Ancient local government unit viewed with 'affection'

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The Independent Online
ENGLAND'S shires are the Western world's most ancient surviving unit of local government, according to James Campbell, an Oxford University historian. The Domesday Book of 1086 shows they were almost completely established south of the Tees, writes Nicholas Schoon.

The shire, with the sheriff as key official, existed as a local government unit for the purposes of defence and internal security, national taxation and dispensing justice before the Norman Conquest. Over the centuries they lost functions and gained others but most of their borders endured unchanged. 'Their long history and the nature of their organisation has made them sources . . . of interest and of affection . . .' Dr Campbell said.

They emerged as councils elected by universal franchise in this century. There were 45 English county councils before the 1974 local government reorganisation and 39 afterwards, playing a leading role outside of the seven largest conurbations.

Today they are in charge of schools, social services, libraries, consumer protection and registration of births, deaths and marriages. The smaller district councils collect the council tax, run elections and environmental health departments, own council homes and house the homeless.