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The metropolitan counties are a type of county-level country subdivision in current use in England. There are six metropolitan counties, which each cover large urban areas, typically with populations of 1.2 to 2.8 million. [1] They were created in 1974 and are each divided into several metropolitan districts.

The county councils were abolished in 1986 with most of their functions being devolved to the individual boroughs, making them de facto unitary authorities. The remaining functions were taken over by joint-boards. [2]

The metropolitan counties have population densities of between 800 (South Yorkshire) and 2800 (West Midlands people/km². Individual metropolitan districts range from 4,000 people/km² in Liverpool to only 500 people/km² in Doncaster. [3]

Counties and districtsEdit

The six metropolitan counties and their metropolitan districts are:

Metropolitan county Metropolitan boroughs
Greater Manchester City of Manchester, City of Salford, Bolton, Bury, Oldham, Rochdale, Stockport, Tameside, Trafford, Wigan
Merseyside City of Liverpool, Knowsley, Sefton, St Helens, Wirral
South Yorkshire City of Sheffield, Barnsley, Doncaster, Rotherham
Tyne and Wear City of Newcastle upon Tyne, City of Sunderland, Gateshead, South Tyneside, North Tyneside
West Midlands City of Birmingham, City of Coventry, City of Wolverhampton, Dudley, Sandwell, Solihull, Walsall
West Yorkshire City of Leeds, City of Bradford, City of Wakefield, Calderdale, Kirklees

The structure of Greater London is similar to the metropolitan counties, but it is not one. It was created earlier in 1965, by the London Government Act 1963.



The idea for creating administrative areas based upon the large conurbations outside London, based on the model of the County of London or Greater London, was mooted several times in the 20th century. The Local Government Boundary Commission in 1948 had proposed several new counties including ones based on 'South East Lancashire North East Cheshire' and 'South West Lancashire North West Cheshire'. The Local Government Commission for England proposed in the 1960s this arrangement for Tyneside and draft proposals considered it for Selnec. Its proposal for the West Midlands conurbation preferred instead an area of contiguous county boroughs with no overall metropolitan authority.

The Redcliffe-Maud Report of 1969 proposed the creation of three large "metropolitan areas" based upon the conurbations surrounding Manchester, Liverpool and Birmingham - Selnec, Merseyside, and West Midlands, which were to have both metropolitan councils covering the entire areas, and district councils covering parts. Harold Wilson's government published a white paper accepting these recommendations broadly, also adding South Hampshire (including the Isle of Wight) and West Yorkshire as metropolitan areas. [4]

The proposals of the report were radically altered when Edward Heath's Conservative government came to power in 1970. The Conservative's local government White Paper was published in February 1971, naming the metropolitan areas "metropolitan counties", and giving them as "Merseyside, south-east Lancashire and north-east Cheshire, the West Midlands, west Yorkshire, south Yorkshire, and the Tyne and Wear area". [5] [6]

The counties were also far smaller than in the original proposals, being trimmed at each successive stage - the Redcliffe Maud report had included Chester in Merseyside and Redditch and Stafford in West Midlands. The Conservative policy favoured retaining historic boundaries as far as was practicable[4], and the White Paper proposals generally reduced the metropolitan counties to the continuously built up area. Many areas on the edges were excluded from the metropolitan counties when the Bill was passed: Easington, Harrogate, Knaresborough, Ellesmere Port, Neston, New Mills, Whaley Bridge and Glossop : other areas were excluded during the Bill's passage, such as Seaham, Skelmersdale and Holland, Poynton and Wilmslow. One area, the county borough of Southport, was added to Merseyside in the Bill, at the local council's request.

Several other proposals for metropolitan counties were made during the Bill's passage, including a revival of the proposal for Hampshire (either the southern part or all of it, with Portsmouth, Southampton, Isle of Wight and northern Hampshire as districts) [7] and central Lancashire. A Thamesside metropolitan county, covering areas of north Kent and south Essex on the Thames Estuary (and now considered part of the Thames Gateway) was also proposed.[8]

The metropolitan counties were established by the Local Government Act 1972, the county councils were first elected in 1973, and were formally established in April 1974.


The metropolitan counties were first created with a two-tier structure of local government. Local government functions were divided between the metropolitan district councils as lower tier authorities and metropolitan county councils (MCCs) as the upper tier.

The structure differed from the non-metropolitan counties in the allocation of powers between the county and district councils. The metropolitan districts had more powers than non-metropolitan districts, in that they were responsible for services such as education, and social services. In the non-metropolitan counties these were the responsibility of the county councils.

The metropolitan county councils (MCCs) were intended to be strategic authorities that ran regional services such as main roads, public transport, emergency services, civil protection, waste disposal and strategic town and country planning. The MCCs functioned between 1974 and 1986.

Abolition of the county councilsEdit

Just a decade after they were established the mostly Labour-controlled metropolitan county councils and the Greater London Council had several high profile clashes, about overspending and high rates charging, with the Conservative government of Margaret Thatcher.

