It is a commonly held misconception that the local government changes of the 1960s and 1970s actually altered the historic Counties of Britain. In fact they did no such thing.
Modern local authority areas were only created in 1889 (in England and Wales) and 1890 (in Scotland). Initially these areas were closely based upon the historic Counties. However, they were always understood to be separate entities from the Counties themselves and, indeed, had separate terminology: they were labeled “administrative counties” and “county boroughs”. Nobody ever confused the local government areas with the historic Counties themselves. After all, the Counties of England had, by 1889, already been in existence for over 800 years (many for centuries longer). Those of Wales and Scotland had also been fixed in name and area for several centuries.
The local government reorganisations of the 1960s and 1970s abolished all the “administrative counties” and “county boroughs” and created a whole new set of local government areas. However, it did not alter or abolish the Counties themselves. In Scotland the new top tier administrative areas were called “regions”. However, in England and Wales the new top tier local government areas were, confusingly, labelled “counties”. It is this use of the word “county” to mean something other than the real historic Counties which lies at the root of the confusion of the last 40 years. Nonetheless, the government has consistently made it quite clear that these “counties” are simply narrow administrative areas created for a specific purpose and are not intended to be replacements for the traditional Counties in a cultural or geographical sense. For example, on 1st April 1974, a DoE spokesman said:
“The new county boundaries are solely for the purpose of defining areas of … local government. They are administrative areas, and will not alter the traditional boundaries of Counties, nor is it intended that the loyalties of people living in them will change.”
These points are covered in more detail in The problem of “county confusion” – and how to resolve it.
The continued existence of the traditional Counties is no mere legal curiosity. The Counties continue to play an important role in contemporary society. They are still social and cultural units of great significance. They are still the focus of strong feelings of loyalty and identity to many people. Innumerable cultural, sporting and social activities are still based upon them. They are also still widely used as a geographical reference frame both in everyday speech and by the media.
Importantly, many traditional County names have continued to form part of Royal Mail recommended postal addresses despite no longer being used as a basis for administration (e.g. in most of Scotland and in Herefordshire, Middlesex, Worcestershire etc.). In fact the Royal Mail now permits the correct traditional County name to be used in every UK address. More details can be found in the Traditional County Postal Directory