Local Government Act 1972

From Academic Kids

The Local Government Act 1972 was an Act of Parliament in the United Kingdom, that reformed local government in England and Wales, on April 1, 1974.

Its pattern of two-tier administrative county and district councils remains in use today in large parts of England, although it was replaced with unitary authorities in many areas in the 1990s. In Wales, it established a similar pattern of administrative counties and districts. These have since been entirely replaced with a system of unitary authorities. In Scotland, another Act established a similar system of two-tier regions and districts in 1975 — this was also replaced by a system of unitary council areas in 1996.



Elected County councils had been established in England and Wales for the first time in 1888, covering areas known as administrative counties. Some large towns, known as county boroughs were politically independent from the counties they were physically situated in. The county areas were two-tier, with many municipal borough, urban district and rural districts within them, each with their own council.

Apart from the creation of new county boroughs, the most significant change since 1899 (and the establishment of metropolitan boroughs in the County of London) had been the establishment in 1965 of Greater London and its thirty-two London boroughs, covering a much larger area than the previous county. Two pairs of small administrative counties were also merged at this time, to form Huntingdon and Peterborough and Cambridgeshire and Isle of Ely. However, the Local Government Commission was routinely having its recommendations ignored (such as its proposal to abolish Rutland as a county authority).

It was generally agreed that there were significant problems with the structure of local government. Despite mergers, there was still a proliferation of small district councils in rural areas, and in the major conurbations the borders had been set before the pattern of urban development had become clear. For example, the area that was to become the seven boroughs of the metropolitan county of West Midlands, local government was split between four administrative counties (Herefordshire, Staffordshire, Warwickshire, and Worcestershire), and eight county boroughs (Birmingham, Coventry, Dudley, Solihull, Walsall, Warley, West Bromwich, and Wolverhampton).

The Redcliffe-Maud commission was set up in 1966. In 1969 it recommended a system of single-tier unitary authorities for the whole of England, apart from three metropolitan areas of Merseyside, Selnec (Greater Manchester) and West Midlands (Birmingham and the Black Country), which were to have both a metropolitan council and district councils.

This report was accepted by the Labour Party government of the time, but the Conservative Party won the 1970 general election, and on a manifesto that committed them to 'two-tiers everywhere'.

The Act

The Act abolished previous existing local government structures, and created a two-tier system of counties and districts everywhere. Some of the new counties were designated metropolitan counties, containing metropolitan boroughs instead. The allocation of functions differed between the metropolitan and the non-metropolitan areas (the so-called 'shire counties') — for example, education and social services were the responsibility of the shire counties, but in metropolitan areas was given to the districts. The distribution of powers was slightly different in Wales than in England, with libraries being a county responsibility in England — but in Wales districts could opt to become library authorities themselves.

Although called two-tier, the system was really three-tier, as it retained civil parish councils, although in Wales they were renamed community councils.

The Act introduced 'agency', where one local authority (usually a district) could act as an agent for another authority. For example, since road maintenance was split depending upon the type of road, both types of council had to retain engineering departments. A county council could delegate its road maintenance to the district council if it was confident that the district was competent. Some powers were specifically excluded from agency, such as education.

The Act abolished various historic relics such as aldermen. Many existing boroughs that were too small to constitute a district, but too large to constitute a civil parish, were given Charter Trustees.

Most provisions of the Act came into force at midnight on April 1, 1974. Elections to the new councils had already been held, in 1973, and the new authorities were already up and running as 'shadow authorities', following the example set by the London Government Act 1963.

The new local government areas

The Act specified the composition and names of the English and Welsh counties, and the composition of the metropolitan and Welsh districts. It did not specify any names of districts, nor indeed the borders of the non-metropolitan districts — these were specified by Statutory Instrument after the passing of the Act.

In England there were 46 counties and 296 districts, in Wales there were 8 and 37. Six of the English counties were designated as metropolitan counties. The new English counties were based clearly on the traditional ones, albeit with several substantial changes. The 13 traditional counties of Wales, however, were abandoned entirely for administrative purposes, and 8 new ones instituted.


The metropolitan counties were composed as follows:

Three new counties were formed focused on old county boroughs as follows —:

Two were formed from mergers —:

Other changes to county boundaries were —:

The only counties to survive entirely unchanged were Cornwall, Hertfordshire, Isle of Wight, Shropshire and Wiltshire. Apart from these, Devon, Essex, Kent, Northamptonshire were only changed by the inclusion of county boroughs.

