I’ve long been interested in the popular geography of Great Britain, but also annoyed by the continual government reorganisation that seeks to confuse it. The passing of the Local Government Act of 1888 established county councils (or ‘administrative counties’) based upon the boundaries of existing historic Counties in England and Wales, but subsequent legislation has been far more destructive.
My interest in this topic is no doubt driven by my desire to organise everything, but it’s worth noting that I grew up in Horley, a town that campaigned hard to remain within Surrey when the Local Government Act of 1972 sought to have it join neighbouring West Sussex.
This act was particularly far-reaching. Not only did it create new ‘metropolitan counties’ around the six major conurbations of England, and adjust the boundaries of remaining ‘non-metropolitan counties’, it also introduced several invented county names such as ‘West Midlands’, ‘Merseyside’, ‘Cleveland’ and ‘Avon’.
Luckily for Horley, the passing of a subsequent act meant it remained in Surrey, but for the rest of England and Wales, it’s geography had now become subject to political whims, no longer fixed or predictable.
In recent years, legislation has focused on the transfer of administrative functions from county level authorities to smaller administrate districts. For example, legislation passed in 1985 abolished the six metropolitan counties and passed much of their function to the individual boroughs. The present government favours the creation of one-tier ‘unitary authorities’ that work in a similar way. In short, the concept of a county as an administrative district is disappearing, suggesting that the redrawing of their boundaries was largely pointless.
Counties are important – not only useful for way-finding, but as entities to affix local identities and cultures to, and help tell the story of Britain. Yet their continual reorganisation has left people confused as to their function, names and location.
Such confusion was evident when I sat down to watch Psychoville last Friday. The first episode of this new dark-comedy series focused on letters being sent to five characters around the country, but it was striking how each location was referred to using these different understandings of a county.
A whole host of information on this topic is available from the Association of British Counties, an organisation that is seeking to re-establish the use of historic Counties as the standard popular geographical reference frame of Britain. I’ve already taken them up on their advice of using historic Counties in addresses, and I’m sure membership will follow.