Thousands of senior management jobs will be cut and millions of pounds of council properties left empty as counties that go back to Saxon times cease to exist as administrative units.
The decision, taken recently by ministers involved in the local government review, represents a major shift in policy. This weekend the Association of County Councils called the idea outrageous.
It had been thought some counties would survive the search for 'unitary' authorities to succeed the two-tier district and county council structure. However, senior ministerial sources told the Independent that is no longer so. There is little political disadvantage in the Government scrapping what were once bastions of Tory political power as since the last local elections in May only one county council, Buckinghamshire, is under Tory control.
The counties' fate will be settled by the Local Government Commission, due to present its findings before 1995. So keen is the Government to see the process complete that it has appointed two more commissioners to speed up the task.
Ministers say evidence of the intention to do away with the county councils is to be found in a 'policy guidance' document issued by the Department for the Environment to the Commission this month, the meaning of which, they say, has not been fully grasped.
Although the document is dubbed 'guidance', one minister called it 'a formidable steer'. It re-emphasises the benefits of single, all-purpose unitary authorities and asks the commission to give more weight to local consensus.
The crucial sentence sealing the fate of the county councils, said the minister, is on the fourth page: 'Unitary authorities covering either a very large area or a very small population will need a specially strong justification, because of concerns in the former case about remoteness and in the latter about the effectiveness of service delivery.'
While acknowledging that it was technically possible for a council as large as a county to exist, the minister said that he did not envisage the required 'specially strong justification' being strong enough. It was so unlikely that ministers had not even devised the criteria for what would constitute 'specially strong justification'.
The significance of asking the commission to give more weight to local consensus had also not come through, said the minister. While again, it was possible for county councils to point to local opinion being in their favour, all the Government's local feedback was opposed. Consensus, said the minister, meant just that. 'Nowhere have we received any indication from anyone that county councils must stay.'
It was inevitable, the minister added, that jobs would suffer. District councils would be merging to form larger units, although not on the same scale as the counties. 'We're not going to have a situation where we have two chief housing officers - one will have to go.'
The Association of County Councils reacted angrily, and will discuss the policy shift with David Curry, the Minister for Local Government, on Wednesday. Tina Day, its review co-ordinator, said it would resist any attempt to wipe out county councils, adding the Government must divulge 'chapter and verse' its research into local feelings.
The association may find it has powerful allies. Simon Bowes-Lyon, Lord-Lieutenant of Hertfordshire, said he was against scrapping county councils: 'It's an appalling kind of attitude to have, to believe in change for change's sake. It's not an attitude that will find favour with many people.'
Firm proposals for reorganising local government in Scotland and Wales have been announced.