Public Services Management: As English shires face abolition, peer pressure is on: Andrew Evans canvasses their lordships' opinion on the future of local government

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THE SCOURING of the shires continues apace, with recommendations now published for the future pattern of local government in 10 of England's 39 shire counties.

Three of the counties created in 1974, Avon, Cleveland and Humberside, are facing abolition; and two traditional counties, Gloucestershire and North Yorkshire, would lose any form of county-wide local government. The Local Government Commission, the Government's independent adviser, has also recommended the abolition or merger of more than half of the 64 district councils it has examined.

County councils were created in 1889, but the origins of county government go back to Anglo-Saxon times and some counties, such as Devon and Kent, are even older. King Canute first appointed earls to govern the counties in the early 11th-century and they were later to be assisted by Crown-appointed sheriffs, or 'shire reeves'.

When the county councils were set up, the successors of many of these territorial peers preserved their traditional links by serving on the new authorities. The Duke of Bedford, for example, chaired Bedfordshire from 1895 to 1925; at least two dukes of Northumberland served on their county council; the Marquess of Winchester chaired Hampshire from 1904 to 1909; and the present Duke of Rutland was a county councillor for nearly 40 years.

So what does the present generation of hereditary peers think of the current review of local government structure in their counties? Apart from the Queen, who is Duke of Lancaster, 31 peers have titles linked to English counties. Most are members of the House of Lords. None of the 31 can or will speak for the five threatened county councils. There never was an Earl of Humberside, Cleveland has not had a duke since 1891, and the last Earl of Avon died in 1985. The royal Dukes of Gloucester both declined to comment.

The return of Avon's southern districts to Somerset was, however, welcomed by the Duke of Somerset, whose Seymour family first held the title in 1546 and who still owns land in the county. But he questioned the proposed unitary authority for the present county area. 'It seems pretty large and I suspect the small villages would get submerged,' he says.

The commission wants to combine Avon's Bath and Wansdyke districts as a new unitary council in Somerset. Suggested names are 'North East Somerset' or 'Bath and North East Somerset'. The Marquess of Bath, as founder of the Wessex Regionalist Party, has no interest in retaining county councils as local government units. Wessex would have districts, though, and Bath 'might well' be one. And the name? 'If one began to look for other things,' he muses, 'I don't know, Aquae Sulis, perhaps? Wansdyke certainly is a good historic name to play on.'

Plans to abolish Cleveland and seven of County Durham's eight districts are fiercely contested by the threatened councils, but are supported by two Tory peers with family links to the area. The Lambtons were Earls of Durham from 1833 until 1970, when Viscount Lambton renounced the title for life so he could continue as an MP and minister. Lord Lambton, now 70 and living in Italy, says: 'There are too many district councils. You have got a bureaucracy swollen out of all proportion to the necessity. I think Durham County Council would make quite an efficient unit now.'

The Earl of Stockton, grandson of Harold Macmillan, former Tory premier and Stockton MP, welcomed the proposed unitary status for Stockton and the other Cleveland districts. The earl, who retains close links with the area, says: 'Local identification with the county of Cleveland was never strong and, in some ways, it was a rather artificial amalgamation. Many people, particularly older people, hankered back to the days when they were either in County Durham or Yorkshire.' The commission wants to return Cleveland districts to their pre-1974 counties for 'ceremonial and related' purposes.

For Derbyshire, the commission has recommended a unitary Derby City and a unitary council for the rest of the county. Eight districts would be abolished. The Earl of Derby, whose Stanley family has held the title since 1485, lives in Merseyside, previously part of Lancashire, where he was a county alderman. Lord Derby, who is 75, defends the present two-tier structure in Lancashire: 'Every time they change things, it's a disaster. I still consider myself a Lancastrian and, in many ways, I would like to be back in Lancashire. But it would be very difficult to do that effectively now.' he says.

The Government's decision to resurrect seven old Welsh counties has boosted the hopes of several English districts for the restoration of their county status. The campaign is strongest in Rutland, which became a district of Leicestershire in 1974. But Rutland's claims are given short shrift by the Duke of Rutland, a Leicestershire councillor from 1946 to 1985, who lives at Belvoir Castle in Melton district.

The duke, whose Manners family became earls of Rutland in 1525 and dukes in 1703, thinks Rutland is too small for unitary status. 'Of course it was a great blow for Rutland when the Boundary Commission made the changes,' he says. 'But from an administrative point of view it was probably a sensible amalgamation. Leicestershire was having to give more and more assistance in the administration of Rutland. We had to help them with schools and police and things like that.' The duke favours a unitary Leicester City, with status quo for the rest of the county.

Another council hoping to regain county status is Huntingdonshire, which became a district of Cambridgeshire in 1974. Huntingdon had an earl by 1068, and Robin Hood is sometimes described as Earl of Huntingdon. The present earl, a 45-year- old racehorse trainer in Berkshire, whose Hastings family has held the title since 1529, knows the area best for its racecourse. He comments: 'People rather like the old names and don't like them being lost or assimilated in large areas or composite names.'

In Lincolnshire, where both tiers will be retained, the commission considered combining east and west Lindsey districts into a revived Lindsey county. This found favour with the Earl of Lindsey and Abingdon, whose Bertie family has held the title since 1626. The earl left Lincolnshire in 1938, and now lives in Scotland, where he also supports the return of Ayrshire county council. Lord Lindsey says: 'I am a bit of a traditionalist and feel that it would be a good thing to have Lincolnshire restructured as it was before. But, as far as the name is concerned, it doesn't really interest me.'

When the Lords debated the Bill to set up the review during the winter of 1991/92, only five 'county' peers voted and only the Earl of Shrewsbury made a speech. The Tory earl, whose Talbot family has held the Shropshire title since 1442, commended his home county of Staffordshire as 'one of the best-performing local authorities in the country'. He also backed Stoke's bid for unitary status.

A former Hampshire county chairman, the Earl of Carnarvon, warned peers against dismantling 'traditional and historic counties where there seems to be no overwhelming desire for change'. In the Welsh review, his titular county is being restored as Caernarfonshire and Merionethshire. One peer who voted, but did not speak, in the debates, was England's premier duke, the Duke of Norfolk, whose Howard family has held the title since 1483. He is now rather horrified by the thought of county councils being abolished.

The duke, Earl Marshal of England and a former deputy Lieutenant of West Sussex, admits he has not studied the issue deeply. But his immediate reaction was: 'The county councils must go on. We must have local government, mustn't we?'

The commission's recommendations, like the reviews in Scotland and Wales, are all subject to confirmation by both Houses of Parliament. So peers will have a second chance to put their case.

(Photographs omitted)