Combined authority areas
|Created by||Local Government Act 1972|
|Number||78 (as of 1 April 2023)|
A non-metropolitan county, or colloquially, shire county, is a subdivision of England used for local government.
The counties were originally created in 1974 as part of a reform of local government in England and Wales, and were the top tier of a two-tier system of counties and districts. 21 non-metropolitan counties still use a two-tier system; 56 are unitary authorities, in which the functions of a county and district council have been combined in a single body. Berkshire has a unique structure.
Non-metropolitan counties cover the majority of England with the exception of Greater London, the Isles of Scilly, and the six metropolitan counties: Greater Manchester, Merseyside, South Yorkshire, Tyne and Wear, West Midlands and West Yorkshire.
The non-metropolitan counties are all part of ceremonial counties. Some ceremonial counties, such as Norfolk, contain a single non-metropolitan county, but many contain more than one and it is also common for ceremonial counties and non-metropolitan counties to share a name. Lancashire, for example, contains the non-metropolitan counties of Lancashire, Blackpool, and Blackburn with Darwen.
Prior to 1974 local government had been divided between single-tier county boroughs (the largest towns and cities) and two-tier administrative counties which were subdivided into municipal boroughs and urban and rural districts. The Local Government Act 1972, which came into effect on 1 April 1974, divided England outside Greater London and the six largest conurbations into thirty-nine non-metropolitan counties. Each county was divided into anywhere between two and fourteen non-metropolitan districts. There was a uniform two-tier system of local government with county councils dealing with "wide-area" services such as education, fire services and the police, and district councils exercising more local powers over areas such as planning, housing and refuse collection.
|Service||Non-metropolitan county||Non-metropolitan district||Unitary authority|
|Leisure and recreation|
As originally constituted, the non-metropolitan counties were largely based on existing counties, although they did include a number of innovations. Some counties were based on areas surrounding large county boroughs or were formed by the mergers of smaller counties. Examples of the first category are Avon (based on Bath and Bristol) and Cleveland (based on Teesside). An example of the second category is Cumbria, formed by the merger between Cumberland and Westmorland. The counties were adopted for all statutory purposes: a lord-lieutenant and high sheriff was appointed to each county, and they were also used for judicial administration, and definition of police force areas. The Royal Mail adopted the counties for postal purposes in most areas.
A Local Government Commission was appointed in 1992 to review the administrative structure of the non-metropolitan counties. It was anticipated that a system of unitary authorities would entirely replace the two-tier system. The Commission faced competing claims from former county boroughs wishing to regain unitary status and advocates for the restoration of such small counties as Herefordshire and Rutland. The review led to the introduction of unitary local government in some areas but not in others. In the majority of unitary authorities an existing district council took over powers from the county council. The 1972 Act required that all areas outside Greater London form part of a non-metropolitan county, and that all such counties should contain at least one district. Accordingly, the statutory instruments that effected the reorganisation separated the unitary districts from the county in which they were situated and constituted them as counties. The orders also provided that the provisions of the 1972 Act that every county should have a county council should not apply in the new counties, with the district council exercising the powers of the county council.
An exception was made in the case of Berkshire, which was retained with its existing boundaries in spite of the abolition of its county council and the creation of six unitary authorities. This was done in order to preserve its status as a royal county.
With the creation of numerous new non-metropolitan counties, the areas used for lieutenancy and shrievalty began to diverge from local government areas. This led to the development of ceremonial counties for these purposes, a fact recognised by the Lieutenancies Act 1997.
A further wave of unitary authorities were created in 2009 under the terms of the Local Government and Public Involvement in Health Act 2007. While a number of new counties were created, several of the new authorities (such as Cornwall or Northumberland) continued to have the boundaries set in 1974.
The 2019–2023 structural changes to local government in England have involved changes to the non-metropolitan county of Dorset (2019), and the abolition of the non-metropolitan counties Northamptonshire (2021) and Cumbria (2023). In addition, the non-metropolitan counties of Buckinghamshire (2020), North Yorkshire (2023), and Somerset (2023) are unchanged, but their councils became unitary authorities as the existing non-metropolitan districts in these areas were consolidated and the district councils abolished.
The following list shows the original thirty-nine counties formed in 1974, subsequent changes in the 1990s, and further changes since then.
