Previous Section Index Home Page

The biggest argument in favour of the Bill relates to tourism. The county of Cheshire is an enormously popular tourist destination for all sorts of good reasons ranging from the Jodrell Bank telescope to the National Waterways museum in Ellesmere Port and the historic town of Chester and its zoo. Amazingly, my constituency attracts 7 million people a year just for shopping purposes. They come to one shopping
29 Jun 2007 : Column 601
location. My hon. Friend the Minister will no doubt like to know that a large number of our parliamentary colleagues shop there. When she visits, I shall show her.

Jonathan Shaw (Chatham and Aylesford) (Lab): There’s an offer.

Andrew Miller: One she cannot refuse. To go back to the subject of the previous Bill, I also want to show the Minister the destinations where I want civil servants to be relocated.

Tourism is hugely important. I am in discussions at the moment in which I find myself in relatively close harmony with my good friend the hon. Member for Macclesfield (Sir Nicholas Winterton). We are arguing roughly the same thing, which is that the county council’s proposals in response to the debate on local government reviews are wrong. I am in favour of splitting the current county council, for administrative purposes, into two unitary authorities. In reading out the list of historic towns that comprise old Cheshire as it was prior to 1974, the hon. Member for Romford rightly referred to Birkenhead, which is in Merseyside, and Stockport, with is in Greater Manchester. A more recent example is Halton, which historically is half in Lancashire and half in Cheshire. It spans the river and is an unusual unitary authority, connected by the Runcorn bridge and, thanks to the Government, soon to be connected by a second major crossing. Warrington spans the river further upstream.

Nevertheless, in what is perceived by people as being the county of Cheshire, we have a common fire authority and police authority that cover the current county council of Cheshire, Warrington and Halton. The two big authorities operating on a pan-authority basis works pretty well. However, when we have discussed with the business community the merits of splitting Cheshire down the middle—a case that I hope the Government have listened to carefully—we have come to a conclusion based on the economic situation. Part of the population faces eastwards towards Manchester and slightly south-eastwards towards Stoke. The rest of the population—my constituency, the city of Chester and Vale Royal—faces westwards towards the Welsh boundary and northwards towards the Merseyside boundary. That is why in the east of the county, AstraZeneca, and in the west of the county, Shell, have supported the notion of splitting.

We have discussed that idea with the business community. I was recently privileged to sit in a meeting of the business ambassadors in Cheshire. The representative of the tourism industry, which is significant in the county, said, “Yes, but”—and the but is exemplified by the Bill. We need to find a way to identify the historic unit that we describe as Cheshire, plus or minus Birkenhead and Stockport—that is the debating point—and to protect that identity for purposes such as tourism. That is a feasible proposition, but we need to be flexible and not impose a single set of rules, because we would come up with illogical outcomes.

Madam Deputy Speaker, your recall of the Welsh changes might be better than mine, but I seem to remember that back in the days when I was in school, which was a very long time ago, my old atlas had a county called Flint Removed. [Interruption.] I am
29 Jun 2007 : Column 602
certain that I have the name right, but I am looking around for someone who is more knowledgeable. There were some strange geographical constructs that were quirks of history. Some boundaries have changed a considerable number of times, as has the one between north Wales and England. If we said that we should go back to the original boundary and push it back to Offa’s dyke, I suspect that our friends in the Welsh Assembly would think that that was not a terribly good idea. If we took the hon. Gentleman’s speech literally, that would be the consequence.

However, the hon. Gentleman is making a serious proposition. It needs to be thought through in more detail, identifying some of the areas where we know he does not mean to tread, but his point is worthy of more detailed examination.

Dr. Pugh: The corollary of the argument is that because Liverpool was once in the historic county of Lancashire, it would not therefore be in Merseyside, because there was no historic county of Merseyside. A major review would be required.

Andrew Miller: A major discussion is going on about the concepts of city regions and so on. In terms of improving the economic competitiveness of the great towns and cities in the north-west of England, the debate about administration is important. It does not detract, however, from the observations about my county. I cannot, however, claim to match the hon. Member for Romford or the Prime Minister in terms of historic attachments to my county. I guess that I was covered by the previous Bill when I moved to Kettering in 1977, as an incomer. Cheshire is a county with a tremendous history and it has an identity, but there are some quirks in it, such as the artificial boundary—immediately to the north of my constituency—that denotes the metropolitan county of Merseyside. Wirral is a unitary authority on its own, but I guess that under this well-meaning Bill it could easily be redesignated as part of Cheshire, where, in historic terms, it belonged.

