The division into counties is one of the larger divisions of England. Counties are usually divided into several districts, each with its own separate administration (districts may be called Boroughs in some cases). Counties which consist of only one district are more popularly called Unitary Authorities, because they do not match the idea of a county established in the centuries before the 1990s. However, not all unitary authorities are counties.
Usage note: this definition of a county is not widely used by the British general public, which usually still thinks in terms of traditional counties or ceremonial counties.
Map: Administrative counties of England (current)
* unitary authority
† metropolitan county
‡ no county council
¹ 'administrative area' not a county.
A 'shire county' is a non-metropolitan county which has multiple districts. Its name need not have 'shire' in it.
There are 35 such counties
Bedfordshire, Berkshire, Buckinghamshire, Cambridgeshire, Cheshire, Cumbria, Derbyshire, Devon, Dorset, Durham, East Sussex, Essex, Gloucestershire, Hampshire, Hertfordshire, Kent, Lancashire, Leicestershire, Lincolnshire, Norfolk, Northamptonshire, Northumberland, North Yorkshire, Nottinghamshire, Oxfordshire, Shropshire, Somerset, Staffordshire, Suffolk, Surrey, Warwickshire, West Sussex, Wiltshire, Worcestershire
Of these, all apart from Berkshire also have county councils. Sometimes 'shire county' is used to exclude Berkshire, because it has no county council. There is some debate as to the status of Cornwall, whether it is a shire county or not. It is interesting to note that Cornwall is the only 'county' where a large minority dispute its constitutional status and instead claim it should be described as a Duchy and nation of the UK.
The metropolitan counties are Greater Manchester, Merseyside, South Yorkshire, Tyne and Wear, West Midlands and West Yorkshire.
The county councils of these were abolished in 1986 by the Thatcher government for largely political rather than practical reasons, but they still exist legally. They are used for some administrative and geographic purposes, and are still ceremonial counties also. Most of the powers that the former county councils used to have, devolved to their metropolitan boroughs, which are now in effect unitary authorities, however some functions such as emergency services, civil defence, and public transport are still run jointly on a metropolitan county wide basis.
Greater London is not formally a county but an 'administrative area'. It was created in 1965 and its Greater London Council abolished in 1986 along with the metropolitan county councils. It now has a Greater London Authority in its capacity as a region of England.
Unitary authorities are areas with only one council. 40 of these are coterminous with a county.
Bath and North East Somerset, Blackburn with Darwen, Blackpool, Bournemouth, Brighton and Hove, Bristol, Derby, Darlington, East Riding of Yorkshire, Halton, Hartlepool, Herefordshire, Isle of Wight, Kingston upon Hull, Leicester, Luton, Medway Towns, Middlesbrough, Milton Keynes, North East Lincolnshire, North Lincolnshire, North Somerset, Nottingham, Peterborough, Plymouth, Poole, Portsmouth, Redcar and Cleveland, Rutland, Southampton, Southend-on-Sea, South Gloucestershire, Stockton-on-Tees, Stoke-on-Trent, Swindon, Telford and Wrekin, Thurrock, Torbay, Warrington, York
For 39 of these, they are defined as a county with a single district, which has a district council, and no county council. For the Isle of Wight, technically it is a county with a county council and no district councils, but the effect is the same.
The districts of Berkshire are unitary authorities, but are not granted county status.
The Isles of Scilly are not part of Cornwall for administrative purposes, but neither do they constitute a county.
See Subdivisions of England for the full list of unitary authorities.
See traditional counties of England for the history of the English counties before 1888.
1888 : County Councils
In 1888 the government, led by the Tory Prime Minister Lord Salisbury established county councils for all of England and Wales, covering areas known as administrative counties. Excluded from administrative counties were the county boroughs, which were what today are known as unitary authorities.
Cambridgeshire, Lincolnshire, Northamptonshire, Suffolk, Sussex, and Yorkshire were split up for administrative purposes, following historical divisions used by the Courts of Quarter Sessions.
Additionally there was a County of London which covered the area today known as Inner London. The Isle of Wight was originally included under the administrative county of Hampshire but obtained its own county council in 1890.
Some exclaves that had been left untouched by the 1844 Act were affected by this one, for example the Measham area of Derbyshire was placed under the control of Leicestershire County Council.
In 1894 a uniform two-tier system was established, with subdivisions of the administrative counties called urban districts, rural districts and municipal boroughs.
Map: Administrative counties of England from 1890 to 1965
This map follows the usual practice of not showing county boroughs. Instead, they were included in their 'host' county. When a county borough expanded into territory of a county that wasn't the one it came from, maps often showed this as an increase in size of the county the county borough was associated with. So, for example, Bristol south of the River Avon would be shown as part of Gloucestershire rather than Somerset.
This system was the basis of the ceremonial counties used for Lieutenancy - except that Cambridgeshire, Hampshire, Lincolnshire, Northamptonshire, Suffolk and Sussex were not split for Lieutenancy. (Yorkshire, however, was).
As urbanisation increased, and suburbs were built on a scale not seen before, the urban areas surrounding various towns and cities started to cross traditional county borders. Since boroughs, urban districts, and parishes could no longer cross county boundaries, the administrative county borders were adjusted.
