Association of British Counties

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ABC map of counties of Great Britain

The Association of British Counties is a society dedicated to promoting awareness of the continuing importance of the ninety-two Counties of the United Kingdom.

The Association champions the counties as a vital part of Britain's cultural heritage which should be preserved and promoted. It emphasises the clear distinction between the Counties and administrative units (some of which the legislation terms "counties" for its purposes). It campaigns against the widespread notion that the Counties have been abolished or altered by local government legislation.

County boundaries

The Association takes as the most authoritative definition of the boundaries of the Counties of Great Britain that obtained by the Ordnance Survey during its first national survey of Great Britain".[1]

Detached parts of counties affected by the Counties (Detached Parts) Act 1844 are considered to be associated with both their parent County (from which they are detached) and the County in which they locally lie.

The "counties corporate" created for the purpose of the administration of justice and local government during the Middle Ages, are not considered counties, as indeed they were not at the time.

Aims and objectives

The ABC has declared that it does not call for further local government reorganisation[2] but would like to see an official distinction made between the Counties and the current administrative units known for legislative purposes as "counties".

To this end, the Association of British Counties seeks to bring about an official change in government terminology so that local government "counties" would be take another term, such as areas or administrative counties, the latter being the term used in the Local Government Acts 1888 and 1933 which first created county councils in England and Wales. Such a change would help towards removing the confusion resulting from the naming of various statutory entities as "counties".

Other policies include:

  • Getting the Ordnance Survey to mark County borders on maps;
  • The erection of boundary markers at County boundaries;
  • Having lord-lieutenants and sheriffs appointed to Counties and not statutory areas;
  • Overturning any rules which match funding to governmental regions to the detriment of organisations based on Counties.


The Association of British Counties was founded in 1989, holding its inaugural conference on 1 April in Llantilio Crossenny near Abergavenny in Monmouthshire.[3] The first Chairman was Michael Bradford, who served for many years and is now the Association's President.

The meeting was called by the television entertainer Russell Grant and a number of county organisations. The meeting was at a time when the Government was beginning a review of local government arrangements: in March 1989 the Secretary of State for the Environment, Nicholas Ridley had ordered an urgent review of the future of Humberside.[4] Later in April Nicholas Bennett MP unsuccessfully introduced a bill into the House of Commons to introduce a system of unitary authorities in Wales based on historic counties.[5][6]

At that time the Association was not considered a membership organisation but was formed out of a number of local county associations. Some 30 bodies were represented at the founding meeting, including:

  • The North Berkshire Association
  • The North Lincolnshire Association
  • Friends of the County of Middlesex / Middlesex Trust
  • The Campaign for Pembrokeshire
  • The Voice of Rutland
  • The Yorkshire Ridings Society
  • The East Yorkshire Action Group
  • 'Roots' County Heritage

- and groups representing, amongst others:

  • Cheshire
  • Herefordshire
  • Lancashire
  • Monmouthshire
  • North Somerset (which became The Back to Somerset Campaign)
  • Wiltshire


Saddleworth White Rose plaque

The Association has long moved away from being a group of organisations and now has a thriving individual membership drawn from across the United Kingdom. Nevertheless, groups are members of (or "affiliated to") the Association of British Counties.

The member groups and county groups listed by the Association (listed by county) are:

The Association of British Counties maintains correspondence and co-operation with the Middlesex Federation [13] but the latter is not affiliated.

The Gazetteer of British Place Names

The Association of British Counties developed and maintains the Gazetteer of British Place Names, a gazetteer covering all the towns and villages of Great Britain.

The Gazetteer gives for each town and village its County and the various statutory areas in which it has been placed; local government areas, government region, police force, health authority area. The data is available for purchase in a number of formats.

Over the yeas the Gazetteer of British Place Names has become a standard resource for many organisations.

The National Gazetteer of Wales

The National Gazetteer of Wales is a development from the Gazetteer of British Place Names, but which covers only places in Wales. Nevertheless, in addition to the fields contained in the latter Gazetteer, the Welsh Gazetteer also gives Welsh language versions of place names.

