On 26 October 1972 the Local Government Act 1972 became law. It entirely reconstructed the local government system in England and Wales. Separate Acts for Northern Ireland and Scotland, driven by similar aims, followed in 1972 and 1973 respectively.

This Insight explains the changes that the 1972 Act made and how they affect local government structures today.

What did the 1972 Local Government Act do?

The 1972 Act redefined the procedures, structures, duties and geographies of all English and Welsh councils. Although it has a low profile today – not least because of numerous boundary changes and mergers in the years since – it was a major milestone in the history of local government in the UK.

The last 50 years have seen multiple further changes for local government finance, particularly in the late 1980s and early 1990s. In the 2000s, mayors, cabinets, and overview and scrutiny came to challenge the long-established structure of committee-based decision-making.

Nevertheless, much of the 1972 Act remains relevant today. Local government has taken on many additional statutory duties since then, but the basic functions of local government remain largely as they were when the Act came into force. The fundamentals of meetings, proceedings, access to information and election timings have also changed very little.

Economies of scale

The Act came into being in an age defined by efficiency concerns. This was expressed most explicitly in the scale of local government. Before 1 April 1974, there were 1,211 local authorities in England.

In many cases towns were governed by separate authorities from their rural surroundings. In a 1971 White Paper, the Government proposed an end to this division:

The areas of many existing authorities are out-dated and no longer reflect the pattern of life and work in modern society. The division between counties and county boroughs has prolonged an artificial separation of big towns from their surrounding hinterlands for functions whose planning and administration need to embrace both town and country.

The reform created a more standardised pattern of 45 county councils and 332 district councils, though in the six metropolitan counties the division of functions between the two tiers was different from elsewhere.

One consequence of the mass mergers was the creation of many district councils covering large areas. The reforms were intended to ensure most district councils had populations of 40,000 or more. Towns with smaller populations were often merged into new ‘compass point’ districts with ‘neutral’ names (West Oxfordshire, North Norfolk).

The White Paper stated that “local authority areas should be related to areas within which people have a common interest – through living in a recognisable community, through the links of employment, shopping or social activities, or through history and tradition”.

Changing tiers

The new geography introduced by the Act was hugely controversial at the time. It established some new counties (Avon, Cleveland, Humberside); merged some smaller counties with their neighbours (Huntingdonshire, Rutland, Herefordshire); and introduced the metropolitan counties in England’s large urban areas (Merseyside, Greater Manchester, Tyne & Wear).

It also ended the freedoms of ‘county boroughs’ – large towns and cities that had been allowed, in effect, to opt out of county council ‘control’ and run county services in their areas.

Nevertheless, the changes were considerably less radical than those proposed by the 1968 Royal Commission on Local Government (the Redcliffe-Maud report). That commission proposed 58 unitary authorities to cover the whole of England outside of Greater London, plus three two-tier areas based on Birmingham, Manchester and Liverpool. Boundaries can be downloaded at the end of this article.

These authorities are shown in the map below. The report also recommended eight ‘provincial councils’, shown in colour.

Redcliffe-Maud proposals for local government boundary reform.

Most of Redcliffe-Maud’s proposed authorities covered unfamiliar areas, with chunks of territory moved in and out of counties according to the Commission’s analysis of patterns of economic activity. Examples include ‘Peterborough and North Fens’ and ‘Selnec’ (South-East Lancashire – North-East Cheshire).

These are amongst the areas showed by the following map of the Southern Midlands and East Anglia, which shows the Redcliffe-Maud proposals (in colour) alongside the 1974 county councils (in black lines).

The Merseyside and Selnec metropolitan areas proposed by Redcliffe-Maud were wider than those eventually enacted in the 1972 Local Government Act. Selnec stood for "South East Lancashire and North East and Central Cheshire". The smaller county eventually established was Greater Manchester. On this map, coloured shading and labels represent boundaries proposed by the Redcliffe-Maud report.

Redcliffe-Maud’s proposals for East Anglia and the Midlands were different from those enacted in the 1972 Act. On this map, coloured shading and labels represent boundaries proposed by the Redcliffe-Maud report. The black outlines show the actual boundaries of 1974 counties

 Redcliffe-Maud's proposals for East Anglia and the Midlands were different from those enacted in the 1972 Act.

The Redcliffe-Maud report triggered considerable local opposition: for instance, the Rural District Councils Association mounted a campaign against the proposals for large-scale authorities, under the slogan “Don’t Vote for R. E. Mote”. (Coincidentally, a motion against the Royal Commission at the 1969 Conservative Party conference was moved by R. D. Moate, later MP for Faversham.)

Shifting sands: local boundaries since 1972

The new geography introduced by the 1972 Act didn’t last long. The metropolitan counties existed for only 12 years, abolished by the Local Government Act 1985. The Banham Commission of 1992-95 abolished a number of the other new counties formed in 1974. This was followed in the 21st century by a steady spread of unitary authorities replacing two-tier structures, in areas from Northumberland to Cornwall.

Controversy over local boundaries shows no sign of abating, in part because of differing views on how they should be determined. The Library briefing Where do you draw the line? has more detail on boundaries.

Nevertheless, few developments in the last 50 years have had the influence and ambition of the reforms of the 1972 Act, and it continues to exert substantial, if unspoken, influence over the operation of English local government.

Boundary data download

You can download a GIS file of the Redcliffe-Maud report proposals in geopackage format.

Download Redcliffe-Maud proposals GIS file(zip) 

This is derived from the report itself, the work of Mirrorme22 (CC BY-SA 4.0) and National Statistics data from ONS Geography. The boundaries are approximate and not precise.

About the author: Mark Sandford is a researcher on local government at the House of Commons Library. Maps were contributed by Carl Baker, who is a statistical researcher in the House of Commons Library

Photo by Benjamin Elliott on Unsplash

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