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12.27 pm

Mr. John Randall (Uxbridge) (Con): This debate is very interesting, and I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Romford (Andrew Rosindell) on introducing the Bill.

This debate shows the appetite in this place for maintaining historic traditions throughout the country. Although some people think that this House discusses such issues on Fridays and not at other times, some very serious issues are being discussed across Government and elsewhere about our identity and the whole concept of Britishness. As my hon. Friend has said, our sense of belonging to a nation devolves down to the lowest level of strata, which is just as important, namely the sense of belonging to a community.

As my hon. Friend has rightly said, I am a passionate advocate for Middlesex. Perhaps uniquely among historic counties, we have very little left, except in the hearts and minds of those Middle Saxons who live in the county and who have emigrated. About 15 or 20 years ago, in my part of Middlesex we pioneered, under the guidance of that eminent Middlesex expert, broadcaster and historian, Russell Grant, the setting up of signs, which were sponsored by local businesses, to tell people that they were entering Middlesex. The back of the sign mentioned the sponsors, and I remember my company sponsoring one. I was proud to see that sign, although I think it has unfortunately been removed by souvenir hunters.

There should not be any cost implications. My hon. Friend has stated that the signs should be put in when the old signs need to be replaced. The new signs would recognise the historic traditions of counties. Unfortunately, we recently missed a trick in Uxbridge when the Rotary club, Brunel university and the local council put up some signs saying, “Welcome to Uxbridge in the London Borough of Hillingdon: Home
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of Brunel University”. I maintain that they should have said, “in the Historic County of Middlesex”. It would not have cost any more and would have recognised the importance of Middlesex to our history.

Many Members have referred to new names. Hillingdon is a place, but it became the name of the borough because nobody in the other places in the borough could agree on what they wanted it to be called. Ruislip said it should be the London borough of Ruislip; Northwood said it should be Northwood; Uxbridge said it should be Uxbridge; West Drayton said it should be West Drayton, and so on. It was even suggested that it should be called the London borough of Queensborough because Her Majesty landed for the first time as monarch at Heathrow airport, which is in the borough. Although that would have recognised a royal connection, I think it would have confused people because nobody would have had any idea where it was. There is a similar problem whereby nobody knows where Brunel university is. As I said recently in the debate on the Sustainable Communities Bill, I would prefer it to have been called Uxbridge university, if for no other reason than when large donors in America wrote out cheques they might think that they were donating to Oxbridge rather than Uxbridge—but that is a retailer’s point of view.

These things matter to us—it is not just a case of a few people banging on. Ten years ago, we had just embarked on a by-election that I was lucky enough to win and so end up representing the constituency of Uxbridge. The Labour candidate, who is now safely ensconced in the House for a constituency that is much more appropriate for him in that he was mayor and council leader in Hammersmith and Fulham, made the mistake of describing Uxbridge as being in west London. Without any stirring at all from the Conservative or Liberal Democrat ranks, the local newspaper was full of outrage that this man could describe Uxbridge as being in west London when we all knew that it was in Middlesex. For two or three weeks that became a real issue in the local paper, which exemplifies how much this can mean to people.

Uxbridge and the surrounding area has always prided itself as being on the edge of London. We regard London as being our city, but we also regard ourselves as being rural Middlesex. Unfortunately, a lot of the rural aspects have somewhat dissipated, although any hon. Members lucky enough to visit will know that it has lots of green open spaces and is a very pleasant place. However, it still feels as though it is not quite London. It is the gateway to the Chilterns and has a great history. It would be a good idea for people to be able somehow to recognise that they are entering the historic county of Middlesex, or Uxbridge in the historic county of Middlesex, because that would give its residents a sense of identity that is sadly lacking.

Another issue is that of postal addresses and postcodes. I am not a great fan of early-day motions, but the first one that I tabled was to try to maintain Ickenham as a postal address. That was not simply because the people of Ickenham rightly regard their community and village as an entity, but because of the implications for deliveries. For example, most of Ickenham is now put down as “Uxbridge” because
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the Post Office likes to call it that, but there is a “Greenway” in Uxbridge and a “Greenway” in Ickenham, and people were getting the wrong things delivered. When one goes online or gives a postcode on the phone, “Uxbridge” immediately appears.

