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What's the point of counties?

  • 4 August 2010
  • From the section Magazine
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Official postal addresses may soon no longer have county names on them. So is our link to counties steadily being eroded? And does it matter?

Here of a Sunday morning

My love and I would lie,

And see the coloured counties,

And hear the larks so high

For many, the words of AE Housman's poem A Shropshire Lad epitomise the English tradition of identifying oneself through one's county.

But that link is about to take a bit of a knock.

Royal Mail has announced that county names are to be deleted from its postal database, which is called the Postcode Address File and lists every address in the UK. It's used by businesses and public bodies.

People will still be able to put counties on addresses when they post letters, but are being advised it's not necessary because a house number, street and postcode are all that is needed.

Apply Royal Mail sensibilities to the Housman poem and the title might change from A Shropshire Lad to the rather less romantic An SY8 Lad - SY8 being the postcode for Ludlow, home to Housman's grave.

Ian Beesley, chairman of the board that advises the Royal Mail on running the database, said county names had become "a kind of vanity attachment".

Tampering with history

While many city dwellers may view the Royal Mail proposal as a sensible move - and one or two lines less to write on an envelope - for others this strikes at the heart of who they are.

County-lovers say that by deleting county names from addresses, the postal service is tampering with Britain's history.

"It is not up to Royal Mail to decide whether or not to delete our heritage," says Arnold Bear from Bagshot in Surrey. "As far as I recall, we didn't elect them."

When astrologer Russell Grant was growing up in Hillingdon in the late 1950s and early 1960s, he felt very much a Middlesex boy.

"I used to look at Middlesex Cricket Club scores every morning in the paper. And on my school books, it said 'Middlesex Education Committee' with the shield of Middlesex, so I felt that sense of belonging.

"And so did others, over the smallest things they were brought up with. It's not just about Middlesex but wherever you grew up and realised from a young age the things that are part of your history and heritage."

De-Saxonising

In 1965, the county council was incorporated into Greater London, Hertfordshire and Surrey.

Grant says this removed "daily contact" that local people had with the name because they no longer saw it on, for example, the side of fire engines.

"It didn't really change anything for me because I had a solid identity but for people moving into the area, it changed things and it definitely became more confusing."

The name of Middlesex, a Saxon settlement documented in 704, lives on in many ways, most famously in the county cricket club and the university, and its spirit is still evoked by road signs that proudly announce to drivers when they are entering the old county boundaries.

There was also a recent reminder of its past glories when the former Middlesex Guildhall was preserved as the new Supreme Court in Parliament Square, central London.

What happened to the historical county of Middlesex was repeated across the UK between 1972 and 1975, when a major reorganisation of local government swept aside many old county names. In Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales, the county councils were no more.

Grant, who wrote The Real Counties of Britain, says Parliament should have sought to protect the historical counties and he still uses the historic county names when he's writing an address on an envelope.

"People need their counties for their history and their sense of identity."

The erosion of counties by the postal service has been going on for a long time, he says, but the bigger problem is the media getting things wrong.

The picture is especially confusing on the edge of cities which, as they have grown, so their municipal boundaries have encroached on to counties, blurring the identity of those living on the outskirts.

So Croydon-born Kate Moss, for example, could be correctly described as both a Londoner and a Surrey girl, although many people would insist one is right and the other wrong.

Were she still living there, she would pay her council tax to a London borough, created in 1965, but her fan mail may say "Croydon, Surrey" on the envelope because that is the postal address.

Image caption Croydon girl or Surrey? It's the same place

It's not just outer London that suffers from this geographical "double-identity". In much the same way, Wigan is in Greater Manchester for municipal reasons but historically, and in most people's minds, it's very much a part of Lancashire.

But people probably identify more with their historical county than with the name of their local council, says David Kett, a retired lecturer in local and central government.

So people in Croydon are more likely to say they live in Surrey than south London. In some areas, like Hampshire, the county council does not even collect the council tax, which is paid to district councils.

But there have been some illogical name changes which have added to the confusion when council boundaries changed, he says.

"The names that have been adopted don't actually reflect the historic counties, " he says.

For example, when Avon disappeared [in 1996], it was replaced by four unitary authorities including South Gloucestershire, even though it's not in Gloucestershire and not part of that county council.

Urban thinking

Postcodes are no reliable indicator either, says Mr Kett. Petersfield, for example, has a Surrey postcode even though it's in Hampshire.

Image caption Rutland - recognised by Royal Mail in 2007, only to be derecognised

There is no doubt that some counties have a stronger identity than others. Yorkshire celebrated its annual festival at the weekend, Cornwall has its own language and flag, and the more people make jokes about Essex, the closer it seems to bond.

After Rutland was abolished in 1974 and the villages there became controlled by Leicestershire County Council, the people began a successful, 23-year campaign to have Rutland reinstated.

During the fight, signs that said "Leicestershire" were replaced by Rutland County ones, says Roger Begy, leader of Rutland County Council, and the campaign was vital in persuading the Boundary Commission to act.

The victory in 1997 when it got its own council - the smallest unitary authority in England - was followed 10 years later when Royal Mail officially recognised Rutland as a postal county again. But the municipal change was the more significant triumph, says Mr Begy.

"Having a county council is about being accountable, so people know who they are talking to and who to point the finger at. Whatever Royal Mail say, people will always put Rutland on an address."

The campaign was about resisting what Mr Begy describes as the urbanisation of policy and thinking.

"Rural counties have a strong identity and want to be part of that identity. It's one of the reasons why people come here."

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