It would be much more difficult to change the boundaries with Greater Manchester to the east, and that is why I urge the hon. Gentleman, if the Bill reaches Committee, to take a flexible approach to the practicalities of finding solutions. Not all the history of the area starts in Roman times; in one or two places it starts before, but many of the boundaries reflect post-industrial revolution history. For that reason, a one-size-fits-all solution is not desirable, because it might lead to some quirky results.

As a statement of principle, the Bill makes eminent sense, but it should be amended to take into account those practical realities. The proposals in the Bill would certainly help the tourist industry. I wish the hon. Gentleman well in his attempts to make progress, and I agree that some of the signage that we see can be a little odd. In my county, we are used to seeing bilingual road signs as we approach Wales. I was slightly confused recently when I saw some road signs that I thought were in Welsh, but they were a bit too far east to justify being bilingual. Then I discovered that they were in Polish —[ Interruption. ] Well, when I drive down a lane at 40 mph I am focusing on the road, and it requires greater linguistic skills than I have to distinguish between Polish and Welsh. Signage is confusing and
29 Jun 2007 : Column 603
should be simplified. We need to consider the overuse of signage in some communities, although that is not the subject of this Bill.

The Bill would be helpful in the context of trying to define sensible historic identities and boundaries that the people in the communities recognise as appropriate. I wish the hon. Gentleman well with it, but I am concerned about the regulatory impact, although there may be a solution to that. If he is prepared to add some flexibility in Committee, to ensure that the Bill addresses the practicalities that arise from the historic changes that are not included, I wish it well.

11.45 am

Mr. David Heath (Somerton and Frome) (LD): I, too, congratulate the hon. Member for Romford (Andrew Rosindell) on introducing the Bill. It is perhaps a self-evident point, but the Bill is not about local government re-organisation. Indeed, it is the reverse, because it is about recognising the historic geographical and cultural entities that underpin this country and inform the identities of the people who live here; successive waves of those who have sought to reorganise local government boundaries have ignored that. They have not understood the relevance of identification with a place and community. It does not matter who empties the dustbins, because that is a matter of the efficiency and effectiveness of local government. People are not defined by the authority that collects their rubbish, but by the place in which they grew up and live, which may be where their ancestors lived—although that is not necessarily the case.

I feel strongly about this issue because I am a man of Somerset. I grew up in Somerset and generations of my family have lived in Somerset. There is a strong possibility that we came a cropper in 1685 because we fought for Somerset against England in the Monmouth rebellion and lost—because the English cheated. There is a huge sense of identity in the county, which was seriously undermined in the early 1970s by the Heseltine reforms of local government. Suddenly, the northern part of an entity that had existed since Saxon times was lopped off and called after the river that runs through Bristol. The new region of Avon never caught the imagination of the people who lived there. As far as they were concerned, they still lived either in north Somerset, south Gloucestershire or the city and county of Bristol.

Avon was an artificial construct, but the signs went up. We would drive from Bristol to Bath and see a sign saying “Welcome to Somerset” although we had been driving through Somerset for the previous 20 miles. Going the other way, we would see signs saying “Welcome to Avon”, although such signs were regularly whitewashed over, because people felt so strongly that they did not live in an area named after a river. People did not use the term “Avon” as their postal address. They were enjoined to do so and told that their address was “Bath, Avon”, not “Bath, Somerset”. People did not use that address; they carried on using Somerset, because they understood the identity they had grown up with—the county cricket team still played at the recreation ground in Bath, and at
29 Jun 2007 : Column 604
Clarence gardens in Weston-super-Mare. They knew perfectly well that they were still Somerset people.

There was general rejoicing when Avon finally met its end. The one good thing to come out of the Banham review was the abolition of those completely unwanted new council areas. They were replaced by unitaries, not, in our case, by reabsorption into the administrative county of Somerset, but by Bath and North East Somerset council on one side and North Somerset council on the other. At least people had regained some of the identity they shared with the rest of the county.

