Moves towards unitary local government in England provide the perfect opportunity to clear up the longstanding confusion between the historic counties and local government, to the advantage of both. Is this opportunity going to be grasped? The latest news about local government changes in the ‘Cumbria County Council’ area presents a mixed picture.
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 of the historic counties – despite the Government’s repeated assurances that these administrative changes 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’, ‘North Northamptonshire Council’.
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 ‘council areas’ rather than as ‘counties’.
- 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.
Do the latest local government changes match up to our ideal? Well, this is very much a ‘glass half-full’ versus ‘glass half-empty’ situation.
On 24 Jan 2022, Minister of State Kemi Badenoch confirmed that Cumbria County Council and the district councils in its area would be replaced by two new unitary authorities:
Cumberland Council – based on the combined area of the current Allerdale, Carlisle and Copeland districts;
Westmorland and Furness Council – based on the combined area of the current Barrow, Eden and South Lakeland districts.
The map below shows the areas of these new council areas compared to the historic counties. Shadow authorities will be elected in May 2022 and assume full powers on 1st April 2023. The shadow authorities have the right to change the council names.
The two new council areas compared to the historic counties
To start with two big positives.
Neither of these new councils is to be called ‘county council’ but simply ‘council’. This has been the case with most of the post-1990 unitary authorities created in England and is to be welcomed. An end to a large ‘county council’ and it’s replacement by a number of smaller ‘councils’ can only help make clearer the distinction between local government and the historic counties.
Neither of the proposed new council names contains the word ‘Cumbria’. The current Cumbria County Council area covers part of 4 historic counties: all of Cumberland and Westmorland; the Lancashire North of the Sands area of Lancashire; 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. An end to the use of ‘Cumbria’, at the very least in the context of it being viewed as a ‘county’, is to be welcomed.
Less positive are the proposed names chosen for the new councils, especially ‘Cumberland Council’.
The area of the new Cumberland Council does at least lie entirely within the real Cumberland and it does contain 90% of the population of the historic county. However, 23% of the historic county, including Penrith and Alston, does not lie in the Cumberland Council area. ‘West Cumberland Council‘ or similar would be a more appropriate name.
The name Westmorland and Furness Council does have the advantage that it describes the greater part of the council area and is clearly not pretending to be a county or to deny the historic county identity of places within it.
The inclusion of ‘Westmorland’ as a part of the name seems appropriate in that the council area covers all of Westmorland. The inclusion of ‘Furness’ also seems appropriate since the council area also includes all of the Furness area of Lancashire (aka Lancashire North of the Sands).
However, 28% of Westmorland and Furness Council’s area actually lies in Cumberland. In addition 6% of the council area lies in the Sedbergh area of Yorkshire. Finding a name which reflects all of these would be challenging.
Perhaps the biggest negative though is the Government’s decision to continue with the so-called “ceremonial county” of ‘Cumbria’ – although a change of lieutenancy areas to match the new council areas would not really be any kind of improvement on the status quo. The map below shows the Cumbria lieutenancy area in relation to the historic counties.
The so-called “ceremonial counties” are actually the areas defined by the Lieutenancies Act 1997 for the jurisdiction of the lord-lieutenants of Great Britain. This act labels these areas as “Counties and areas for the purposes of the Lieutenancies in Great Britain”.
ABC objects to the use of the word “county” for these areas, since they are actually combinations of local government areas. Most are very different to any historic county, although many make inappropriate use of an historic county name. The lieutenancy areas of Scotland are called “areas” and it’s hard to see why those of England and Wales could not also be so labelled. Lieutenancy areas should not bear an historic county name unless they are close in area to that historic county.
The Government could, of course, define the lieutenancy areas directly in terms of the historic counties – as they once were. Such a move could be viewed as the appointment of a dignitary to each historic county in recognition of their importance to our history, heritage and culture. The office of lord-lieutenant has never defined the counties, most of which pre-date its creation by many centuries, and should not be seen as such.
To properly align the lieutenancies with the historic counties, the lieutenancy areas of the Lieutenancies Act 1997 should be defined in terms of the Historic Counties Standard widely recognised (e.g. by the Office for National Statistics) as the standard definition for the names and areas of the historic counties.
What does all this mean for the ‘Cumbria’ brand? A lot will depend on how the media reacts to the local government changes – whether they start to base geographical descriptions on the new local government areas or continue with ‘Cumbria’. The continuation of Cumbria Police will keep the name in the media. As ever with the media, this will all be completely inconsistent.
We might, however, consider that the end of a corporate body with a vested interest in promoting the notion of the ‘county’ of ‘Cumbria’ can only be a positive thing for the historic counties. We might also hope that the successor authorities have more regard to the identities and cultures of the historic counties of their areas: erecting road signs, supporting county days, flying county flags and so on.
Longer term, there is the distinct possibility that a ‘Cumbria’ combined authority will be formed with an elected ‘Mayor of Cumbria’. There is no intrinsic reason why combined authorities and elected mayors need pose any threat to historic county identities, provided they are not promoted as ‘counties’ and do not misuse county names. Sadly, to call one ‘Cumbria’, given the history of the use of this name, can only continue to undermine the identities of the historic counties of the area.
Time will tell.