It seems that every political wonk (or at least the subsection of them I follow on Twitter) has something in common. Amidst all their differences on policy, every one of them has a plan for how they would divide up the English regions into new administrative units. One interesting thing you can often spot from them, however, is where someone lives and/or comes from – as the further they get away from the areas they’re most familiar with, the odder some of their boundary proposals get.
I live in Colchester, Britain’s first city, and now part of the county of Essex (though there are structures within a few hundred metres of where I’m writing this that were built before there were Saxons in Saxony, let alone eastern, western and southern branches of them in England). However, if some things in the late 1960s and early 1970s had gone differently, then it’s quite possible that Colchester would now be part of Suffolk. How did that almost come to pass?
It helps to remember that local government in England, and especially its boundaries, have always more evolved over time than been deliberately planned. Throughout the centuries, various monarchs and Parliaments had made a variety of reforms to the system they’d inherited but no one had ever swept the map clean and started all over again.
Then the first Wilson government decided it was time to change that.
The Redcliffe-Maud proposals. Image: The Ares Project/DeviantArt.
In 1966, it established a Royal Commission on local government that was requested to look at all local government in England (with the exception of Greater London, for which the Greater London Council had been established in 1965) and make recommendations for how it could best perform all its functions, including new boundaries. The Commission, under the chairmanship of Lord Redcliffe-Maud, took to their task with enthusiasm, and proposed doing away with almost all the existing structures of English local government, and replacing them with an entirely new system. This would divide England into eight provinces, each of which would contain a number of unitary authorities. (See here for more details on what the different levels would do.)
You can click on the map (or this link) to get more of an idea of where these new boundaries would be, but crucial for this discussion is that Redcliffe-Maud introduced the idea that the Haven Ports (Harwich, Felixstowe, and Ipswich) should be part of a single local authority. So the Commission proposed a new authority in the East Anglia province that would bring together Ipswich, what was then East Suffolk, and Essex’s Tendring peninsula (including Harwich) as well as Colchester and the rural areas around it. (A side-effect of this would have been to put all the Dedham Vale into a single authority as well.) A rump Essex would have been part of the South-East province.
For an alternative, and perhaps more radical, set of proposals from a member of the Royal Commission, take a look at the map proposed in the splendidly-named Derek Senior’s Memorandum of Dissent:
Derek Senior’s Memorandum of Dissent. Image: The Ares Project/DeviantArt.
As you might imagine, there was a big outcry about the Redcliffe-Maud report, because it would have represented a radical reform of local government and a lot of very small rural and urban district councils would have disappeared. Despite a campaign against it by many rural councils (using the slogan “Don’t vote for R.E. Mote”) and opposition from the Conservatives, by early 1970 the Labour government was committed to delivering the Redcliffe-Maud reforms. However, it then proceeded to lose the 1970 general election.
The new Conservative government of Edward Heath was opposed to the Redcliffe-Maud proposals but was still committed to local government reform, recognising that the system was in need of some rationalisation. Their proposals, in what became the 1972 Local Government Act, was for a principally two-tiered system but on a much smaller scale to Redcliffe-Maud. There would be no regions, with the highest unit instead being the County Councils and Metropolitan Counties, with boroughs and districts underneath them, and local parish councils within those boroughs and districts. (The main difference between a borough and a district is that the former have a civic mayoralty while the latter don’t.)
However, while the proposed counties would broadly follow their historic boundaries, there would be several changes as part of the reforms. In some cases, historic counties would lose chunks of territory to the new metropolitan counties that usually straddled old county boundaries – the West Midlands, for instance, included parts of Warwickshire, Worcestershire and Staffordshire. In others, new counties were proposed either as mergers of existing counties deemed too small – Cumbria formed out of Cumberland, Westmorland and the Lancashire County Borough of Furness, while Herefordshire found itself merged with its smaller but more populous neighbour to become Hereford & Worcester, which almost found itself called the County of Wyvern. Finally, other changes were made to recognise economic patterns, which included keeping the Redcliffe-Maud proposal of a single authority for the Haven ports.
In the Redcliffe-Maud grand redrawing of boundaries, a new Ipswich, Colchester and points east authority was easy to fit in, as it was the right size to be one of the new unitary authorities. In the new system, it would have been too big to be a district (which were based around single large towns) and too small to be a county (which needed lots of space and/or a large-ish city). So instead they chose to shift Suffolk to the south-east – and I do mean shift, not stretch.
The proposal was for the new, soon-to-be-formed Colchester and Tendring councils to become part of Suffolk. As this would make Suffolk quite large – it had previously been administered as separate East and West authorities – parts of the west of it would be detached and added on to Cambridgeshire. All rational, sensible and good, until it was announced and people realised that it meant Colchester (by now, home of the University of Essex) would thus officially become part of Suffolk.
This did not go down well. Essex County Council resented the idea that it would lose a big chunk of its territory (and a major port) to another county and a large PR campaign began to stop the move. As you can tell by my address (and my complaints about ECC) they succeeded, but there was some local support for the move including from Lord Alport (the former MP for Colchester) and some of the rural councils in the area. The boundary between Essex and Suffolk would remain along the Stour, and Harwich and Felixstowe would continue to be part of separate counties. There is now the Haven Gateway Partnership, a local government lobbying group for the area (disclaimer: I’ve been a member of its board in the past), but the prospect of any major change to county boundaries around here has been dead for decades.
Even if the change had happened, would it have stuck around to the present day? Some of the 1972 creations, such as Avon or Hereford & Worcester, have disappeared from the map with little-to-no mourning for them, and some people still protest their “new” county designation, like those who campaign for Saddleworth to return to Yorkshire. Elsewhere, though, Cumbria seems well-established with no major campaign to return county boundaries through the middle of the Lake District.
It’s very easy to draw a line on a map and declare that one side of it is now one place and the other side another place, regardless of what they may have been before. All those lines are arbitrary, no matter how old they might be, but all of them help to create imagined communities on either side of them and sometimes across them.
We can argue for years – in fact we’ve probably been arguing for decades now – about where you might draw those lines to make English regions. But the choice at the end is always going to be the same: do we want to reflect the imagined communities that are already there, or seek to create new ones that time could prove to be stronger and more useful than those that already exist.
Nick Barlow is a researcher and teacher at Queen Mary University of London. This article first appeared on Medium.