The Association of British Counties (ABC) promotes the importance of the historic counties of the UK to our history, heritage and culture. The biggest challenge facing the identities of the historic counties in England is the continued confusion of the historic counties with local government areas. Moves towards unitary local government in England provide the perfect opportunity to clear up the longstanding confusion between the historic counties and local government once and for all.
Local government structure in England is defined by the Local Government Act 1972 with its stipulation that “for the administration of local government” England “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 unqualified use of the word ‘county’ by the 1972 Act and the ‘county councils’ it created (many which bore little resemblance to any historic county) had a negative impact on public understanding and appreciation of the historic counties – despite the Government’s repeated assurances that these changes were solely for administrative purposes and did not affect the historic counties.
Since the 1990s, many areas of unitary local government have been created by the device of creating a local government ‘county’ with a coterminous ‘district’ and then ascribing all local government functions to a single district council. Such unitary authorities have generally been given the style ‘council’ rather than ‘county council’. Many make entirely appropriate (qualified) use of an historic county name, e.g. ‘Central Bedfordshire Council’, ‘Cheshire East Council’, ‘North East Lincolnshire Council’.
However, the word ‘county’ is still used to describe many local authority areas and the phrase ‘county council’ is still used to describe many local authorities. Most of these continue to use the unqualified name of an historic county despite having an area very different to that historic county. ABC does not have a view on the structure of local government, but we do recommend that:
• All new unitary authorities should be given the title ‘council’ rather than ‘county council’;
• All new unitary local government areas should be referred to as ‘local authority areas’ or ‘council areas’ (as are those in Scotland) rather than as ‘counties’. If all the remaining two-tier areas are to be replaced by unitary local government then the term ‘county’ can be removed from local government legislation and parlance altogether.
• No new unitary authority or combined authority should be given the unqualified name of any historic county unless its area closely matches that historic county.
New unitary authorities could make qualified use of historic county names where this is appropriate, e.g. as do the new ‘North Northamptonshire Council’ and ‘West Northamptonshire Council’.
Here we consider the local government situation in five areas likely to be among the first to be reorganised and discuss the need for a more sensitive naming of the successor authorities.
In June 2021, Robert Jenrick, Secretary of State for Housing, Communities and Local Government, announced that Somerset County Council and the district councils in its area would be replaced from April 2023 by a single new unitary authority, to be based on the area of the current Somerset County Council.
The new unitary area covers a large part of the historic county of Somerset. But it does not cover a large, highly populated area in the north of the historic county. Much of this remaining area is covered by the existing unitary authorities of ‘North Somerset Council’ and ‘Bath and North-East Somerset Council’. A small area of the historic county of Somerset lies in the south of Bristol City Council area. Only 53% of the population of the historic county of Somerset lies in the new unitary authority area.
It would be wholly inappropriate for the new authority to make unqualified use of the historic county name, i.e. as “Somerset Council”. A more appropriate name would be “South and West Somerset Council’.
In June 2021, the Secretary of State announced that Cumbria County Council and the district councils in its area would be replaced from April 2023 by two new unitary authorities, one to be based on the combined area of the current Allerdale, Carlisle and Copeland districts and the other on the combined area of the current Barrow, Eden and South Lakeland districts.
The current Cumbria County Council area covers the historic counties of Cumberland and Westmorland, along with the Lancashire North of the Sands area of the historic county of Lancaster and the Sedbergh area of Yorkshire. The name ‘Cumbria’ is not directly borrowed from an historic county though it is essentially a synonym for Cumberland. Cumbria County Council has consistently fostered the identity of Cumbria as a county, strongly to the detriment of the identities of the historic counties in its area, which it has made no effort to acknowledge or promote. Given this, it would be highly desirable if the new authorities were not given names which perpetuate ‘Cumbria’.