Let me now plead for the village in which I live. Most people who know where I live would wonder why I call the area a village. It is because I am rather old and remember when Cowley was a village. Its identity has almost disappeared. I believe that the children of the Minister for Science and Innovation, who is now sitting on the Treasury Bench, were born in Hillingdon hospital. He therefore knows that Cowley is just alongside the hospital, and he probably also knows that it was a separate place at that time. Unfortunately, the Post Office has taken Cowley off the postal address and only people of a certain age, like me, refer to “going down to the village” when we simply mean going to the newsagent’s. The Brunel students who now inhabit that area look at me rather strangely—as many people do these days; that may be for many other reasons—because I talk about “going down to the village.”

The discussion about identity and maintaining traditions is important, and I know that the subject of historic pub names has previously been raised in the House in that context. I would love to see the Bill on the statute book because it is important that everybody has a sense of identity with something—not only a country or a region but a county and a town. I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Romford, who is a champion of Romford and of Essex, and the Association of British Counties, which is doing the same throughout our realm.

12.37 pm

Shona McIsaac (Cleethorpes) (Lab): After hearing the speech of the hon. Member for Scarborough and Whitby (Mr. Goodwill), I wanted to participate in the debate. The same controversial topic that he mentioned rages around my constituency. I represent Cleethorpes, which is in Lincolnshire. However, three local authorities cover the historic county of Lincolnshire: Lincolnshire county council, North Lincolnshire council and, to add to the confusion, North-East Lincolnshire council.

It is not only local people who get confused. When I table parliamentary questions that ask for facts and figures about North-East Lincolnshire and North Lincolnshire, I often get figures for Lincolnshire. Even here, there is confusion about exactly where Cleethorpes is.

For years, Humberside was the local authority. When that was abolished, the area on the south bank of the River Humber, formerly known as South Humberside, became North Lincolnshire and North-East Lincolnshire. However, some young people grew up with the name “Humberside” and do not identify with “Lincolnshire”. Others genuinely loathe “Humberside” and hate “South Humberside” even more. I do not know whether it is down to the Post Office or other services, but when organisations buy mailing lists and databases, “South Humberside” continues to turn up. People do not like getting junk mail, but when they get it with “South Humberside” on it, they write to me saying, “The council was abolished
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years ago. We live in Lincolnshire.” So there is certainly merit in the hon. Gentleman’s Bill.

Another problem, which was touched on by the hon. Member for Scarborough and Whitby, is that we are also represented by Yorkshire and the Humber. My constituents repeatedly tell me that we are in Lincolnshire, and that the Humber is a river. When Humberside was abolished, people must have said, “Oh, what shall we call the Government region? Ah, yes, we’ll call it the Humber!” That irritates my constituents as well, because there are only three and a half constituencies in Lincolnshire that are in the Yorkshire and the Humber region—Brigg and Goole is split between Yorkshire and Lincolnshire. That issue still creates problems. The police force is still called Humberside police, and we still have Radio Humberside.

I have been told by the Post Office that all that is required to avoid confusion when addressing a letter is the postal town and the postcode. My constituents write to me to say, “Why is ‘South Humberside’ still appearing on our mail? Why is ‘Humberside’ still appearing? Why can’t people just put ‘Lincolnshire’?” I write back and tell them that the Post Office has advised me that all they need is the postal town and the postcode. Well, I am sorry, but that does not make them any happier, because the postcode that is used for the part of Lincolnshire that I represent—apart from a handful of houses in the southernmost corner—is DN, which is the postcode for Doncaster, in Yorkshire. People should be able to express their identity on road signs and on their addresses, to avoid some of the daft situations that we end up in.