Ongoing campaigns

Postal addresses

The Association of British Counties developed traditional county postal address data for the Royal Mail, which is included in the Postcode Address File's Alias record, along with administrative areas and "former postal counties". This data may be used by end-users to provide the county line in any postal address.[7]

In 2010, POSTCOMM and the Royal Mail discussed the withdrawal of all county line information, following many complains about the inappropriate use of former postal counties. The Association of British Counties has continued to supply the gap with its traditional County data.

Road signs

The ABC and its member organisations have achieved:

  • The removal of many old boundary signs marking the "metropolitan counties" whose councils were abolished in the 1980s.
  • The erection of signs marking the traditional boundary between Lancashire and the West Riding of Yorkshire on the A59 road.[8]
  • The erection of signs marking the traditional boundary between Cheshire and Lancashire.[9]
  • The erection of signs by Oldham Metropolitan Borough Council marking the traditional boundary between Yorkshire and Lancashire around Saddleworth.[9]

Be properly addressed

The Association of British Counties publishes a postal directory putting British postal towns each in its corresponding traditional county. (With respect to the small areas affected by the Counties (Detached Parts) Act 1844, the "Be Properly Addressed" directory notes permissible alternatives.)

County flags

Huntingdonshire county flag
Main article: County flag

The development of county flags in recent years was not as a result of any efforts by the Association of British Counties though three of the earliest flags, those of Pembrokeshire, Lancashire and Yorkshire, were developed by its member organisations.

The Association took a specific interest from 2008. In that year the Association's representatives attended an address at the House of Commons by the Flag Institute, to answer questions on the subject of the Counties. In 2009 the Association and the Huntingdonshire Society applied for and received registration of the Huntingdonshire county flag, and began to assist local groups in Berkshire and Westmorland to develop county flags. In 2010 the Sussex Association and Sussex Flag Group began to promote Sussex through the medium of a Sussex county flag promotion. Other flags are in development with the ABC's assistance.

Lobbying on local government arrangements

Early work: the Local Government Commission for England

The Local Government Commission for England was created in 1992, and the Association of British Counties became active in the review process, advocating the use of historic county boundaries for the new councils. The Commission's review resulted in the restoration of councils with areas approximating to the Counties of Herefordshire and Rutland and the abolition of the unpopular local government "counties" of Avon, Cleveland and Humberside.[10][11][12][13][14]

Attempts to have council areas created approximating to Cumberland and Westmorland failed, the Commission not favouring such a move and claiming insufficient public support.[15][16] The creation of a Huntingdonshire unitary authority was also eventually rejected in spite of strong support locally and the personal intervention of the Prime Minister, John Major.[17]

In Scotland and in Wales a system of unitary areas was established in 1996. In Wales, the ABC's then President, John Butcher MP, lobbied the Secretary of State in favour of names and areas approximating to Counties, and in the event several of these areas approximated to Counties, amongst them authorities for Pembrokeshire, Carmarthenshire and Cardiganshire, while another was created named Caernarfonshire and Merionethshire (though the latter two councils changed their own names to Ceredigion and Gwynedd respectively). Of the Scottish local authority areas, several took the names of Counties, albeit often with very different areas.

Later work

In March 2002, the National Assembly for Wales directed the Local Government Boundary Commission for Wales to conduct a review of the "preserved counties" of Wales (areas nominated for the appointment of lord-lieutenants and miscellaneous statutory purposes). The Association of British Counties submitted a paper arguing for the use of Counties for this purpose. Although the Commission did not recommend this course in their final report, the ABC's paper was included as an Appendix to that report.[18]

In 2007 it was announced that a number of unitary authorities would be formed in 2009. Among the councils that were to gain unitary status were the "county" councils of Cornwall, Durham, Northumberland, Shropshire and Wiltshire, which were to absorb all of their district councils. The ABC proposed that the new unitary councils be named so that the word "county" would not be used in any council's title. This was partially successful, in that all but "Durham" and "Northumberland" dropped the phrase "County Council" from their names to become simply "Council". The ABC also suggested alternative names to reflect the difference between the new areas and the Counties from which they were ultimately named[19][20][21][22], for example the name "Mid Durham and Teesdale" was suggested in place of "County Durham". (The leader of Durham County Council rejected this suggestion on the basis that changing the council's existing name would be a waste of money, and then himself proposed a change from "Durham County Council" to "County Durham Council". Neither change took place in the event. Suggested names for the remnant of "Shropshire" council were "Shropshire Heartlands Council", "Heart of Shropshire Council" and "Shrewsbury and Rural Shropshire Council".[23]

Political support

Parliamentary support

Hdr parliament.jpg

A Private Members Bill, the Historic Counties (Traffic Signs and Mapping) Bill, was twice introduced to the House of Commons first by John Randall MP (Uxbridge) in 2003, and again in 2004 by Adrian Flook (Taunton), who "[paid] tribute to the Association of British Counties for trailblazing the campaign".[24] The Bill did not proceed to second reading in either year.