The western of the two new authorities lies entirely within Cumberland and it would seem entirely appropriate if this area used ‘Cumberland’ within its name. However, only 77% of Cumberland lies in this new authority’s area, although it does contain 90% of the population of the historic county. Simply calling the new authority ‘Cumberland Council’ would not be appropriate. However, ‘West Cumberland Council’ or a name along these lines would be entirely appropriate.
The eastern of the two new authorities covers part of four historic counties. This clearly makes using county names within the authority name challenging and a county-neutral name such as ‘Lakes and Dales Council’ would certainly be a sensible option.
The new authority area does, however, cover all of the historic county of Westmorland. In fact, 54% of the new authority’s area and 39% of its population lies in Westmorland. Given this, the inclusion of ‘Westmorland’ as a part of the name of this authority seems appropriate.
The new authority also covers all of the Lancashire North of the Sands (Furness) area of Lancashire. Although only 16% of the new authority’s area lies in Lancashire, this area does include 45% of the new authority’s population. A name such as ‘Westmorland and Furness Council’ has the advantage that it describes the greater part of the council area and, importantly, is clearly not pretending to be a county or to deny the historic county identity of places within it.
However, 28% of the new authority’s area and 14% of its population lies in Cumberland. In addition 6% of the new authority’s area and 2% of its population lies in the Sedbergh area of Yorkshire. Finding a name which reflects all of these is challenging. Something like ‘Westmorland and South Lakeland Council’ may fit the bill.
In June 2021, the Secretary of State also announced that the current North Yorkshire County Council area is to be used as the basis for a new unitary authority from April 2023.
The name ‘North Yorkshire Council’ would be perfectly appropriate since this authority will cover an area mostly in the north of the historic county of York. We should be wary of attempts to misuse the name of the North Riding in this process, as the name of the East Riding has been misused for a unitary authority area.
The current Lancashire County Council area only covers about 24% of the population of the historic county of Lancaster. It does not cover a huge, heavily populated area in the south of the historic county. Nor does it include the Lancashire North of the Sands area. Nor does it include the unitary authorities of Blackpool and Blackburn with Darwen. It does, however, include a huge area in the Forest of Bowland, part of the historic county of York, including the towns of Earby and Barnoldswick.
If a new unitary authority were to be based on the current Lancashire County Council area, or some combination of it with the Blackpool and Blackburn with Darwen unitary authorities, then the new unitary authority should not make unqualified use of the name “Lancashire”, i.e. as “Lancashire Council”. If the name “Lancashire” is to be used then it should be with appropriate qualification, in a name such as “Central Lancashire and Bowland Council”.
Alternative models which would see the current Lancashire County Council area, possibly along with the Blackpool and Blackburn with Darwen unitary authorities, formed into two or three new unitary authorities should enable appropriate, qualified use of the name “Lancashire” within the new authority names, although ABC certainly does not see the use of the name “Lancashire” as an essential part of a local authority based in Lancashire.
If a combined authority were to be formed from a combination of the newly created unitary authorities, essentially with the same or very similar area to the current Lancashire County Council area, then it is essential that this combined authority does not use the unqualified name “Lancashire”, for the same reason this name in wholly inappropriate for the current Lancashire County Council area.
The Surrey County Council area covers much of the west and south of the historic county of Surrey. However, it does not cover the highly populated part of the historic county of Surrey which lies in the metropolitan area. It also covers the Spelthorne area of the historic county of Middlesex, including the Middlesex towns of Ashford and Staines.
The Surrey County Council area only includes 37% of the population of the historic county of Surrey. 8% of the population of the Surrey County Council area lives in the historic county of Middlesex.
If the current Surrey County Council area were to be used as the basis of a new unitary authority then it should not make unqualified use of the historic county name, i.e. as “Surrey Council”.
Given the population size of the Surrey County Council area then it seems probable that the area will form two or more new unitary authorities. Finding appropriate names which make qualified use of the name “Surrey” would likely be straightforward in these scenarios. However, any new unitary authority which includes the Spelthorne area of Middlesex should be given a name which reflects this fact and not be presented as lying entirely within Surrey.