There has been much talk recently regarding city-regions. Planners have long considered the city and its hinterland as a useful basis for planning for transport, the economy and delivering many government services. Indeed in the late 1960s the Royal Commission for Local Government in England recommended abolishing our ancient counties and replacing them with unitary city-regions.
The public gave the proposals short shrift because they were attached to the idea of their county. In 1974 modifications were made but outside of the major conurbations the counties were maintained. There was still resentment at the formation of some of the new counties like Avon and Humberside and the abolition of Rutland.
A review produced in 1997 a range of changes. Some of the new counties like Avon were abolished and some cities were separated from their hinterland, for example, Nottingham became a county completely surrounded by the county of Nottinghamshire.
We now have a complete hodge-podge. A situation made more difficult by the Royal Mail which has postal counties. These are different again. The ceremonial county of East Sussex has different boundaries from that of the administrative county of East Sussex which has different boundaries again from the postal county of East Sussex.
A person in South Gloucestershire would make the reasonable assumption that they lived in Gloucestershire and would be served by the Gloucestershire police. But they are not – they are served by the Avon and Somerset police.
Many land-use and transport planners are confused – so what hope the general public. A cynic might say that this is deliberate policy – confuse and rule.
City regions are not new – the Anglo-Saxons created the first city regions around 700ce in Wessex. Each major town would have its own hinterland so Hampton (now Southampton) had Hampshire, Somerton and Somersetshire and Wilton had Wiltshire etc. Until the industrial revolution these shires made sense – the biggest town surrounded by its own hinterland.
How do we regain the benefits of city regions without alienating the people? I suggest that we ask them. We should ask the people of each parish which town they would want as their shire town. We would have a referendum – at the same time as a general election to ensure a reasonable turnout. They could choose any town they like. There would be three main provisos, the resultant county must have: a minimum population of half a million people; a land area greater than 1,200 km2; and the county would be contiguous.
If after the election Croydon, for example, was chosen as a county town but had not gained the required 500,000 people then those parishes that voted for it would have their second choices instead. Would it go to London or Surrey – a big question considering the difference in politics of the two counties?
I suspect that most of the well known counties would survive Cornwall, Cumbria, Durham etc but many of the new ones would go Brighton, Merseyside, Slough, Swindon and West Midlands would be for the chop as too small. Sadly perhaps plucky Rutland would bite the dust too – subsumed into Peterboroughshire – who knows.
I would devolve many government policy areas to these city regions or counties: culture; economic development, education; health, housing, planning, police, social services and transportation – effectively almost all the powers of the Welsh government, perhaps more. Naturally there would be a national dimension to each of these policy areas, but not much to speak of. This is a reason why I suggest such a relatively high figure for the population and land areas – it has got to workable.
It would make a serious difference what county you lived in – take buses. Some counties would leave things as they are others would go for the London system, others again would favour re-nationalisation – it would be up to them. Let there be variety and then we can learn from others’ mistakes.