Local Government Changes in the United Kingdom


Throughout much of the 20th century local government in most areas of the United Kingdom consisted of two tiers, each with their own responsibilities. The upper-tier authorities were the county councils and the lower-tier consisted of a multiplicity of city, borough, urban district, rural district and metropolitan district councils. A number of cities and towns, however, had a single tier of local government and were not dependent on the county councils in any way. These cities and towns were those granted the status of "County Borough" or of "County of itself" or, in Scotland, of "County of a City" and they formed what were effectively independent islands within the geographic counties. Most county council boundaries corresponded with those of the geographic counties, but there were some exceptions, namely Yorkshire, Lincolnshire, Suffolk and Sussex, where the geographic counties were served by two or three County Councils. London, as ever, was another exception. London proper, the City of London, was and is only the one square mile on the north bank of the Thames where the Bank of England and other financial institutions are located. The county of London, however, covered some 116 square miles but it was of comparatively recent origin, having been formed in 1899 from the City and chunks of the surrounding counties of Middlesex, Kent and Surrey. Around the county of London was a rather ill-defined and constantly growing area known as Greater London.

The first of the far reaching changes took place in 1965 with the formal recognition of the previously vague concept of Greater London. On April 1st 1965 the Greater London Council was constituted covering an area which comprised the former counties of London and Middlesex together with parts of Essex, Kent, Surrey and Hertfordshire, including three former County Boroughs, Croydon, West Ham and East Ham. The second-tier within this area, which had previously consisted of no fewer than 82 borough, metropolitan and urban district councils, was reorganised into 33 sub-divisions - 32 London Boroughs and the City of London.

Next, on October 1st 1973, came some changes affecting Northern Ireland. The 73 existing councils (6 upper-tier county councils, 2 single-tier county boroughs, and 65 lower-tier councils comprising 10 boroughs, 24 urban districts and 31 rural districts) were replaced by 26 single-tier District Councils. For administrative purposes at least, the six historic counties were no more.

Six months later, on April 1st 1974, it was the turn of England and Wales (apart from Greater London). Here the two-tier structure was to remain, in fact it was to be extended to include even the special-status areas which had previously enjoyed an independent existence. The overall effects were (1) to abolish County Boroughs, (2) to reduce number of upper-tier county councils from 58 to 53, (3) to replace the 1250 lower-tier councils with 369 District Councils. Six of the 53 county councils which served major conurbations were to be Metropolitan County Councils and the 36 district councils within these areas were to be termed Metropolitan District Councils. These changes resulted in the disappearance of several historic counties and most others had major boundary changes.

Similar, but more radical, changes were introduced in Scotland on May 1st 1975. The existing structure comprised some 431 upper, lower and single-tier councils, and these were replaced by 9 upper-tier Regional Councils, 53 lower-tier District Councils and 3 single-tier authorities serving some of the island communities. All 34 of Scotland's historic counties had been removed at a stroke and had been replaced by a mere 9 "Regions".

Eleven years later, on March 31st 1986, the government of the day abolished the Greater London County Council and the six Metropolitan County Councils. In those areas the second-tier authorities (the London Boroughs and the Metropolitan District Councils) were promoted to single-tier authorities similar to the old county boroughs in the pre-1974 arrangements. Some county-wide services were maintained using a complex mixture of joint boards and joint committees, but the counties as administrative entities were no more.

The most recent changes have affected most parts of Great Britain - all of Wales and Scotland and most of England - and in some areas these have effectively reversed the 1974/75 changes. In Wales the eight upper-tier counties were abolished on April 1st 1996, as were the 37 second-tier district councils, and in place of both, 22 new single-tier "Unitary Authorities" were created. On the same day similar changes were introduced in Scotland which removed the nine upper-tier regions, the three single-tier island authorities and the 53 second-tier districts, and replaced all with 32 unitary authorities. In England the changes were more varied, indeed many areas were completely unaffected. The changes were also phased, with implementation dates of April 1st 1995, 1996, 1997 and 1998. At the time of writing all but the 1998 changes have taken effect and the "shadow" bodies for the post-1998 authorities are already set up ready to assume responsibility on the due date. The effect of these changes is to create a pattern of local government which more closely matches the wishes and needs of the population than did the post-1974 situation. Four of the counties set up in 1974 were abolished and converted into a number of unitary authorities, and the same fate awaits one of the historic counties, Berkshire, in 1998, although in this case the "Royal County of Berkshire" will still theoretically exist for purely ceremonial purposes. In most counties, however, the result is a return to a mixture of single-tier and two-tier local government, much as they had before the 1974 upheaval, with a number of unitary authorities being carved out of the counties and the remaining areas retaining their two-tier county/district structure.

Although the latest round of changes has resulted in the reappearance of a number of the old county and county borough names, in almost all cases the boundaries are rather different from those of the former areas.

The tables on the associated pages illustrate the changes since 1965. There are two tables for each of the constituent parts of the United Kingdom - England, Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales. The first shows the historic counties and their administrative sub-divisions before the first round of changes and lists the successor counties for each, that is the post-change counties which contain some or all of the original county area. The second table lists the counties after the first round of changes and lists their successor counties and/or unitary authorities. In all cases only the top-tier authority is shown - either the top-tier in a two-tier arrangement or a single tier authority (shown italicised).

Additional information is provided where appropriate and available - the Chapman County Code (CCC), a unique 3 letter code for counties and regions; the common abbreviation for the area; and, for the second round of changes in England, the year in which the changes were (or will be) implemented.

The following abbreviations are used in these tables:


(C) County Borough
County of itself
County of a City
(L) London Borough
(M) Metropolitan District
(MC) Metropolitan County
(U) Unitary Authority

© GENUKI and Contributors 1997