Cllr Rupert Barnes is a councillor on Three Rivers District Council and Vice-Chairman of the Association of British Counties.
Where do we stand? A constant question, but rarely meant as literally as it might be: I am standing in Hertfordshire, no one would deny, and if I drive ten minutes down the road I am in Middlesex. There though a question arises: no official map will show Middlesex and no signpost welcomes me there, but there is no reason why they should not.
Seven MPs signed a letter to the Telegraph this week demanding proper recognition of the 92 historic counties. It was a plea for our inherited identity to be respected. They are right. The counties of Britain have been the constant pattern of the land for centuries, a patchwork of shires a thousand years old and deeply ingrained into our national culture and imagination.
The names of Yorkshire, Cornwall, Kent or Caithness conjure up images and assumptions grown over generations, as the shires are the shape on which our local identities are built. Against this strong, stable identity, transient administrative areas are no substitute.
The Party has a challenge to win back voters who feel that the modern Conservative Party is wedded only to passing fads of the metropolitan chattering classes. Most of us though are attached to that deep rooted culture on which Conservatism is built, and a way to demonstrate our commitment would be a visible acceptance of our heritage, by letting our towns and villages be defined by their time-honoured identities, not by Whitehall fiat.
What we are not talking about is any change in local government. It just needs a clear separation of two distinct and independent geographies – administrative area and historic counties. They are unconnected. One is defined by Whitehall for public convenience and changes as required, and one is stable, rooted in the land. You may choose whichever you will, but I have never heard a man whistle “The North East Lincolnshire Poacher” nor order a “Greater Manchester hotpot”. Who empties my bins is not who I am (and though I am a district councillor there, I do not “live in Three Rivers”, as I am not a fish).
I will say then that Middlesex lies at the end of the road, unaffected by Whitehall geography. There is no County Council, but it had none for fourteen centuries, so it is not missing one now. The Local Government Act 1972 introduced new areas “for the administration of local government” but not a line in it abolished the historic counties nor demanded that we eschew them for any purpose outside the purview of the town hall. That is the essence of this week’s demand: make the historic counties visible so that we may use them for cultural purposes.
The Association of British Counties has been working on “county confusion” for many years, and found that it is quite avoidable without disruption or expense. We are not behind this week’s campaign, but we have similar conclusions, specifically that a firm distinction must be made between local government areas and ordinary geography. This will allow us to reconnect with our heritage, and future reforms of local administration will not then be hindered by the suspicion that our identity is being played with.
Perception is all. When the maps changed on All Fools’ Day 1974, the Department of the Environment said about the new areas “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.” However with all official maps changed, all road signs, and even postal addresses moved to the new administrative areas, the words were empty. It was seen perhaps as a change for the modern age, but if you embrace modernity too fondly, you will find it takes liberties.
Contrast this with Ulster: the six counties of Northern Ireland were also dropped from local government in 1972, but there is no question of their disappearing. They remain the basis of popular geography, unchallenged. There are many ways in which I would like Great Britain to be more like Ulster, and that is one.
Lately government action has been encouraging: Eric Pickles in 2013 and 2014 made strong statements supporting and recognising the historic counties. Ordnance Survey began to digitise the county boundaries (something the Association of British Counties did for them some years ago, as it happens, and in more detail). The Traffic Signs Regulations of 2016 now permit historic county boundaries to be marked on the roads. However, those signs have not yet appeared, and the reappearance of Huntingdonshire, Middlesex, and Westmorland in public discourse is muted.
More can be done to resolve county confusion. I will emphasise again, local government will not change at all, but terminology should do. When the 1972 Act produced a system of areas which it called “counties”, they at least looked like counties, to fulfil a manifesto pledge by Edward Heath, but today the system has been so hacked about that the assumptions of 1972 do not apply. Most of the population today live in unitary areas, and the remaining top tier council areas bear little relation to the counties which named them. Whatever they call themselves, they would be better described in statute as “strategic areas” or similar. That will free the name “county” to be unambiguous.
Wearing my councillor hat, reforming local government law does interest me. The legislation is frustratingly complicated, frequently changed by overlapping amendments tripping over their own feet, and all built upon a 1970s chassis that no longer fits. Suggestions to rationalise and codify the legislation go into the “Too hard” tray and that is not surprising: when the Licensing Act (for example) wanted to refer to district councils, it had to list eight different types of authority, and that was just in England and Wales.
It is long overdue for the Department for Communities and Local Government to take the matter in hand, even if they do no more than starting afresh to set out the structure of local government as it is, not as it was, such as would enable the rest to be rationalised in due course. At this point we must drop the word “county” from the terminology of administration.
If we use this opportunity to free the name “county” from the hands of bureaucracy, we have advantages on both sides. Whitehall can fiddle with boundaries without being accused of destroying heritage. The rest of us can rediscover that heritage. A Yorkshireman has always been a Yorkshireman, and Richmond can be very Surrey with no apology.
Since we are currently revisiting Acts passed in 1972, this is perhaps a time to re-examine the damage done by the Local Government Act of that year, and bring our counties home.