|Non-metropolitan county 1974||Changes 1995–1998||Changes 2009||Changes 2019 and 2020s|
|Avon (6 districts)[b]||1996: North West Somerset (unitary)
2005: Renamed North Somerset[c]
|1996: Bath and North East Somerset (unitary)||None||None|
|1996: South Gloucestershire (unitary)||None||None|
|1996: City of Bristol (unitary)||None||None|
|Bedfordshire (4 districts)||1997: Bedfordshire (3 districts)||Bedford (unitary)||None|
|Central Bedfordshire (unitary)||None|
|1997: Luton (unitary)||None||None|
|Berkshire (Royal County)
|1998: The county council was abolished, with each of the six district councils in the county becoming unitary authorities. The Royal County of Berkshire was not abolished.||None||None|
|Buckinghamshire (5 districts)||1997: Buckinghamshire (4 districts)||None||2020: Buckinghamshire (unitary)|
|1997: Milton Keynes (unitary)||None||None|
|Cambridgeshire (6 districts)||1998: Cambridgeshire (5 districts)||None||None|
|1998: Peterborough (unitary)||None|
|Cheshire (8 districts)||1998: Cheshire (6 districts)||Cheshire East (unitary)||None|
|Cheshire West and Chester (unitary)||None|
|1998: Halton (unitary)||None||None|
|1998: Warrington (unitary)||None||None|
|Cleveland (4 districts)||1996: Hartlepool (unitary)||None||None|
|1996: Middlesbrough (unitary)||None||None|
|1996: Redcar and Cleveland (unitary)||None||None|
|1996: Stockton-on-Tees (unitary)||None||None|
|Cornwall (6 districts)||None||Became unitary||None|
|Cumbria (6 districts)||None||None||2023: Cumberland (unitary)|
|2023: Westmorland and Furness (unitary)|
|Derbyshire (9 districts)||1997: Derby (unitary)||None||None|
|1997: Derbyshire (8 districts)||None||None|
|Devon (10 districts)||1998: Devon (8 districts)||None||None|
|1998: Torbay (unitary)||None||None|
|1998: Plymouth (unitary)||None||None|
|Dorset (8 districts)||1997: Dorset (6 districts)||None||2019: Dorset (a unitary from 5 districts)|
|1997: Bournemouth (unitary)||None||2019: Bournemouth, Christchurch and Poole (unitary from 2 unitaries and Christchurch district)|
|1997: Poole (unitary)||None|
|Durham (8 districts)||1997: Durham (7 districts)||Became unitary||None|
|1997: Darlington (unitary)||None||None|
|East Sussex (7 districts)||1997: East Sussex (5 districts)||None||None|
|1997: Brighton and Hove (unitary)||None||None|
|Essex (14 districts)||1998: Essex (12 districts)||None||None|
|1998: Southend-on-Sea (unitary)||None||None|
|1998: Thurrock (unitary)||None||None|
|Gloucestershire (6 districts)||None||None||None|
|Hampshire (13 districts)||1997: Hampshire (11 districts)||None||None|
|1997: Portsmouth (unitary)||None||None|
|1997: Southampton (unitary)||None||None|
|Hereford and Worcester (9 districts)||1998: Herefordshire (unitary)||None||None|
|1998: Worcestershire (6 districts)||None||None|
|Hertfordshire (10 districts)||None||None||None|
|Humberside (9 districts)||1996: East Riding of Yorkshire (unitary)||None||None|
|1996: City of Kingston upon Hull (unitary)||None||None|
|1996: North Lincolnshire (unitary)||None||None|
|1996: North East Lincolnshire (unitary)||None||None|
|Isle of Wight (2 districts)||1995: Became unitary||None||None|
|Kent (14 districts)||1998: Kent (12 districts)||None||None|
|1998: The Medway Towns (unitary)
1998: renamed Medway
|Lancashire (14 districts)||1998: Lancashire (12 districts)||None||None|
|1998: Blackburn with Darwen (unitary)||None||None|
|1998: Blackpool (unitary)||None||None|
|Leicestershire (9 districts)||1997: Leicestershire (7 districts)||None||None|
|1997: Leicester (unitary)||None||None|
|1997: Rutland (unitary)||None||None|
|Lincolnshire (7 districts)||None||None||None|
|Norfolk (7 districts)||None||None||None|
|North Yorkshire (8 districts)||1996: North Yorkshire (7 districts)||None||2023: North Yorkshire (unitary)|
|1996: York (unitary)||None||None|
|Northamptonshire (7 districts)||None||None||2021: North Northamptonshire (unitary)|
|2021: West Northamptonshire (unitary)|
|Northumberland (6 districts)||None||Became unitary||None|
|Nottinghamshire (8 districts)||1998: Nottinghamshire (7 districts)||None||None|
|1998: Nottingham (unitary)||None||None|
|Oxfordshire (5 districts)||None||None||None|
|Salop (6 districts)
1980: renamed Shropshire
|1998: Shropshire (5 districts)||Became unitary||None|
|1998: The Wrekin (unitary)
1998: Renamed Telford and Wrekin
|Somerset (5 districts)||None||None||2019: Somerset (4 districts through merger)|
2023: Somerset (unitary)
|Staffordshire (9 districts)||1997: Staffordshire (8 districts)||None||None|
|1997: Stoke-on-Trent (unitary)||None||None|
|Suffolk (7 districts)||None||None||2019: Suffolk (5 districts through mergers)|
|Surrey (11 districts)||None||None||None|
|Warwickshire (5 districts)||None||None||None|
|West Sussex (7 districts)||None||None||None|
|Wiltshire (5 districts)||1997: Wiltshire (4 districts)||Became unitary||None|
|1997: Thamesdown (unitary)
1997: Renamed Swindon
In Wales there was no distinction between metropolitan and non-metropolitan counties: all upper tier areas were designated "counties". The Local Government (Wales) Act 1994 amended the 1972 Act, abolishing the Welsh counties and creating instead new Welsh principal areas, some of which are also designated "counties". For the purposes of lieutenancy the counties constituted in 1974 were preserved.