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Freedom dawns again for a small corner of England

Arthur Hill lives in Rutland. He is proud to be a Rutlander. Indeed, in his 89 years he has only ever travelled as far from it as Skegness.

Under a special feature on Mr Hill, one of the county's "truly grand old characters", the Rutland Times says he will greet independence "with a pride and patriotism only born Rutlanders can truly feel".

To the multicultural, shifting communities of cities across the rest of the country, Mr Hill's passion for his home - and his newspaper's passion for Mr Hill - might seem somewhat curious. But as 1 April returns Rutland to county status, many of its citizens are bringing a similar patriotism for this tiny sector of the Midlands to the fore.

Twenty-three years ago the 18-by-15 mile county was abolished and it became part of Leicestershire. Many Rutlanders continued to refer to it as a county, even using their old postcode. Their feelings were such that even an encyclopaedic reference to Rutland notes: "There is local indignation whenever it is suggested that Rutland should lose its separate identity".

Now, after fierce lobbying by Rutland's council, it again becomes a county today - an event that will be commemorated with a huge display of fireworks, a ball, and no small rejoicing among many of the county's inhabitants, not least traders. There is a commemorative magazine, poster, car sticker, polo shirt, first-day cover, egg cup and even a commemorative Rutland Independent mortgage.

Sylvia Darby, proprietor of the Lord Nelson's House Hotel in Oakham, says the change is not just symbolic. "We really feel it may put tourism on the map. When we first came here tourism was a bit of a dirty word - it's very much Rutland for the Rutlanders - but the tradespeople particularly feel it may bring more business in."

Locals were hoping the Prince of Wales would attend the ceremony, as he rides with a local hunt, the Quorn, but she and her family would be attending a celebratory ball regardless. "We'll be eating off commemorative plates, and afterwards we get to take them home. Suitably washed, I might add."

The sense of satisfaction in the area came from the fact that local people had fought "tooth and nail" for the boundary change, Mrs Darby said.

"They never changed their postcode, they would never allow the signs on entering to be taken down either, and they never accepted being part of Leicestershire."

But not everyone is happy about the change. County status, it appears, comes at a price, and many feel the area is simply too small to support itself. The county will have to "buy in" many services from nieghbouring counties, and, days before independence, many negotiations had not been completed, including social services, highways and archive services. A council spokesman said that in some cases neighbouring counties wanted to tie Rutland to 10-year contracts, or had withheld contracts altogether.

Jacqui Morrissey, a housewife from Market Overton, said the county was "simply not going to be able to afford its independence". Council tax was going up at an alarming rate, even with transitional relief, and many people believed services were going to go down. "We simply don't have enough industry. How are they going to pay for university grants? They're already cutting back on education. Policing is already at a stretch and public transport is almost non-existent. Rutland is just too small on its own."

She believed that many people who had been pro-independence would change their minds when they discovered its true cost. "I take several old ladies to sewing classes every week and they're worried. Their pensions aren't going to cover it." Her daughter Caroline, 22, said Plymouth, where she was at university, felt like a cosmopolitan paradise in comparison. If you were young in Rutland, there were organised groups like the Venture Scouts, but that was it. "That's why there's such a problem with under- age drinking."

Mrs Morrissey, who would not be attending the fireworks, believed the decision to become independent again had been "purely political".

"It was pushed and pushed. We were always given the good side."

Rutlanders, she said, thought that by regaining their independence they would somehow get back the Rutland of 30 years ago. "They think they'll get the public services they used to have, but it's not the case."