Identity matters to people, and when we lose it, we lose something important. In Education and Skills questions yesterday, the hon. Member for Romford asked a question about history, which I followed up with a question about local history. One of the things I notice is that our sense of shared history in a locality is being gradually lost, partly by the exigencies of the national curriculum and partly by the tendency to sweep away previously understood identities. When I take groups of children from Somerset schools around the Palace of Westminster I like to show them things that relate to our history. I show them King Arthur in the Robing Room, King Alfred the great and the scenes from Monmouth’s rebellion on the murals in the Corridor between the two Houses; but a little while ago a teacher took me aside and said, “You know, David, all that is very interesting, but they don’t know what you’re talking about, because they’re not taught it.” Children are taught about the Romans and the Egyptians.

Mr. Heald: And the Tudors.

Mr. Heath: And then the second world war—and the second world war again and again, because it comes up about five times in the history that is taught at present, but children are never taught about the history of their own area. They are never taught about what made us, rightly or wrongly, what we are. Most countries understand that. Scotland understands it. Scotland teaches Scottish history, which is a quite different history from the history of England. In England, however, we have lost that capacity to understand. That is a shame. We are the less for it.

We talk about diversity in this country and we rightly recognise and celebrate it, but we should also celebrate the diversity within the English. We are an extraordinarily diverse nation in ourselves. I have a very small ethnic minority population in my area; historically it is less than 1 per cent., and by far the greatest majority of that minority is Romany. We are mono-ethnic, or perhaps bi-ethnic, because we are Celts and Saxons, too, which still shows through, or it did until relatively recently. Now we have much more immigration, which is a good thing and I do not argue against it. I am simply saying that having some understanding of the roots of our populations is a good thing, as is recognising the strength of the contributions made in an area.

The Bill goes a little way towards that. I do not think that the hon. Member for Romford would suggest for a moment that it is the answer to everything, but it recognises the fact that sticking up a sign because a cloth-eared bureaucrat thinks it a sensible idea to tell
29 Jun 2007 : Column 605
people that they are driving into a particular district council area, so it is important for them to know who collects the rubbish, disguises far more important things, such as where people are in the country. To be perfectly honest with the hon. Gentleman, I worry about some of the practicalities of the Bill; no one wants to see a proliferation of confusing signs. I shall get into terrible trouble with my colleagues on district councils for saying this, but I would be happy if every district council boundary sign was taken away; they do no good to anybody. Nobody actually wants to know about those various entities—district councils that are almost all modern constructs, usually named after a geographical feature that they do not actually represent, such as Mendip, which contains only part of the Mendips, and Sedgemoor, which comprises part of Sedgemoor but not all of it. There are many similar areas. Their names are meaningless both to the people who live in the area and to the people who visit it; they give no meaningful information.

Mr. Heald: Has the hon. Gentleman seen some of the signage in France, which actually tells people about the places they are passing? There may be information about the main industry or about a particularly beautiful cathedral. That relates to the approach he is outlining, so does he think that my hon. Friend the Member for Romford (Andrew Rosindell) should consider it, too?

Mr. Heath: The French are better at that. They have a strong sense of local identity and are good at recognising the history of their towns. People are invited to visit a town “with its church from the 14th century and its famous murals”. In America, a much newer country, most towns turn out to be the world capital of something or other. There is no town in America so small that it does not turn out to be the world capital of peaches, furniture, false teeth or something else that people identify with as their significant product, and which they believe makes them world-famous.

Mr. Robert Goodwill (Scarborough and Whitby) (Con): On the subject of the plethora of signs in our towns and cities, is the hon. Gentleman aware that my hon. Friend the Member for Rutland and Melton (Alan Duncan) has a private Member’s Bill aimed at reducing the number of signs? Given what the hon. Gentleman has said, perhaps he would care to support that Bill.

Mr. Heath: I did not know about that Bill, and I am not sure where it comes in the order of Bills that are being considered today—if it is being considered today. If it competes with my Bill I shall, in preference, support my Bill, but it certainly sounds like a good idea to get rid of some of the clutter.

When people come down to the west country, they are interested in the fact that they are entering Somerset, Devon or Cornwall. They recognise those places as historic entities. The same is true of other parts of the country. However, people are not interested in a lot of the information that they are currently given. The Bill is a small step.


29 Jun 2007 : Column 606

The issue about postal addresses is also important. Understandably, people get upset about postal addresses. Part of my constituency is in Dorset for postal purposes. Incomers to Milborne Port think that they live in Dorset. They do not know that they live in Somerset, because the postal address is “Sherborne, Dorset.” To them, it is a mystery where they actually live. That is an extraordinary thing. So, that would also be a useful issue to take up.

