1990s UK local government reform

From Academic Kids

The structure of local government in the United Kingdom underwent large changes in the 1990s. The system of two-tier local government introduced in the 1970s by the Local Government Act 1972 and the Local Government (Scotland) Act 1973 was abolished in Scotland and Wales on April 1, 1996, and replaced with unitary authorities. In England, some areas remained two-tier but many unitary authories were created.



Prior to the 1970s, the UK had had a mixed system of local government, with some areas being covered by a county council and a more local district council, while large towns had only a single tier of authority (in England and Wales these were termed county boroughs, and in Scotland 'counties of cities'). The Acts abolished the existing county boroughs or counties of cities, and created a uniform two-tier system of government with regions or counties, and districts.

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Counties and unitary authorities of England from 1986 to 1995.

In 1986, Margaret Thatcher's government abolished the county councils of the six metropolitan counties that had been created in 1974, along with the Greater London Council, effectively creating 68 new 'county boroughs', or unitary authorities.

In 1990, Thatcher's had government introduced the Poll Tax, a new way of funding local councils based on a fixed per-head fee. This proved very unpopular, and led to riots. Eventually, Thatcher was ousted by her own party, and the new Conservative leader and Prime Minister, John Major, was pledged to abolish the Poll Tax.

Legislation for the Council Tax was introduced and passed in the 1991/1992 session. Also at this time (opponents have said that it was as a cover), the government took the opportunity to review the structure of local government throughout Great Britain.


The previous system in Scotland had been the regions and districts. These were quite unbalanced in terms of population — the Strathclyde region had nineteen districts and over two million people, whereas the Borders region had four districts and only 100,000 people.

The Local Government etc. (Scotland) Act 1994 established 29 new 'council areas', and retained the three Island Councils. Variance in population was much less in the council areas, with just over half a million in the largest authority, City of Glasgow, compared to 50,000 in the smallest, Clackmannanshire. These are however outliers, and only six are outside the range 75,000 to 250,000.

In some cases the names of historic counties were revived, often with vastly modified borders.


In Wales the existing system was replaced with a new unitary system, of counties and county boroughs, the only difference between a Welsh county and county borough now being the name.

The 1974 reform in Wales had abandoned use of the names of the traditional counties of Wales. This was partially reversed in 1996, with Carmarthenshire, Cardiganshire, Denbighshire, Flintshire, Monmouthshire and Pembrokeshire all reappearing on maps, although not necessarily with the historic borders.

The pre-1996 counties remained in existence (with modifications) as the preserved counties of Wales used for purposes such as Lieutenancy.


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April 1, 1998 onwards

The process of reform in England was greatly different to those in Scotland or Wales. Parliament passed the Local Government Act in 1992, allowing the Secretary of State to order the Boundary Commission to undertake 'structural reviews' in specified areas.

The Commission, chaired by John Banham, started the reviews in July 1992. The process was originally supposed to be take some years, with the shire counties being considered in five waves, or 'tranches', and it was hoped that the reforms would come into effect from 1994 (the first batch) to 1998 (the fifth batch). However, the process took longer than expected. The first of tranche of reviews, covering Avon, Cleveland, County Durham, Gloucestershire, the Isle of Wight, Humberside, Lincolnshire, North Yorkshire and Somerset was nearly done by the end of 1993. Banham had said that the Commission was expecting 'early wins' in Cleveland, Humberside and Avon.

In November 1993, the Secretary of State for the Environment, John Gummer greatly accelerated the program of work. He directed the Commission to start reviews of all remaining shire counties the next month, and that they should be finished by the end of 1994. He also revised the guidance given, making it clear that wholly unitary solutions should be preferred, particularly ones smaller than existing counties but larger than existing districts.

Lancashire and Derbyshire County Councils had taken the revised guidance to the High Court, seeking a judicial review that it was illegal. On January 28, the High Court ruled in their favour, implying that the Commission should consider retaining the status quo, either in part or wholly, as an option as well.

The first proposal was the quite uncontroversial one to make Isle of Wight a single unitary authority. The island had been split quite artificially between South Wight and Medina boroughs, with a Wight County Council, since 1974.

From the first tranche, the commission recommended that Avon, Cleveland and Humberside should be abolished and broken up into four unitary authorities each. It also recommended that the rump Somerset be broken up into three unitary authorities (overriden by John Gummer). It suggested that North Yorkshire be split into three unitary authorities - one for York, and two others called West Riding of Yorkshire and North Riding of Yorkshire. It recommended no change in Lincolnshire and Gloucestershire. The government accepted most of these recommendations, but also kept the status quo in Somerset, and in North Yorkshire retained a rump two-tier North Yorkshire without York. These changes were implemented in 1996.

