-boards, worked out these strange -boundaries?’

Shortly afterwards Booker was summoned to 10 Downing Street, where he assumed he would meet the newly installed tenant, a female person, who would greet him briskly and say, ‘Come on, then. Tell me how we get our old counties back.’ Instead he saw some minion who instigated what Booker calls a ‘wispy’ conversation about reforming the trade unions. That was an idea whose time had come; restoration of the map of England was not.

In April 2011 I set out on a three-year quest to write a book about England, a scheme that had been in the back of my head at least since the time of Booker’s article. And though I cannot remember exactly how, when or why I reached this decision, I arranged it with a chapter on each of the historic counties, 39 of them (plus London), all of them able to trace their origins back to the medieval mists and in some cases much, much further: Kent is 2,000 years old or more.

It was a choice I never regretted. Over most of England, the county remains a source of identity and distinctiveness — and also an important identifier to outsiders. Say Essex, Devon, Norfolk or Berkshire and anyone with a working knowledge of British geography will conjure up an instant image, accurate or otherwise.

In some places I was considered eccentric (even more so than usual) because the inhabitants have very little sense of themselves as a county, but that was as true in Hertfordshire, which still has a county council and was hardly affected by boundary changes, as in Huntingdonshire, which was subsumed into Cambridgeshire 40 years ago. The sense of county is strongest away from the south-east, in coastal counties, in the predominantly rural ones, those with relatively settled populations, the ones that play first-class cricket, those where it is still safe to put the county names on envelopes, and among people old enough to remember where they used to live. But everywhere, and among all age groups, I sensed a yearning, a need to be loyal to something beyond a postcode or a football team.

Along the way, I’ve acquired an understanding of how the map got so buggered up. In 1965 Middlesex was abolished to facilitate the creation of the Greater London Council, a Tory plan accepted by Labour. Bigness being fashionable on all sides at the time, the Wilson government set up a royal commission under Sir John Maud to do the same everywhere else. It came up with a year-zero plan to divide England into 61 ‘unitary areas’, bearing no relation to time-honoured boundaries. This mutated, under Ted Heath, into a half-cock compromise based on counties, but not as we knew them. It was never popular.

Margaret Thatcher did indeed change this, but only to the extent of abolishing the big-city versions, the ‘metropolitan county councils’, which had become irritating centres of opposition. In the 1990s John Major, sentimental old sausage, did allow some mitigation: Herefordshire and Rutland were brought back from the dead, and Huntingdonshire might have been had anyone there cared enough. By 1997 all the recently invented county names — Avon, Cleveland, Humberside, Tyne and Wherever, etc. — had ceased to exist for practical purposes, with the sole exception of Cumbria, which has some historical resonance (rather bogus, actually).

The upshot was that millions of people had no idea where the hell they were: we all live in Omnishambleshire. Indeed it keeps getting worse: Bedfordshire, Berkshire, Cheshire have all lately lost their councils; as a result many signs have already vanished.

The fundamental error in all this was the fixation with petty administration as the basis of geography. There is no disaster in Britain more deep-seated than local government. Whitehall has so emasculated the councils that their freedom of action is largely limited to deciding what to cut now and what can wait until next year. Do the libraries go first or shall we outsource rubbish collection to the rats? The voters make things worse by using council elections to register only grievances against Westminster. And potential top-quality councillors shy away: the only sane reason to get yourself elected is to execute a planning fiddle.

No one cares who empties the bins, as long as some human does. Yet the wider aspects matter more than ever. Last month the UK itself narrowly escaped abolition. We have seen how the Scots — the Welsh, too — have rediscovered their self-belief. Since England has 84 per cent of the UK population, English nationalism cannot be either a valid or effective response. It can only be negative and divisive: a state of not being Scottish, not being Welsh or, very often, a state of not being black, Asian or Polish.

The restoration of the old counties to the map is nowhere near a sufficient solution to this existential crisis. But it is part of the solution. Local government can be treated as irrelevant. All that’s needed is a concerted attempt to fulfil the promises made by the Heath government before the main upheaval that these were purely technical changes that would have no wider impact. A single edict from the director-general of the BBC telling his staff to use traditional geography would make a huge difference.

In the meantime, consider Heywood, the town Labour so nearly lost to Ukip in this month’s by-election. Is it in Greater Manchester, as Wikipedia insists? Is it in Rochdale, as my road atlas says? Is it nowhere at all, which is my satnav’s way of distinguishing it from Heywood in Wiltshire? Or is it still in Lancashire, as it was officially from the 12th century until 1974 and as remains screamingly obvious? It seems to me that people who feel secure in their identity and comfortable in their surroundings are less likely to emit howls of rage at by-elections.

Got something to add? Join the discussion and comment below.