12.41 pm

Mr. Oliver Heald (North-East Hertfordshire) (Con): We have had an excellent debate today, in which we heard from the ancient counties of England. It has been a very pleasant experience, recalling the great history of our nation. Hon. Members will be grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Romford (Andrew Rosindell) for introducing the Bill. The subject has previously been aired by my hon. Friend the Member for Uxbridge (Mr. Randall), who has also attempted to get such a measure through the House. There was a good deal of support around the House for the principle behind the Bill, although important matters of detail were contested.

The Association of British Counties has been the inspiration for this measure. Its contention is that the counties are an important part of the history, geography and cultural life of our country. It argues that Britain needs a fixed popular geography that is divorced from the ever-changing names and areas of local government. It wants us to have a real sense of history over time, and roots that people commonly understand and that are held to be part of our cultural identity. The point has been made that the fact that we are debating this matter today is excellent timing, given that we are having a national debate on identity and cohesion at the moment.

The issue of postcodes and postal names was raised by the hon. Member for Cleethorpes (Shona McIsaac). In my own county of Hertfordshire, we have acquired areas of Cambridgeshire for postal purposes. People in
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Melbourn, which is in Cambridgeshire, are not at all happy to have a Hertfordshire postcode or to have Hertfordshire as part of their postal address, because they do not live in Hertfordshire. There is also a commercial aspect to this issue, because Cambridgeshire is well recognised as a centre for information technology, and people with IT businesses in Melbourn, Cambridgeshire, find it quite commercially damaging to have to describe themselves as being in Hertfordshire.

Having said that, Hertfordshire is of course a fantastic county with an ancient history. I had an interesting discussion earlier with the hon. Member for Hendon (Mr. Dismore) about exactly where its ancient borders were. I was in Southgate recently, and I was told that it was originally the south gate of the Enfield chase and traditionally part of Hertfordshire. Indeed, one of the people I spoke to there was Hertfordshire through and through, having a family that was originally based in my constituency and that had moved south to that location. The former Member for Chipping Barnet, Sir Sydney Chapman, was always an honorary Hertfordshire MP as far as the Conservative party was concerned, and he was proud that his area had a Hertfordshire tradition, although he was happy to be a Londoner too. These are important matters, and we should not minimise them in any way.

The Bill would compel traffic authorities to

to try to re-establish the identity of traditional counties. During the debate, an argument developed about the form of those signs. There is a case for trying to highlight some of the points about an area on a sign. Under the regulations that would be used, Ministers would have powers to designate the sort of information that a sign could display. If people wanted more descriptive signs, such as those used in France, where the presence of fruit growing, a good wine area or a special cathedral is often reflected on signs, that might be possible. That would give our road signs a little more character and better meet the needs of the public and for education.

We heard a good deal about Yorkshire, which is a fine county. I rather shared the sense of sadness that my hon. Friend the Member for Scarborough and Whitby (Mr. Goodwill) portrayed of the Yorkshireman leaving his county. He highlighted that such signs would bring a tear to his eye. The signs that said, “Welcome to Yorkshire”, however, would lift him to a new level of happiness and give him a great thrill, as would be the case with almost any Yorkshireman. He did not say whether the signs should have a bat and ball on them or some other sporting sign, but he did mention Geoffrey Boycott, a great Yorkshireman. I once played at Headingley, and managed to hit the old pavilion roof, and Geoffrey Boycott was there. That was one of the great moments of my sporting life, although it was only a very amateur match.

The Bill’s frame of reference is provided by the traditional county boundaries, defined with respect to counties set out in the Counties (Detached Parts) Act 1844. In many instances, those bear little relationship to the current, amorphous local government administrative areas. My hon. Friend the Member for Uxbridge made that point about his county of
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Middlesex, which has a proud tradition, with its great Guildhall near the House of Commons, and its rural areas, some of which are perhaps not as rural as they once were—he referred to Cowley in that context. None the less, there is a pride in the county of Middlesex, as we understood from his point about the candidate who described it as being in west London, to the absolute horror of the local media. He did not even have to prompt them to run a campaign that lasted for some weeks.

Mr. Randall: This might be a good moment to remind my hon. Friend that Middlesex has a Middlesex day in May, on the anniversary of the battle of Albuhera. [Interruption.]