From the second and later tranches, it recommended Buckinghamshire, Bedfordshire and Berkshire county councils to be abolished. Elsewhere, it operated rather inconsistently. Some counties were recommended to have no change, others to be split into large unitary authorities, with large districts sometimes being recommended for unitary status, but sometimes not. In early 1995, soon after the report had been delivered, John Banham resigned as head of the Commission.

In Buckinghamshire and Bedfordshire it did not accept the recommendations of the Commmission, which was for an entirely unitary structure, and decided to only make Luton and Milton Keynes unitary, with the rest of those counties retaining a two-tier structure. The proposal to abolish Berkshire County Council was accepted, however. This had been strongly supported by the County Council earlier, though as implementation drew closer, and the political composition of the Council altered, it changed its mind. Another county council that was recommended to be abolished was Dorset, where four unitary authorities were proposed. Two of these were accepted, Bournemouth and Poole, whilst the rest of the county remained two-tier. Most of the recommendations from this round of the review were implemented in 1997, a few being held over till 1998.

In many counties that were to remain unchanged, the government accepted the Report, with reservations about specific districts. The Environment Secretary referred the cases of twenty-one districts to a reconstituted commission, under David Cooksey. These were Basildon, Blackburn, Blackpool, Broxtowe, Dartford, Exeter, Gedling, Gillingham, Gloucester, Gravesham, Halton, Huntingdonshire, Northampton, Norwich, Peterborough, Rochester upon Medway, Rushcliffe, Spelthorne, Thurrock, Warrington, and the Wrekin. About half of these were accepted by the Commission, and these changes were were implemented in 1998.


On April 1, 1995, the Isle of Wight became a single unitary authority. It had previously had a two-tier structure with an Isle of Wight County Council; and a Medina Borough Council and a South Wight Borough Council. Also on this day, two small areas were ceded from Surrey and Buckinghamshire to Berkshire, giving it a border with Greater London.

On April 1, 1996, the unpopular counties of Avon, Humberside and Cleveland were abolished and their districts turned into unitary authorities. Avon became Bath and North East Somerset, North Somerset, South Gloucestershire and Bristol. Cleveland's districts merely became unitary authorities directly, without any boundary changes. The part of Humberside north of the River Humber and historically part of Yorkshire became part of the new East Riding of Yorkshire, apart from Hull, which constituted a unitary authority itself. In the Lincolnshire part of Humberside, two new unitary authorities, North Lincolnshire and North East Lincolnshire, were formed. Also at this time, the City of York was expanded and separated from North Yorkshire.

On April 1, 1997, the districts of Bournemouth, Darlington, Derby, Leicester, Luton, Milton Keynes, Poole, Portsmouth, Rutland and Southampton became unitary authorities. Also, the districts of Brighton and Hove were merged to form the new unitary authority of Brighton and Hove.

On April 1, 1998, Blackpool, Blackburn with Darwen, Halton, Medway, Nottingham, Peterborough, Plymouth, Swindon, Stoke-on-Trent, Southend-on-Sea, Telford and Wrekin, Torbay, Thurrock and Warrington became unitary authorities. Also, Hereford and Worcester was abolished and replaced by the unitary authority of Herefordshire and the shire county of Worcestershire. Berkshire was split into six unitary authorities, but not formally abolished.


In Avon and Humberside, which were being abolished, the successor unitary authorities were mergers of existing districts. Apart from these, nearly all the others were created using existing district boundaries, which had been set in 1974. There was only one expansion (York) and two mergers - Brighton and Hove into Brighton and Hove, and Rochester and Gillingham into Medway.

Some quite large districts that had been historic county boroughs were not granted unitary status. The largest of these was Northampton, with a population of about 200,000.

The local government reform did not affect police force areas, or fire and rescue service areas.

The ceremonial counties were also affected by this reform. Avon, Humberside and Cleveland were abolished for ceremonial purposes. In Avon, the parts were allocated to their original Somerset and Gloucestershire, with Bristol being restored as a ceremonial county in its own right. Cleveland was simply partitioned between County Durham and North Yorkshire. Humberside was split between Lincolnshire and the new ceremonial East Riding of Yorkshire (including Hull). Herefordshire, Rutland, and Worcestershire were also restored as ceremonial counties.

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