In some areas, the historic entities are being recognised. Sport has always been reluctant to move away from the historic counties, and rightly so. The lords lieutenant often represent historic counties, rather than more recent entities. Some of them cover not only administrative counties, but unitaries that are within the same historic county. There are signs that some people, at least, understand the situation. The issue is about trying to keep local identity out of the hands of the bureaucrats and the homogenisers who simply do not understand diversity in this country.

Dr. Brian Iddon (Bolton, South-East) (Lab): Will the hon. Gentleman join me in congratulating Friends of Real Lancashire, of which I am a patron, and of which my hon. Friend the Member for Rossendale and Darwen (Janet Anderson) is the president? That group protects the old county boundaries, which include Liverpool and Warrington, which is now considered to be part of Cheshire, and a considerable part of the Lake District, including the town of Barrow-in-Furness.

Mr. Heath: Of course I congratulate that organisation, and I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on his membership of it. Lancashire is a proud county and a proud part of our history. I have a wholly biased view that categorises counties as either first-class counties or minor counties in cricket, and I always find it hard to get to grips with minor counties such as Hertfordshire. Lancashire is a proper county, like Somerset. [ Interruption. ] No, I take that back. It has been pointed out that it is not going to help Liberal Democrat votes in Hertfordshire one bit if I maintain that view, so I rescind it entirely.

Whether the Bill gets through or not, I hope that people understand what makes this country tick and what is important to many people. The more uncertainty we have in this world, the better it is that we are rooted in a sense of common identity, principle and history. The historic counties of this country form part of that mosaic and are worth remembering.

12 noon

Mr. Andrew Dismore (Hendon) (Lab): I congratulate the hon. Member for Romford (Andrew Rosindell) on his Bill. While there are practical problems with it, to which I shall refer later, he raises an interesting issue in the House. We live in an era of geographical confusion, yet people still get a strong sense of identity from their original cultural entities: the old counties. Many sporting, social and cultural activities are based on those counties. They are widely used as a popular geographical framework, despite bureaucrats’ attempts to use the more modern local government areas.

The ages and origins of the counties of Britain vary, but most of them, in England at least, predate the
29 Jun 2007 : Column 607
Norman conquest and have become the bedrock of Britain’s history, culture and geography. They provide an instant means of reference to different parts of the country; sets of cities, towns and villages; distinctive scenery; architecture; wildlife; industries; pastimes; accents and dialects; tourist attractions; and even the weather. Indeed, while each county might have been originally set up for some public purpose long before the beginning of the 19th century, the counties’ geographic identity was paramount. The counties were considered to be territorial divisions of the country with names and areas that had been fixed for many centuries and were universally known and accepted. At the time of the Napoleonic wars, the counties were the bedrock of the militia. The lords lieutenant were allocated to the counties, including three to the ridings of Yorkshire, my home county.

The era of modern government began with the Local Government Act 1888, which defined a new set of administrative areas in statute, although I do not know how many reviews and changes have taken place since then. While no subsequent Act of Parliament has altered or abolished the historic counties, they are no longer used as a basis for any major public administration. While administrative geography is important in many contexts, such administrative areas can never form a proper geographical framework because their names and areas are subject to such frequent change.

I am sorry that the right hon. Member for East Yorkshire (Mr. Knight) is no longer in the Chamber because he represents my home area. I am proud to represent a London constituency—indeed, I have lived in London for more than 30 years, which is most of my life—but as the old saying goes, “You can take the man out of Yorkshire, but you can’t take Yorkshire out of the man.” I am proud of both my east Yorkshire origin and roots and my present identity as a Londoner. While I think that my Yorkshire accent has diminished a little, that is for others to judge. When I go back to Yorkshire, people think that I talk southern. However, the accent seems to come back after I have been visiting my mother for a few days.

My home town was first mentioned in the Domesday Book of 1086 as Bretlinton. The hon. Member for Romford has not said whether the boundaries under his Bill would go back as far as the Domesday Book. My home town of Bridlington was first formally recognised in 1895 when it became an urban district council. In 1906, London’s lord mayor was invited to open new terraces by the seaside. I am not quite sure why the lord major of London was invited—I have never been invited back to open anything.


Next Section Index Home Page