Another Private Members Bill, the Historic Counties, Towns and Villages (Traffic Signs and Mapping) Bill was introduced to Parliament on 31 January 2007 by Andrew Rosindell MP (Romford) under the Ten Minute Rule. It was ordered to be brought in by a group of 12 MPs. Mr Rosindell "[thanks] the Association of British Counties, a society dedicated to promoting awareness of the 86 historic counties of Great Britain, which has campaigned tirelessly for their recognition through proper signage denoting historic county boundaries".[25] The Bill did not proceed beyond second reading[26] but was supported by the Conservative opposition[27]. It was opposed by the government.[28] Mr Rosindell has also brought several Early Day Motions on the subject.

John Butcher MP (Coventry South West, until 1997), was an active member of the ABC, campaigning in Parliament during the 1990s local government reform. In 1991, he suggested to the Secretary of State for Wales the use of the County names Radnorshire, Montgomeryshire and Monmouthshire for unitary authorities in Wales[29] In a 1996 debate, declaring he was honorary president of the ABC, he noted his approval of the abolition of the postal counties, meaning that "people who live in places like "Birmingham, Walsall and Coventry can now use in their addresses the ancient pre-1974 counties".[30]

In 2010, the Secretary for State for Communities and Local Government, Eric Pickles, engaged the ABC's founder patron, Russell Grant, to advise on Counties and local identity. Mr Pickles decided to raise the flags of English Counties over his Department's headquarters week by week,[31] on which the ABC advised and supplied many of the flags.

Official statements

The following statements have been made regarding the status of the historic counties:

In The Times of 1st April 1974:

According to a Department of the Environment official, the new county boundaries are solely for the purpose of defining areas of first-level government of the future: "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. Citing Middlesex as an example, he said that although that county had been swallowed up in Greater London in 1965 and disappeared for governmental purposes, the name still exists for postal and other reasons. "Similarly the broad acres known as Yorkshire will remain unaltered despite the different names adopted by the new administrative counties."[32]

Michael Portillo MP – Minister of State for Local Government – 11th July 1990:

I can confirm that the government still stand by this statement,…. that the local authority areas and boundaries introduced in 1974 do not alter the boundaries of traditional boundaries of counties. The 1974 arrangements are entirely administrative, and need not affect long-standing loyalties and affinities.

Department of the Environment, 3rd September 1991:

The Local Government Act 1972 did not abolish traditional counties, only administrative ones. Although for local government purposes some of the historic counties have ceased to be administrative areas, they continue to exist for other purposes, organisations and local groups.

Paul Beresford, then Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Environment, on 4th December 1995:[33]

Local government boundaries are concerned essentially with administration, and changes, whether arising from the 1974 reorganisation or as part of the current review, need not affect ancient loyalties and affinities. I need hardly name some of these. Lancashire County Cricket Club was mentioned, and continues to have Old Trafford as its main ground and headquarters, and has managed to do quite well on it in the last season, despite being within "Greater Manchester".

John Powell, Office of the Deputy Prime Minister, 29th August 2003:

The Government is aware that many people attach importance to historic and traditional county areas and it is not their intention that people’s identification with their counties will be diminished.

Department for Communities and Local Government, 22nd August 2006:

I can confirm that these Acts ([Local Government Acts of] 1933, 1972) did not specifically abolish traditional counties so traditional counties still exist but no longer for the administration of local government.

Gillian Merron MP, Private Secretary to the Cabinet Office – Hansard 29th June 2007:

There is no doubt about the importance of historic counties… as part of our history and cultural life. I agree that they provide many people with a strong sense of identity and local pride. Indeed the continued use of traditional county names and areas in tourism, sport, business, literature and the arts, to name but a few examples, bears testament to that. Of course we should all be proud of where we come from.

