The axing of Cumbria County Council has passed its last legal hurdle. The Cumbria (Structural Changes) Order 2022 received Royal Assent on 18th March 2022. On 1st April 2023 Cumbria County Council and the district councils in its area will be abolished and replaced by two new unitary councils:
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.
This is a mix of good and bad news from an ABC perspective.
The end of Cumbria County Council is in itself a huge positive. 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. So long. We won’t miss you.
Another positive is that neither of the 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.
Less positive are the proposed names chosen for the new councils. 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‘ would be more appropriate.
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 council area includes the whole of ‘Westmorland’ and the whole of the Furness area of Lancashire. However, 28% of the council area actually lies in Cumberland and 6% lies in the Sedbergh area of Yorkshire. Finding a name which reflects all of these would be challenging.
Shadow authorities will be elected in May 2022. These will have the right to change the council names used within the legislation.
Unfortunately, rumours of the death of ‘Cumbria’ may have been exaggerated. The so-called “ceremonial county” of ‘Cumbria’ will continue – 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 continuation of Cumbria Police will also give continued prominence to the name.
Longer term, there is the distinct possibility that a ‘Cumbria’ combined authority will be formed with an elected ‘Mayor of Cumbria’. This is apparently favoured by the Government. 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.
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’. As ever with the media, this will all be completely inconsistent and clueless. If the media start to use the new local government areas instead it doesn’t, of course, greatly help ABC’s cause since we believe that the historic counties should be used as the standard geography of the the UK.
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. The new authorities will, of course, seek to promote their own corporate identities, not brand ‘Cumbria’. We might, though, 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.
Ultimately, all local government change is helpful to ABC since it illustrates the transitory nature of administrative areas and their total unsuitability as a basis for general-purpose geography; for cultural, social and sporting activities; and as a focus of loyalty and identity. All administrative things must pass, but the historic counties endure.