Tuesday, August 02, 2005

What the heck is a county?

Today I received payment for an item I'd sold on eBay, together with a print out of the eBay payment details page. This included the payer's address, which is in "Swansea, Swansea"!

What had happened is that the form for address includes a compulsory option for "county" and this proforma isn't very good at handling large urban areas. I have often had to put "London" as both the "town/city" and "county" when filling out forms and I'm sure there are many other cases. But what county am I supposed to put?

Counties are a notoriously difficult beast to classify. For some bizarre reason the UK has traditional counties, administrative counties, ceremonial counties and postal counties, each with their own set of borders, identities and so forth. Many talk of Romford as being in Essex and Bexley as being in Kent, yet both come under the Greater London Authority. Or my hometown is Epsom. This should be simple - it has the postal address of Surrey, comes under the domain of Surrey County Council and the ceremonial county of Surrey (I think the two are the same - there are no unitary authorities there) and is historically identified as Surrey. So it should be simple. But within Surrey just where is it? Is it in north east Surrey (as the full name of NESCOT, the local Further Education college implies) or in mid Surrey? The home of Surrey County Cricket is the Oval, quite some way to the north, yet hardly anyone uses "Surrey" on addresses up there. And what about Spelthorne (Sunbury and Staines)? It is on the "Middlesex Bank" of the Thames not the "Surrey Bank", yet is in Surrey. The village of Poyle doesn't seem to know if it's in Middlesex, Surrey or Berkshire. And then people claim Westmorland doesn't exist as a county - so what is the Westmorland County Agricultural Show?

The traditional and administrative counties both have fierce advocates and idenfitications do differ across the country. Some try to claim that as "county" is only a unit of local government then only these should be used, even when the term is applied to Unitary Authorities. So does Northern Ireland have six counties, twenty-six "counties" or none at all? (Now there's one for the Republicans to mull over, especially as their stated objection to the term "Northern Ireland" is pedantically to do with a part of the Republic being even more north!) Also Rochester by this logic is not in Kent as it's not administered by Kent County Counil but instead by the Medway unitary authority.

Conversely we have the question of whether or not Birmingham is in Warwickshire, the West Midlands County or is just a big city in its own right (I go for the latter - it's easier and Birmingham is a place unto itself). Some of the modern administrative counties and urban areas have done a brilliant job of fostering loyalties and making it clear just where the current borders are. Others haven't - London is a mess (and the Post Office doesn't help by refusing to update the post codes).

At the moment I type this in Forest Gate, in the London Borough of Newham but formerly in the County Borough of West Ham (and there are still in use street signs proclaiming that!). So just what am I supposed to put in the "county" box on a form?

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