A recent history of UK local government restructuring

As a result of attempts to introduce the most efficient system of local government for different areas, several major structural changes have been made since the 1960s.

In the early 1960s the UK was covered by two-tier administrations, based on counties and a mixture of sub-administrations including municipal boroughs, county boroughs, rural districts and urban districts. The Isles of Scilly had their own single-tier administration.

In 1965 a new structure was introduced to London whereby Greater London was formed from segments of the surrounding counties, with the boroughs being the lower tier of the system.

In 1974 a similar two-tier structure was introduced to the rest of England and Wales whereby revised (and in many cases larger) counties, also known as shire counties, provided the top tier of local government and non-metropolitan districts the lower tier.

In heavily urbanised areas six of these counties were known as metropolitan counties, with the subdivisions called metropolitan districts. The Isles of Scilly retained their own set-up.

Scotland had the same structure introduced in 1975 except that the upper-tier units were known as regions.

Northern Ireland however had had its entire two-tier system replaced in 1973 by a single-tier district council system.

In 1986 the Greater London Council and the six metropolitan counties were abolished, leaving the boroughs and districts to operate as single-tier units, although the abolished larger areas are still recognised for some purposes such as statistical presentation.

Then, in the 1990s and again in 2009, it was decided that the two-tier system might not be the most efficient in many cases.

Scotland and Wales had their two-tier systems replaced in 1996, in Scotland by a single-tier system of council areas and in Wales by a similar system of unitary authorities.

In England meanwhile the situation became rather more complex, as described below:

Local government reorganisation (LGR) in England

The Local Government Boundary Commission for England (LGBCE) reviewed the administrative structure of non-metropolitan areas and, following considerable research and consultation, recommended that some areas retain the existing two-tier structure and others be set up as single-tier unitary authorities (UA).

Parliament approved reorganisation in 25 counties and the subsequent process of restructuring occurred in phases between 1995 and 1998 (see below).

In 2009 there was further local government reorganisation, in which ten new UAs were created, and plans to create two new UAs in 2011 were revoked by Parliament:

  • 1995 – The two districts of the Isle of Wight were merged and the county became a UA.

  • 1996 – The counties of Avon, Cleveland and Humberside were abolished and divided into UAs. The city of York was separated from North Yorkshire and became a UA.

  • 1997 – A number of other large towns and cities were detached from their counties and became UAs. The historic county of Rutland was detached from Leicestershire and converted to a UA.

  • 1998 – Several more urban UAs were created. The county of Hereford and Worcester was divided into the two-tier Worcestershire and the misleadingly named UA, County of Herefordshire. Also the county of Berkshire was abolished and divided into six UAs.

  • 2009 – Ten new UAs were created. These involved the county of Bedfordshire being abolished and split into two UAs and the county of Cheshire also being abolished and split into two UAs. In addition, five complete counties were abolished and created as five separate UAs – Cornwall, County Durham, Northumberland, Shropshire and Wiltshire. Due to the changes in Cornwall, the Isles of Scilly are considered as a UA for coding purposes.

  • 2011 – Plans to create two new UAs in Exeter and Suffolk were revoked by Parliament.

Prior to the LGR there were 39 shire counties split into 294 districts.

The current structure consists of 25 shire counties split into 188 districts, and 57 unitary authorities.

Only 13 pre-1995 shire counties were unaffected by the changes. Metropolitan districts were not included in the LGR and have retained their post-1986 status, and in 2000 the London boroughs became subject to the London-wide authority.

The Isles of Scilly have retained their own administration throughout.

Our product 'Gazetteer of the Old and New Geographies of the United Kingdom' (1999) provides a comprehensive and illustrated guide to the 1990s changes.

Regional government

In 2004 legislation was passed to allow referendums on regional government in the English Government Office Regions (GORs).

On 4 November 2004 a referendum was held in the North East which produced a major 'no' vote.

Consequently, the plans for referendums elsewhere were dropped, with plans for regional assemblies shelved.

However, should regional assemblies be introduced at a later date, this will almost certainly lead to a major reorganisation of local government structures.

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