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It is normal – some would say advisable – for any conference speaker to flatter their audience near the start of their speech.
And given the recent centenary of the end of World War One, it was unsurprising that James Brokenshire, housing and communities secretary, paid tribute to several county regiments that fought, as he addressed the County Councils Network conference on Monday.
“I was at the Cenotaph last week … and was reminded of the extraordinary sacrifices people made clearly through that very, very moving occasion,” he said.
“Not just for their country, but under the banner of their counties. The Northumberland Fusiliers, the Bucks volunteers, the Suffolk regiments – the list goes on.”
As he went on to say, in the early 20th century men “went to school together, supported their county cricket teams together and died on the battlefield together”. Army recruiters built ‘pals’ battalions’ around local ties to bolster Britain’s armed forces.
Mr Brokenshire said the Cenotaph ceremony was “a vivid reminder of the profound role that our counties play”. But the units he mentioned are no longer standing, and one wonders whether county affiliations are as salient as they were a century ago.
Since World War Two, rising university attendance, broader urbanisation and migration from abroad has made much of the UK’s population more transient. Many are freer to move than their forebearers, and some are obliged to migrate by economic circumstance.
This is not to say that county affiliations have no hold. County cricket remains alive (just about) but is threatened by proposals for a new 100-ball tournament based on cities, not counties. The identity of counties such as Cornwall have never been more clearly defined (especially when externally marketed). And politically the One Yorkshire proposal harkens back to historic county ties, even if it hasn’t yet won the support of ministers.
Political power has become most obviously concentrated in cities and wider urban areas though, especially since the creation of combined authorities, such as those of Greater Manchester, Liverpool City Region, and the West Midlands, which are all adorned by mayors. These mayors are perhaps English local government’s most high profile figures, to some extent leaving county leaders in the shade.
A glance at any English local authority map, meanwhile, casts doubt on the extent to which, as Mr Brokenshire argues, “our counties have stood the test of time”. On occasions entire counties have been abolished, Middlesex’s subsuming into Greater London in 1965 being one example. Cumberland, Westmorland and Huntingdonshire have all disappeared - while Rutland CC recently celebrated its 21st birthday after rising phoenix-like from its local government grave.
Some counties could be reinvigorated - Dorset (shorn of what have historically been its biggest towns) is about to become a county unitary. Buckinghamshire will likewise be a single unitary county from April 2020, after approval from Mr Brokenshire, despite pressure from districts for the county to be covered by two unitary authorities. But shamed Northamptonshire CC will be split in two.
These changes come almost a decade after the 2009 restructuring of English local government, which created unitary authorities covering some of the historic counties, including Cornwall, Wiltshire and Northumberland. There are recent mutterings of similar moves afoot in other counties, albeit for reasons of economic prudence.
As local government minister Rishi Sunak today recognised at the County Councils Network conference, the county councils have stepped up their lobbying efforts in recent years. One speaker said the network had been transformed from a “gentlemen’s country club” to a “serious organisation” in recent years, in which it has been respectly led by the leaders of Surrey and Kent, David Hodge and Paul Carter (both Con). Mr Sunak was being tongue-in-cheek when he said that he learnt his real master in his job was Cllr Carter, but his joke reflected the influence the counties have over the Conservative party, with the CCN being a key force in arguing for extra care funding.
But the movement of more people to cities and the empowerment of metropolitan authorities seem likely to weaken people’s attachment to the historic counties, as newer residents potentially form strong attachments to where they live rather than pining from where they came.
Mr Brokenshire was right to pay tribute to pals’ battalions, which returned with much thinner ranks after the war. But a century later, loyalty to the home county must compete with many broader ties.
Jimmy Nicholls, features editor