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Show comments
  • MC73

    “Since England has 84 per cent of the UK population, English nationalism cannot be either a valid or effective response.” I fail to see how the second half of that sentence can sensibly follow the first.

    • vieuxceps2

      Yes MC,I too was mystified to read the words you quote.Why are the English people not given the same standing and treatment as the others who live on these islands? What does it matter how many we are? There are more Scots than Welsh but nobody thinks that affects their rights to national pride ,why should England be different?
      The truth is that UK,Britain and The Union no longer exist in reality since the faux-Celtic lands have all been “devolved” into units ,leaving England also on her own.Time for this new set-up to be grasped in the minds of the people.

  • MichtyMe

    An omnishambles in England perhaps but in poor old Scotland it was worse. The Conservative local government reorganisation in the 90’s was a futile attempt to create some small patches of blue on the map, a blatant exercise of political self interest.
    The consequences? the Highland Council with a geographical area larger than Belgium, a tiny council Clackmannanshire, historic natural entities, like Ayrshire, become three Ayrshires (North, South & East), prosperous suburbs detached from their cities and all sorts of geographic and social mangulations.

    • Jambo25

      Spot on.

      • MichtyMe

        If designing a system of local administration there is a rational choice, regional authorities, perhaps ten, or the very local. There are arguments to be made for and against both but not for the muddle we have.

        • Jambo25

          In fact, the old system we had in Scotland, in the 70s and early 80s, of Regions and Districts made a lot of sense. The problem was that central government didn’t keep a check on staffing and costs. I worked for Lothian Region Education Authority which at one point had more administrators than teachers.

          • nae a belger

            To a certain extent it did…. However virtually no-one seemed to identify with it.
            I (a post 75 child) never said I came from Grampian, it was always Aberdeenshire,or if being really local, Buchan. I suspect it was the same for most people outside the cities.
            The old region/district system allowed funding to be smoothed out more effectively. An example being leisure facilities in aberdeen. Regularly used by occupants of the shire but provided by the occupants of the city.
            However it also allowed mismanagement to be hidden. Take money from the edges to pay for the centre etc. I think there is no good answer for it so best to go with what people identify with. In England the historic counties in general seem the most popular, make a few changes for Manchester, Birmingham and a few other cities and away you go

          • Jambo25

            I agree with virtually everything you write about the Scottish regions. I don’t think the problems were insuperable however. I think one of the problems was that too many Regions and Districts were one party states and it was that which allowed mismanagement, profligacy and wasteful empire building to take place. Those days of largely Labour fiefdoms have gone due to the abolition of FPTP in local elections and the rise of the SNP to balance things out against SLAB in local government. God knows, the idea of Barney Crockett and ‘Wullie’ Young having the whole of the old Grampian Region to play with is a frightening thought.
            We could go back to a system of unitary authorities based on historic counties and burghs but many of them are so small as to be 1) Hopelessly inefficient and 2) Utterly dependent on central government to function properly.

  • global city

    Remember that the reorganisation of local councils in the early 70s’ was for a specific reason…and that reason has well gone. They were supposed to be the local coordinators of the plans of Whitehall…a municipal corporatism. They were literally built for a different world…a mixed economy, command and control type economy that was basically half way to the Soviet Union.

    It is the reason why they do not work today.

    heavy, executive, set up to respond to regulation and central command – detached from local wants, not fluid and adaptable.

  • excell5

    Most people live in cities. Cities burst out from under the counties ages ago – London County was created in 1889 in recognition of this; the metropolitan counties of Greater Manchester, West Midlands etc were similar (and then abolished as they refused to become tory enough). We now need about 4 or 5 very large regions for England, with real elected governments and delegated budgets; and within them, the existing districts, boroughs, and unitary authorities (also with elected councils and delegated budgets, but reporting up to the regions as well). Above all, we need an independent English Republic – within the UK, England is constantly hemmed in and unable to modernise quickly enough.

    I agree that something important was lost with the passing of the counties – and so I suggest the counties as defined in 1965 (Greater London replacing the LCC) should be marked on maps as “historic counties” and signs should be put up everywhere saying “Welcome to the historic county of ….” They should NOT, however, be local authorities. They are neither big enough to have real budgetary clout nor small enough to be truly local.

    • Brimstone52

      Your suggestion is far too close to the EU’s plans for English administration for many people. The EU’s plans are for there to be nine English regions whilst Scotland and Wales remain.

  • erikbloodaxe

    I have never afforded diplomatic recognition to new local government entities. I’m still a Lancastrian whatever any bureaucrat thinks.

  • Toby Guise

    The French did this twice (by introducing the Intedencies under Richelieu and then the Departments under Napoleon) in order to undermine traditional local structures that challenged the extension of central control. Just sayin’.