Parjit Dhanda MP, Parliamentary Under Secretary at the Department for Communities & Local Government, on 16th April 2008:

The legislation that currently defines counties for the purposes of the administration of local government is the Local Government Act 1972 (as amended by various Orders in the 1990s). This legislation abolished the previous administrative counties, which were established by the Local Government Act 1933. However, these Acts did not specifically abolish traditional counties, so traditional counties still exist, but no longer for the purpose of the administration of local government.


  • The Counties - quarterly to members
  • The Gazetteer of British Place Names[34]
  • Be Properly Addressed: A Traditional County Postal Directory
  • Numerous consultation responses


  1. [ Association of British Counties - Aims and Objectives
  2. ABC FAQ
  3. Diary, The Times, March 28, 1989, p.16
  4. County review ordered, The Times, March 18, 1989
  5. Diary, The Times, April 11, 1989
  6. Welsh councils Bill rejected: Parliament The Times, April 13, 1989
  7. Royal Mail - Alias Data. Retrieved 12 January 2007.
  8. Friends of Real Lancashire newsletter
  9. 9.0 9.1 The Counties, ABC newsletter, Spring 2009
  10. LGCE. Final Recommendations for the Future Local Government of Leicestershire. December 1994.
  11. LGCE. Final Recommendations for the Future Local Government of Hereford and Worcester. December 1994.
  12. LGCE. Final Recommendations for the Future Local Government of Avon, Gloucestershire and Somerset. December 1993
  13. LGCE. Final recommendations on the future local government of Cleveland and Durham. November 1993
  14. LGCE. Final Recommendations for the Future Local Government of North Yorkshire, Humberside and Lincolnshire. January 1994.
  15. Final Recommendations for the Future Local Government of Cumbria. October 1994.
  16. LGCE. Final Recommendations on the Future Local Government of: Basildon & Thurrock, Blackburn & Blackpool, Broxtowe, Gedling & Rushcliffe, Dartford & Gravesham, Gillingham & Rochester Upon Medway, Exeter, Gloucester, Halton & Warrington, Huntingdonshire & Peterborough, Northampton, Norwich, Spelthorne and the Wrekin. December 1995.
  17. The Future Local Government of Cambridgeshire (LGC, June 1994), p10: "Options which included a unitary Huntingdonshire authority were supported by 57 per cent of respondents, or 63 per cent if those submissions not expressing a structural preference are excluded. By contrast, only 24 percent of respondents in the district supported the retention of the two tier system."
  18. Review of Preserved County Boundaries; Final Proposals - Appendix 3] Local Government Boundary Commission for Wales
  19. Group demands county name switch. BBC. 7 Nov 2007. Retrieved 2008-01-17 
  20. Northumberland Unitary Council - call for new name ABC, accessed December 16, 2007
  21. Shropshire Unitary Council - call for new name ABC, accessed December 16, 2007
  22. Wiltshire Unitary Council - call for new name ABC, accessed December 16, 2007
  23. Frequently asked questions on One Council for Shropshire, Shropshire County Council, accessed December 16, 2007
  24. Parliamentary Debates, House of Commons, 20 October 2004 , column 895
  25. Parliamentary Debates, House of Commons, 31 January 2007 , column 236
  26. [ House of Commons Hansard Debates for 29 Jun 2007
  27. [ House of Commons Hansard Debates for 29 Jun 2007
  28. [ House of Commons Hansard Debates for 29 Jun 2007
  29. Parliamentary Debates, House of Commons, 17 June 1991 , column 30
  30. Parliamentary Debates, House of Commons, 4 July 1996 , column 1073
  31. County flags to fly at Communities and Local Government] Department for Communities and Local Government press release
  32. White Rose ties hold fast despite amputation and shake-up of boundaries; Raymond Gledhill, The Times, April 1, 1974
  33. Parliamentary Debates, House of Commons, 4 December 1995 , columns 119–120 . Retrieved 19 October 2006.
  34. [1]
  • Russell Grant (1996). The Real Counties of Britain. Virgin Books. ISBN 1-85227-479-4. 

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