Lexden Quizzes Government on Traditional Counties

Thursday 16 September, 11am

“Lord Lexden to ask Her Majesty’s Government what plans they have to ensure the preservation of Britain’s historic counties.

This week’s Lords Questions included efforts to preserve Britain’s ancient and traditional (historic) counties.

Tabled by Conservative Lord Lexden with cross-Party support, nine other peers took the opportunity of contributing to the debate.

Lord Lexden is seeking real change to ensure Britain’s historic counties do not become extinct, a thing of the past and no longer relevant. He, in effect, asked for traditional counties to return to their original purpose – that is geographical areas, unrelated to local councils (which were invented in the 1800s, while many of our counties trace their history back more than a thousand years).

Specifically, Lord Lexden called for traditional counties to be the stable geography of the country and included on all maps. He also suggested that ‘ceremonial counties’, created by the Lieutenancies Act 1997, should be realigned to match traditional counties.

Labour’s Lord Blunkett joined the debate to ask why his home county wasn’t funded in the same manner as Scotland’s generous (some argue over-generous) ’Barnett Formula’. Home Secretary in Tony Blair’s government, David Blunkett suggested to change this would fit perfectly with the present Government’s so-called ’levelling up’ agenda:

“If the historic county of Yorkshire, with a population slightly larger than Scotland, had its own Barnett formula, it would receive an extra £12bn. Wouldn’t that be levelling up?”

Another Yorkshire connection came from Liberal Democrat Lord Wallace of Saltaire, who through apparent gritted teeth, pointed out that the county has one of the “strongest senses of common identity of any region or county”. He suggested this is true both as a single county but also when divided into three (making reference to the historic Yorkshire Ridings). “The Government nevertheless seems determined to divide it into four!”

Lord Hannan of Kingsclere was next to his feet. While acknowledging that any return to previous boundaries for administrative purposes would be impracticable, he suggested one change that would preserve the traditional patchwork of UK counties. He said:

“The maiming of our historic counties in the Heath years, the destruction of some of the oldest political units in the world, was one of many lamentable acts emanating from that ministry. It may be a bit much to restore completely the administrative status quo ante, but will my noble friend the minister at least undertake to align ceremonial counties with the ninety two historic counties that make up England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland?”

Speaking of Heath’s local government reorganisation which took effect on April Fool’s Day 1974, Lord Caine then suggested that the Government and newly-appointed Secretary of State, Michael Gove, would be “immensely popular if they were to finally overturn the vandalism” carried out on that day.

By the time that Lord Randall of Uxbridge stood to speak, it was clear there was support across the House for rescuing historic counties and Randall, an officer of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Historic Counties, asked for a meeting with the minister to discuss the issues raised.

Lord Greenhalgh (for the government) acknowledged the realignment request and all points made during the debate, stating that, while the government currently has no plans to implement such a request, it could well be looked at again, as the Government is “very open” to ideas.

Time will tell if that meeting goes ahead and if any real fruit is borne out of it…

Joshua Malone, Campaign Director of the Campaign for Historic Counties commented:

We are incredibly grateful to Lord Lexden for tabling this question and to all Peers who supported his question with their own.

It is vital that action is taken to rescue Britain’s historic counties before it’s too late – celebrating counties with county days and flags is great but on its own is not enough.

Realigning ‘ceremonial counties’ with traditional counties not only makes sense, it would also clear up a lot of confusion as well as reverse the erosion of county identities that has occurred in recent years, particularly since 1974.

In conjunction with ending this anomaly, we also propose an end to the use of ‘county’ in the names of local admin areas.

This would enable counties to return to their role that has existed for over a thousand years in many cases – geographical areas unrelated to councils (which themselves were only first created towards the end of the 1800s).

By implementing these objectives, we have the opportunity of rescuing Britain’s Historic Counties, which are currently under threat of extinction.

• • •