Many proposals made by the government were actually later withdrawn in favour of more traditional boundaries. The metropolitan counties were significantly trimmed from their original conception before they ended up in the Draft Bill, and were trimmed further before they ended up in the Statute Book. For example, Merseyside lost Skelmersdale, Ellesmere Port and Runcorn, while Greater Manchester lost Glossop and Wilmslow, West Midlands lost Kidderminster and Telford (but gained Coventry) and Tyne and Wear lost Easington. The Act as passed actually included Charlwood and Horley (along with Gatwick Airport) from Surrey into West Sussex, but the 'Charlwood and Horley Act 1974' reversed this.

Cleveland and Avon also experienced trimming at the edges, with Cleveland losing Whitby and Avon losing Frome. Other rejected reforms included the inclusion of Lowestoft with Norfolk, Colchester with Suffolk, Long Eaton with Nottinghamshire,

The government stood firm on the existence or abolition of county councils. The Isle of Wight (originally scheduled to be merged back into Hampshire as a district) was the only local campaign to succeed, despite protests from Rutland and Herefordshire.


In Wales the new counties generally bore no relation to the traditional counties. Apart from the Glamorgans, all the names were Welsh language names, with no English equivalent. The names were taken from ancient British kingdoms.

In the south, Gwent was a successor authority to Monmouthshire, covering virtually the same territory, and also including Newport county borough. Glamorgan was split into South Glamorgan (with Cardiff), West Glamorgan (with Swansea) and Mid Glamorgan (with Merthyr Tydfil). In West and Mid Wales, two huge counties were established. Dyfed was a merger of Cardiganshire Pembrokeshire and Carmarthenshire. Powys was formed from the merger of Brecknockshire, Radnorshire and Montgomeryshire, with those entities retained as districts. In the north, Gwynedd and Clwyd were established, the former covering Anglesey, Caernarvonshire and most of Merionethshire, the latter covering Flintshire and most of Denbighshire.


  1. Northumberland
  2. Tyne and Wear
  3. County Durham
  4. Cleveland
  5. North Yorkshire
  6. Cumbria
  7. Lancashire
  8. Merseyside
  9. Greater Manchester
  10. West Yorkshire
  11. South Yorkshire
  12. Humberside
  13. Lincolnshire
  14. Nottinghamshire
  15. Derbyshire
  16. Cheshire
  17. Shropshire
  18. Staffordshire
  19. West Midlands
  20. Warwickshire
  21. Leicestershire
  22. Northamptonshire
  23. Cambridgeshire

  1. Norfolk
  2. Suffolk
  3. Essex
  4. Hertfordshire
  5. Bedfordshire
  6. Buckinghamshire
  7. Oxfordshire
  8. Gloucestershire
  9. Hereford and Worcester
  10. Avon
  11. Wiltshire
  12. Berkshire
  13. Greater London *
  14. Kent
  15. East Sussex
  16. West Sussex
  17. Surrey
  18. Hampshire
  19. Isle of Wight
  20. Dorset
  21. Somerset
  22. Devon
  23. Cornwall
Missing image

  1. Gwent
  2. South Glamorgan
  3. Mid Glamorgan
  4. West Glamorgan

  1. Dyfed
  2. Powys
  3. Gwynedd
  4. Clwyd

metropolitan county
* 'administrative area' </table>

Reaction and aftermath

Despite assurances that the Act was not attempting to amend historic loyalties, it nonetheless used the term 'county' instead of 'administrative county' and redefined the ceremonial counties used for purposes such as Lieutenancy to these. Both these acts that have been criticised strongly by groups seeking to preserve awareness of historic counties. The Act even redefined the area that the Duchy of Lancaster had special rights in as being the shrunken Lancashire along with all of Greater Manchester and Merseyside.

Other causes of outrage were the adoption of the new administrative counties by the makers of atlases, and the Royal Mail in many cases adopting the changes. Whilst previous changes had been localised and so caused localised annoyance only, the 1974 reforms led to a wider movement.

Much of the reaction against the Act came not from people concerned with the preservation of traditional counties, but instead was motivated solely by opposition to change. The Isle of Wight was historically part of Hampshire, yet resisted efforts to integrate it back — the county borough councils regretted the loss of their status. Especially stung was the City and County of Bristol, which had had its own Lord Lieutenant for centuries.

The system established was not to last. In England, the county councils of the metropolitan counties (and the Greater London Council) were abolished in 1986 by Margaret Thatcher's government, effectively re-establishing county borough status for the metropolitan boroughs. A further local government reform in the 1990s led to the creation of many new unitary authorities, and the abolition of Avon, Cleveland and Humberside.

In Wales the two-tier system was abolished entirely in 1996, and replaced with the current counties and county boroughs of Wales. The 1974 counties have been retained as preserved counties for various purposes, notably as ceremonial counties albeit with substantive border revisions.


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