The counties of the United Kingdom are subnational divisions of the United Kingdom, used for the purposes of administrative, geographical and political demarcation. By the Middle Ages counties had become established as a unit of local government, at least in England. By the early 17th century all of England, Wales, Scotland and Ireland had been divided into counties. The older term "shire" was historically equivalent to "county". In Scotland shire was the only term used until after the Act of Union 1707.
Since the early 19th century, counties have been adapted to meet new administrative and political requirements, and the word "county" (often with a qualifier) has been used in different senses for different purposes. In some areas of England and Wales, counties are still used to perform the functions of modern local government, while in other parts of the United Kingdom they have been replaced with alternative, unitary, systems; which are considered 'county level' authorities.
The whole of England is divided into 48 ceremonial counties, which are also known as geographic counties. Many of these counties have their origins in antiquity, although some were established as recently as 1974. Outside Greater London and the Isles of Scilly, England is also divided into 83 metropolitan and non-metropolitan counties. These correspond to areas used for the purposes of local government and may consist of a single district or be divided into several. As of April 2009, 27 such counties are divided into districts and have a county council. Most ceremonial counties correspond to a metropolitan or non-metropolitan county of the same name, but often with reduced boundaries. The current arrangement is the result of incremental reform; from 1974 to 1996 the metropolitan and non-metropolitan counties corresponded directly with the ceremonial counties. From 1889 to 1974 areas with county councils were known as administrative counties and ceremonial counties were defined separately.
The six historic counties of Northern Ireland are no longer in use for administrative purposes. Combined with the boroughs of Belfast and Derry, the counties do serve for organisational purposes within government, and often with private businesses and sporting clubs.
In Scotland, local government counties, created under the Local Government (Scotland) Act 1889, were abolished in 1975 under the Local Government (Scotland) Act 1973, in favour of regions and districts and islands council areas. The regions and districts were themselves abolished in 1996, under the Local Government etc. (Scotland) Act 1994, in favour of unitary Scottish council areas. (The islands areas had been created as unitary council areas, and their boundaries were unaffected.)
The 1889 legislation created county councils, turned each civil county (with one exception) into a contiguous area (without separate fragments) and adjusted boundaries where civil parishes straddled county boundaries, or had fragments in more than one county. The counties of Ross and Cromarty were merged to form Ross and Cromarty.
One region and various districts, created in 1975, had areas similar to those of earlier counties, and various council areas, created in 1996, are also similar. Two of the three islands areas—Orkney and Shetland—have boundaries identical to those of earlier counties.
The thirteen historic counties of Wales were fixed by statute in 1535 (although counties such as Pembrokeshire date from 1138). The Administrative Counties of Wales created in 1889 were based on these. In 1974 a new system was created using vastly different entities. These were abolished in 1996 and since then Wales has been entirely divided into a system of unitary authorities (also known as principal areas). Eleven of the 22 unitary authorities are legally "counties", and eleven are county boroughs, although informally all are referred to as "counties".
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- Jones, B. et al., Politics UK, (2004)
- Hampton, W. (1991). Local Government and Urban Politics.
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- Kingdom, J. (1991). Local Government and Politics in Britain.
- OPSI - Local Government etc. (Scotland) Act 1994
- Boundaries of Counties and Parishes in Scotland, Hay Shennan, 1892