  • Edward Prys

    At my previous home when I enter my postcode into an auto-filled address form I was resident of Salford, Lancashire (hurrah), being within the postcode areas of the old pre-1974 City of Salford. However colleagues resident elsewhere in the post-1974 City were in Greater Manchester. Now I have moved I have a Manchester postcode, but my mail is delivered from Oldham HPO, and Oldham Borough empty my bins, if I complete an auto-fill form on-line now I am still in Lancashire (hurrah).

  • Cooper1992

    There are 92 counties in the UK. England has 39, Scotland has 34, Wales has 13, Northern Ireland has 6.

    England: Bedfordshire, Berkshire, Buckinghamshire, Cambridgeshire, Cheshire, Cornwall, Cumberland, Derbyshire, Devon, Dorset, Durham, Essex, Gloucestershire, Hampshire, Herefordshire, Hertfordshire, Huntingdonshire, Kent, Lancashire, Leicestershire, Lincolnshire, Middlesex, Norfolk, Northamptonshire, Northumberland, Nottinghamshire, Oxfordshire, Rutland, Shropshire, Somerset, Staffordshire, Suffolk, Surrey, Sussex, Warwickshire, Westmorland, Wiltshire, Worcestershire, Yorkshire.

    More info visit the Association of British Counties: http://county-wise.org.uk/counties/.

  • Ne11y

    Everyone in Heywood and Middleton considers themselves Lancastrian, just as I do, coming from Bolton. Greater Manchester has simply never been recognised or acknowledged by anyone who lives in it. It only exists inside bureaucrats’ heads. Every time I write my address, I write Bolton, Lancashire, and I will continue to do so. We in Lancashire are stubborn and we will not be told what to do by pen pushers.

    • justejudexultionis

      Amen to that. BTW are you related to Carol Vorderman?

    • Paul

      It’s an age thing. Older people still have affection for the old world. The younger people prefer Greater Manchester.

  • mattghg

    There is no disaster in Britain more deep-seated than local government.

    I don’t know, there’s a lot of competition…

  • Jackthesmilingblack

    Ordnance Survey is still a victim of the Imperial-metric mishmash that still prevails in UK, with “Luddite” Dave Cameron running interference. UK Metric Association have an amusing piece on this.

  • Will Hunting

    In this hysterical video, more violence from blacks: http://youtu.be/Ns6mQ_2ysKE

  • mutton

    It was all part of the bigger plan to destroy English unity, we see it today in the guise of Euro-regions.
    England has been under attack from the inside since the last World War.
    In 1974 Heath and Welsh Nationalist Thomas George Thomas, ‘1st Viscount Tonypandy’ connived to steal the 400 square miles of the English county of Monmouthshire along with 400,000 English nationals to dilute Plaid Cymru vote. It was moved from England to Wales. About time it was returned. What other country in the world would sit meekly by and let its land be hijacked?
    They were only able to do this because England had no voice and no politicians with one fibre of spine.

    • MK

      “About time it was returned”? The English Democrats barely get any votes there. The 2011 census showed that 22% of Monmouthshire’s population consider themselves to be partly or wholly English, while 50% gave Welsh identity, which should surely be enough to refute any suggestion that Monmouthsire is a “part of England” .

      • mutton

        Theft is theft. Time does not eradicate crime.
        The people of England had no say because they had no voice. At some time England will have sovereignty and at that time justice dictates that stolen lands be returned.
        Only war can rob a people of their land and even then it is only temporary. What can be taken by conspiracy and connivance can be returned. When Wales is given independence and England has control of its own finance instead of supporting the peripheral countries it may well be a different story. Wales will be totally bankrupt.

  • mutton

    The bigger question is ‘In which country shall we bury the traitors?’

    • Brimstone52

      The easy solution is to dump them at sea, outside territorial waters. That would save the executioner’s fee as well.

  • spiritof78

    Isn’t it time we had a new Constitutional settlement? This to include a settled autonomous system of local government, with independent tax-raising powers (eg Land Value Tax) and thus some resistance to having functions constantly eroded by Central Government. And devolution to Regions with representative assemblies (like almost all countries in W Europe). Crucially, we need a return to genuinely local government, based on communities. Counties thus to be largely coordinating and finance-allocating bodies, as they are too large to be the focus of community decisions.

  • justejudexultionis

    Newcastle Upon Tyne was, and will forever be, the capital of Northumberland.

  • jeffersonian

    “English nationalism cannot be either a valid or effective response.”

    Why not?

  • ilPugliese

    What sort of people need a county to identify with?

    • conyersfalchion

      English people

      • ilPugliese

        That’s sounds a bit sad. There is so much more to life than thinking “I live in Bournemouth which is in Hampshire as it has been for centuries. I don’t care that civil servants moved it to Dorset.”