Matthew Barrett is a freelance journalist.

When David Cameron chose not to invite Eric Pickles to return to the Cabinet, England lost a great champion of her traditional counties who understands that these, past and present, are capable of meaning something to their people. In a most English fashion, their boundaries developed gradually over the centuries, with few straight lines or easy explanations. Sadly, in a similarly English fashion, our political class decided it was possible and desirable to “improve” these ancient counties, so during the 1960s and 70s, they changed their borders, and gave powers to artificial new authorities.

Those changes may have had their supporters then. Now, however, we are experiencing disillusionment with globalisation: the world has got too big and people are being left behind. In consequence, many have rediscovered a passion for structures smaller than the European Union – and often smaller than Britishness and the United Kingdom. Scotland has a new political consciousness that demands a fresh interpretation of once-natural affiliations. We also see in England the rather more subtle transition towards people self-identifying as English rather than British.

The Local Government Act 1972 created bland, industrial clumps whose only identity, if any, is that of the large city or cities contained within. Greater Manchester, Tyne and Wear, Merseyside and the West Midlands all display this to some degree. John Major’s government saw fit to relieve Cleveland and Humberside of their existence after 22 years. The other artificial 20th century counties are big – and biggest and oldest of all is, of course, Greater London.

Greater London can seem post-county; an ancient metropolis without beginning or end, and this may now feel true of Inner London. But there are also millions of people in the Outer London boroughs who have a different experience. Many there still write “Hornchurch, Essex”, and are sceptical of the Greater London project. They have far more in common with their former county neighbours outside the M25 with than their fellow Londoners in Kensington or Camden.

Hints of life outside Greater London are not difficult to find. Most obviously, there are the two cricket clubs, Middlesex and Surrey, both of whose grounds are firmly in Inner London now, but who tour their former counties: Middlesex also play matches at Uxbridge, Southgate, Northwood, Enfield and Radlett in Hertfordshire (extremely close to Potters Bar, formerly Middlesex). Surrey play not just at Kennington, but at Croydon, too. Kent cross the boundary from Canterbury and play at Beckenham. Essex do not merely leave Chelmsford for Ilford but were interested in moving to the Olympic Stadium in Stratford. It’s not just cricket either. One can see Middlesex seaxes on the badges of both Brentford and Wealdstone football clubs, and the white horse of Kent for Bromley FC and Welling United. Surrey County Council’s meetings are still held at County Hall in Kingston-upon-Thames, now its own London borough.

Greater London turned 50 on 1st April this year, having come into force after Harold Macmillan’s government passed the London Government Act in 1963. To create the London boroughs of Bexley and Bromley, the boroughs of Bexley, Erith, Crayford, Chislehurst and Sidcup, Beckenham, Bromley, Orpington and Penge were taken away from Kent. From Essex, such areas as Chingford, Leyton, Ilford, Dagenham, Romford and Hornchurch were removed from their spiritual home to form specious units: Havering, Barking and Dagenham, Redbridge, Waltham Forest and Newham. Surrey got an even worse deal, losing much of what is now south-west London. It goes without saying that all these counties had it good compared to Middlesex, which was entirely butchered to make way for Greater London’s western boundary, a desperately sad episode.

Although the formation of Greater London already severely disfigured traditional counties, the authorities didn’t think this went far enough. As Lewis Baston wrote on this site a year ago:

“The government’s initial proposals involved a larger Greater London than we have now, extending out to Weybridge, Spelthorne, Caterham, Cheshunt and Chigwell.”

The attitude towards an even Greater London still exists. In 2008 Ken Livingstone said:

“I do think there is a real case for London’s boundary being extended along the Thames estuary, certainly to take in Thurrock and Dartford, they’re all Londoners anyhow, no more than a generation removed – we could even have the London borough of Watford.”

Livingstone, and those who agree with his point, are really supporting a sort of London imperialism, and for London to become a monstrous city-state swallowing up the Home Counties for their juicy Green Belt. A well-established pattern exists of both natural-born and adopted Londoners leaving for the suburbs outside Greater London when they want to have a quieter life. Little do they realise that some politicians see them as a fifth column manning a forward operating base for London expansion.

A change as great as Livingstone envisages should require the closest possible scrutiny. Earlier this year, Steve Hilton reminded us that David Cameron used to advocate local democracy and activism. If there is any mileage left in that concept, Westminster is probably going have to accept that the people living outside Greater London are unlikely to want to become part of it, and that commuter towns don’t actually have to be part of Greater London to serve a purpose. If people in Thurrock and Dartford are “all Londoners anyhow”, and a key service like the London Underground already enters Buckinghamshire, Essex and Hertfordshire, then official citizenship of the capital plainly means little in practical terms. New Jersey has long had large commuter towns for New York City, and shares services such as the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, but they have managed to get along without merging the two states.

The 2011 census provided perfect evidence that some parts of Outer London have a distinctly different feel to the metropolis within. Those who define themselves as English rather than British are concentrated in the Outer London boroughs, from Richmond to Havering. Their strength of feeling is much more in line with the rest of England outside the major cities. These are places which would gain more than they would lose by being back in their original counties: quite apart from the initial impetus of civic pride, in the long term they will feel better served as part of a unit that shares their values and can deal with them at a more localised level than City Hall can.

Would the people of Dagenham receive a more sympathetic ear in London or in Essex? Would Croydon better maximise its influence by becoming Surrey’s only city, or by staying as one slice of a very large conurbation? Croydon re-joining Surrey is a popular idea, and Livingstone has said that he would have been in favour of a referendum on the matter.

This kind of democratic flexibility should be encouraged. During the chaotic post-war urge to rebuild London, all sorts of architecture and planning experiments were proposed in a utopian spirit. Far too many were allowed to go ahead. We now have more scepticism of big blobs of government than we did half a century ago. If there are Greater Londoners who feel being part of the city no longer works for them, let them not forget that the Outer boroughs were once part of counties who more closely share their values. If they want to rekindle that relationship, let’s have some activism from them.

33 comments for: Matthew Barrett: Fifty years on, it’s time to tear up Greater London.

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