Examples of these include
Beauchief, Dore, Norton , Totley in Derbyshire, annexed by Sheffield in West Riding, in 1934
Caversham in Oxfordshire, annexed by Reading, Berkshire, in 1911
- Little Bowden in Northamptonshire, annexed by Market Harborough, Leicestershire
- half of Tamworth, Staffordshire, historically in Warwickshire
- Winshill in Derbyshire, annexed by Burton-upon-Trent
Wythenshawe in Cheshire, annexed by City of Manchester, Lancashire
- Reddish and the Heatons in Lancashire, annexed by Stockport County Borough , Cheshire
1965 : Greater London
Main article: London Government Act 1963
Throughout the next century, debates took place about what should be done about local government in respect of the increasing urbanisation of the country. Proposals to expand or change county boroughs or to create larger urban counties were discussed, but nothing happened until 1963, when legislation was passed to come into effect in 1965.
The County of London was expanded and renamed Greater London, and consumed nearly all of Middlesex - the remaining parts being ceded to Surrey and Hertfordshire. Some other changes took place, such as the Soke of Peterborough and Huntingdonshire being merged into Huntingdon and Peterborough, and the merger of the original Cambridgeshire county council and the Isle of Ely County Council.
Map: Administrative counties of England from 1965 from 1974
The map below is shown with the county boroughs immediately prior to 1974
1974 : Two-tier
Main article: Local Government Act 1972
By the late 1960s, it had become obvious that the structure of local government in England and Wales needed reforming. Harold Wilson's Labour government set up the Redcliffe-Maud Commission to produce proposals for wholesale reform.
The report proposed that most of England the two-tier structure be abolished, and replaced with a system of 58 unitary authories, which would generally ignore the previous administrative boundaries in favour of changes that made geographic sense - a total redrawing of the map. In the metropolitan areas of Merseyside, South East Lancashire and North East Cheshire, and the Birmingham area, there would be 3 metropolitan areas, with 20 district authorities.
These proposals were opposed by the Conservative Party opposition led by Edward Heath. They won the 1970 general election, and set to work defining their own scheme. This scrapped the concept of unitary authorities (even for existing county boroughs) — the entire area of England and Wales was to be divided into uniform counties and districts. In England the counties were to be largely modelled on the existing counties, but in some areas (quite apart from the metropolitan areas) quite radical reforms were put forward.
Despite reassurances from the government that nobody's loyalties were expected to change as a result of the local government reform, and that the ancient and geographic counties would not be formally abolished; many changes did incur significant local oppositions. Most of the radical changes were withdrawn. One aspect the government stood firm on was the mergers of small counties. Campaigns for the continuation of Rutland and Herefordshire were unsuccessful, although due to its special geographic circumstances, the Isle of Wight was permitted to retain a separate county council, as opposed to being reunified with its historic county of Hampshire.
The Local Government Act was passed in 1972, and defined the English counties and metropolitan districts, but not the non-metropolitan districts. These were set by a Boundary Commission that had already begun work.
The metropolitan counties were composed as follows
Other significant changes were -
Map: Administrative counties of England from 1974-1995
1986 : Break-up of Metropolises
Main article: Local Government Act 1985.
In 1986 the county councils of the metropolitan counties, and the Greater London Council, were abolished by Margaret Thatcher's government following disputes with central government, but the counties themselves remained legally in existence.
1995-1998 : Unitary Authorities
Main article: 1990s UK local government reform
The 1990s led to the restoration of county boroughs under a new name, unitary authorities, which radically changed the administrative map of England. The changes were carried out in several waves.
On April 1, 1995, the Isle of Wight became a single unitary authority. It had previously had a two-tier structure with an Isle of Wight County Council; and a Medina Borough Council and a South Wight Borough Council. Also on this day, two small areas were ceded from Surrey and Buckinghamshire to Berkshire, giving it a border with Greater London.
On April 1, 1996, the unpopular counties of Avon, Humberside and Cleveland were abolished and their districts turned into unitary authorities. Also at this time, the City of York was expanded and separated from North Yorkshire.
On April 1, 1997, the districts of Bournemouth, Darlington, Derby, Leicester, Luton, Milton Keynes, Poole, Portsmouth, Rutland and Southampton became unitary authorities. Also, the districts of Brighton and Hove were merged to form the new unitary authority of Brighton and Hove.
On April 1, 1998, Blackpool, Blackburn with Darwen, Halton, Medway, Nottingham, Peterborough, Plymouth, Swindon, Stoke-on-Trent, Southend-on-Sea, Telford and Wrekin, Torbay, Thurrock and Warrington became unitary authorities. Also, Hereford and Worcester was abolished and replaced by the unitary authority of Herefordshire and the shire county of Worcestershire. Berkshire was split into six unitary authorities, but not formally abolished.
2000 : London
Main article: Greater London Authority
The incoming Labour government under the leadership of Tony Blair had made it a campaign pledge to establish some form of local government for all London, whilst being keen to stress that it was not going to be a resurrection of the Greater London Council. The Greater London Authority has an elected Mayor and an Assembly with scrutinizing powers.
2004 : Regional assemblies
Main article: Northern England referendums, 2004
As part of the Blair government's policy of devolution, a referendum was held in November 2004 about whether North East England should have an elected regional assembly. The outcome of this referendum was a decisive 'no', and further referendums in North West England and Yorkshire and the Humber have been abandoned. Had the referendum produced a 'yes' vote, the existing local government structure in the affected regions would have been reformed to be wholly unitary, which might have affected the counties depending upon which option was chosen. In Cornwall a cross party movement for devolution collected over 50000 signature endorsing the call for a Cornish Assembly, however the petition was largly ignored by government who have no plans for devolution to Cornwall.
Last updated: 05-07-2005 08:53:18
Last updated: 05-07-2005 18:09:53