Mr. Heald: Well, apparently, some Members of the House knew that, as I heard a comment from a sedentary position to that effect. That just goes to show the detailed knowledge in all parts of the House. It is good to know that the county is still cherished and has its own special day, as well as the other attributes that my hon. Friend described.

This is the third attempt to introduce the measure through a private Member’s Bill. My hon. Friend the Member for Uxbridge has had a go, as I mentioned, and the former Member for Taunton also tried in 2004. Both of them rightly paid tribute to the Association of British Counties for trail blazing.

The one thing I am not sure about is the reference to the Ordnance Survey, which is effectively a commercial body. However, the extent to which it would be right to force a commercial body to take a particular action could be considered in Committee. It may be that other mechanisms would be needed to get the map side of the problem sorted out, but one can understand and sympathise with the general aims.

Historic boundaries give us a sense of who we are—a feeling of the great traditions and heritage of the nation. They also have references to the roots of our language, which the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Heath) mentioned. Local people are often greatly attached to the traditional names and boundaries of their historic counties long after they have ceased to exist as administrative areas. I felt a sense of sadness—perhaps other hon. Members did, too—when I heard the hon. Member for Cleethorpes describe young people who did not realise that they were in north Lincolnshire but thought that they were in Humberside, which has no real historical meaning. It is important that young people understand that history.

Similarly, in terms of marking the boundaries of ancient villages and towns, the Bill proposes signs that contain the traditional crest of the town or village. That is an idea with resonance. I was interested to hear that my hon. Friend the Member for Romford had gone to the trouble of researching the crest for Romford and that he gave it so much currency by transmitting it across Romford in the way that he did. I think it is a rather good idea; I might even be tempted to do it myself in parts of Hertfordshire, although I shall have to see how practical that would be. [Interruption.] I am told that I might be able to do it on the communications allowance. That is probably
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pushing it; it would depend on the information engraved on the other side of the badge. However, we need not go into that in too much detail.

We have to wonder whether signing the boundaries should be the responsibility of the traffic authorities or English Heritage or its equivalent body in Wales. It is part of their mandate to mark historical sites and they are experts in such matters. Perhaps they should have a role in conjunction with the highways authorities. That would be an example of partnership working, something that Labour always welcomes.

I am only thinking aloud, but one thing is for sure: the subject has a resonance in the House. Many hon. Members have spoken in the debate.

Andrew Miller: I am intrigued by the hon. Gentleman’s argument. I want to put to him an observation that I made in my contribution. I do not know how well he knows the roads from Cheshire into north Wales, but a major road construction is under way, so it is an opportune time to be precise. Would he move the sign that says “England” several miles to the west, or would he leave it exactly where it is? He needs to explain that to help us understand his case.

Mr. Heald: That is an excellent attempt to get me into terrible trouble. I am not thinking of going down that route. I certainly do not want to steal part of Wales. That would be a bit strong for a Friday.

The Bill—or at least the underlying principles—has attracted a good deal of support in all parts of the House. It is the sort of Bill that needs an airing in Committee. It would be useful to tease out some of the difficulties, such as the one that the hon. Gentleman so mischievously presented to me. It is a Friday and a day for private Members’ Bills. We should give Bills that have a good element of support in the House an opportunity to be considered in Committee.

In 1974, when the reorganisation took place, an official from the Department of the Environment said that the new county boundaries were solely for the purpose of defining areas of first level government of the future. He said

The example he gave was Middlesex, and he said that although the county had been swallowed up in Greater London in 1965 and disappeared for governmental purposes, the name still existed for postal and other reasons. He pointed out the affection in which Middlesex was held and also made the point that

Those assurances were given then, and it is clear that hon. Members on both sides of the House think that those assurances should be fulfilled and we should have a proper respect for the ancient counties, cities, towns, villages and hamlets.

On behalf of the Opposition, I welcome the Bill, which deserves to be fully examined in Committee, where we can see its possible pitfalls, but also its strengths.

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