Counties began their career as the defining administrative unit in England under King Alfred’s land reforms, introduced following his defeat of the Viking army at the Battle of Edington, near Chippenham in 878. Their essential form and function remained in place until the Local Government Act, which came into force on 1 April 1974.C260

Before Alfred’s intervention, shires got a mention here and there, but the recognised territorial unit was that of the long-standing settlements of the peoples, or tribes, of England. Places took their names from the people that lived there. Many of those names survive: the Wreocensætan (the Wrekin), the Pecsætan (the Peak District), the Hicce (Hitchin), the Hwicce (Shipton-under-Wychwood), the Cilternætan (the Chilterns)—along with the larger groups and more established names such as the East Angles, the East Saxons, the South Saxons and the men of Kent.C261

The Viking attack was sustained and ferocious; it decisively overwhelmed East Anglia, Northumbria and Mercia and, despite their defeat at Edington, it was clear that they would be back. Alfred prepared for this for the next fourteen years by building fortified centres across Wessex, insisting that they should be occupied at all times and more-or-less self-sufficient in food, and specifying their defence in detail. For each length of wall, measured in poles (5½ yards), four men were required, and each man, with his family, required one hide of land for subsistence (the exact size of a hide varied according to its quality and local conditions). For example, Oxford, with 2060 yards of wall to be defended, required 1,500 men and hides. Along with this came systematic arrangements for land-ownership, taxation and military service, and the beginnings of the collectively-managed open fields of the English manor.C262

All this, despite variations in definition and in the pace of change, was contained in the network of English counties, which were allocated powers and responsibilities both as defenders of local freedoms and as the local authorities that enabled the government to govern. The first—and in some senses, never surpassed—project at which these shires proved themselves was to provide a framework for a comprehensive survey of every cultivated hide and property in the nation. It was commissioned by King William the Conqueror following “much thought and very deep discussion” with his court over Christmas in Gloucester, 1085. And—not bad for an official database—it is still selling well 1,000 years later in paperback as The Domesday Book (the title it acquired soon after completion).C263

Counties, however, are now widely seen to be irrelevant: too small to act as the administrative unit for a continent-wide structure such as the European Union; too large to be accepted as having relevance to the local. But the problem is that each topic on the administrator’s to-do list is on a different scale from all the others. If America were to be divided up according to the main characteristics of particular areas, there would, as Howard Odum pointed out, be . . .

The geographers’ 700 soil regions and 5145 agricultural regions, the ecologists’ 17 watersheds and 97 river valleys, the city planners’ 183 metropolitan regions and 683 retail-shopping regions, the anthropologists’ American Indian “culture areas”, the historians’ sections and provinces, the political scientists’ pluralisms and federalisms, and the literary critics’ cultures in the South, Southwest, New England, and the Great Plains.C264

As long ago as the 1930s in the UK, it was argued that the county was simply the wrong size for most of the things it was intended to do:

. . . in the matter of certain aspects of water supply, river pollution, land and drainage, electricity production and supply, transport and police, the county as an area, and, in some cases, as an authority, not only shows signs of supercession, but is already superceded.C265

There is no neat fit between local areas and local responsibilities. The right size for one function is unlikely to be the right size for another function. There is no generally right size—except when it is agreed that what matters above all is participation.

Building the Lean Economy will involve, amongst other things, making the shift from a society of consumers and customers to a society of stewards of the place they live in. Counties lasted for 1,000 years because they were on a scale which was large enough to represent central government and small enough to enable their inhabitants to participate. On the scale of the county, there is a good chance that you can get to the county town and be home in time for supper. Even on a horse. Or, failing that, you can reach your local town, which is local enough to sort out the problem and able to make its case at the level of the county. At this scale, local circumstances are visible from the centre.

Regions are approximately ten times the size, with a population of some ten million, rather than the county’s one million. They belong to the culture of technical expertise. Counties have eye contact and knowledge of their particular landscape. The people know where they live.


Related entries:

Groups and Group Sizes, Nation, Reciprocity and Cooperation > Exchange.

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David Fleming
Dr David Fleming (2 January 1940 – 29 November 2010) was an economist, historian and writer, based in London. He was among the first to reveal the possibility of peak oil's approach and invented the influential TEQs scheme, designed to address this and climate change. He was also a significant figure in the development of the UK Green Party, the Transition Towns movement and the New Economics Foundation, as well as a Chairman of the Soil Association. His wide-ranging independent analysis culminated in two critically acclaimed books, Lean Logic and Surviving the Future. A film about his perspective and legacy - The Sequel: What Will Follow Our Troubled Civilisation? - was released in 2019, directed by BAFTA-winning director Peter Armstrong. For more information, including on Lean Logic, click the little globe below!

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