Government policy on the issue was considered throughout 1982, and the Conservative Party put a "promise to scrap the metropolitan county councils" and the GLC, in their manifesto for the 1983 general election. [9] [10] [11]

The exact details of the reform caused problems [12] In October 1983, it published a White Paper entitled Streamlining the cities[13] which proposed detailed plans for the abolition of the MCCs, together with the abolition of the Greater London Council (GLC). [14] [15]

The Bill was formally announced in the Queen's Speech [16] and was introduced into Parliament soon thereafter. It became the Local Government Act 1985; [17] the MCCs and the GLC were abolished at midnight on March 31, 1986.

The last elections to the councils were held in May 1981: elections that would have been held in 1985 were abandonded under the Local Government (Interim Provisions) Act 1984; [18] The original plan had been for councillors terms to expire in April 1985, and then be replaced by nominees from borough councils until 1986.[14]

While GLC abolition was highly controversial, the abolition of the MCCs was much less so. The Liberal Party leader David Steel had supported abolition of the MCCs in his 1981 conference speech. The government's stated reason for the abolition of the MCCs was based on efficiency and their overspending. The fact that all of the county councils were controlled by the Labour Party led to accusations that their abolition was motivated by party politics : the general secretary of Nalgo described it as a "completely cynical manoevre". [19] [20] Merseyside in particular put up a struggle against abolition. Most of the functions of the MCCs passed either to the metropolitan borough councils, or to joint-boards. Some assets were given to residuary bodies for disposal. The split of functions from the metropolitan county councils was as follows: [21]

Special joint arrangements Grants to voluntary bodies, roads and traffic management, waste disposal, airports
Joint boards Fire, police, public transport
Quangos Arts, pensions and debt, sport
District councils Arts, civil defence, planning, trading standards, parks, tourism, archives, industrial assistance, highways

The status todayEdit

The metropolitan counties are sometimes referred to as "former metropolitan counties", although this description is not entirely correct. The county councils were abolished, but the counties themselves remain in existence. [22]

As such, they remain as ceremonial counties (sometimes called 'geographic counties') which have an appointed Lord-Lieutenant. They are also used in certain government statistics, although they no longer appear on Ordnance Survey maps, which show the individual metropolitan boroughs.

Some local services are still run on a metropolitan county-wide basis, administered by statutory joint-boards [1] and special joint arrangements, these include policing (by joint police authorities), fire services, public transport (by Passenger Transport Executives) and waste disposal (in Merseyside and Greater Manchester) These joint-boards are made up of councillors appointed by the boroughs. Since 2000, the metropolitan counties have been used as the areas of joint Local Transport Plans [2] [3] [4].

There has been no great enthusiasn for a return of the MCCs. In 1999, following a successful referendum, the Labour government under Tony Blair legislated to create a strategic authority for London (the Greater London Authority). Despite some talk of doing so, no bodies were established to replace the MCCs. The Blair government instead pursued the idea of elected Regional Assemblies, although following an unsuccessful referendum in the most positive region of the North East, this idea now has few proponents. The idea of city regions has been proposed subsequently, although the the 2006 local government white paper has no firm proposals for formal recognition of this concept.

Since the 1995, the cities of Birmingham, Bristol, Leeds, Liverpool, Manchester, Newcastle, Nottingham and Sheffield have assembled together in the Core Cities Group. This organisation accords no distinct legal status on these councils over any other city council in England but appears to be organically moving towards some kind of recognition of their role as regional capitals outside of London.

See alsoEdit


  1. Jones, B. et al, Politics UK, (2004)
  2. Her Majesty's Stationary Office, Aspects of Britain: Local Government, (1996)
  3. 2001 census : KS01 Usual resident population
  4. 4.0 4.1 Hampton, W., Local Goverment and Urban Politics, (1991)
  5. Cities and towns lose borough status in reshaped local councils. The Times. February 17, 1971.
  6. Bryne, T., Local Government in Britain, (1994)
  7. Future of Hampshire : Letter to the Editor by Mayors of Southampton and Southampton. The Times. April 12, 1972.
  8. Thamesside county urged to tackle river problems. The Times. January 19, 1972.
  9. Tory plan to abolish GLC and metropolitan councils, but rates stay. January 15, 1983.
  10. Tories may abolish county councils if they win election. May 5, 1983.
  11. Big cities defiant over police. June 16, 1983.
  12. Whitehall admits problems in abolishing GLC and metropolitan conucils. The Times. September 23, 1983.
  13. Cmnd. 9063
  14. 14.0 14.1 "Streamlined" city authorities formula unveiled. The Times. October 8, 1983.
  15. Labour storm over White Paper on council shake-up. October 8, 1983.
  16. Bill to abolish GLC centrepiece of Queen's Speech. The Times. November 7, 1984.
  17. 1985 c. 51
  18. 1984 c. 53
  19. Angry reaction to councils White Paper. The Times. October 8, 1983.
  20. Issue Brief and Jonathan Rawle's website refer.
  21. Kingdom, J., Local Goverment and Politics in Britain, (1991)
  22. Office of National Statistics - Gazetteer of the old and new geographies of the United Kingdom. p48
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