All councillors received an email from local resident Adrian Jackson today regarding the "County Durham" tag at the end of our addresses.
Adrian is a proud Darlingtonian, and resents having to give "County Durham" as part of his address - he prefers to put "Borough of Darlington" when asked to state 'County' when he completes official forms. He wonders whether the former Cleveland authorities (Hartlepool, Stockton, Middlesbrough and Redcar & Cleveland) have similar problems? After 10 years of "independence" from the County, he believes that the Council should use the Town Crier to take the campaign forward.
This is, of course, a fraught issue. I was an active campaigner in the battle to win unitary status for Darlington in the mid 90's. It galled me that our town received so little from County Durham (just 4% of the highways spend, for example, when we had 16% of the population). I have to confess that as a result, I still tend to give my address as Darlington and the postcode, and leave the county off.
The debate has become muddied, however, because County Durham is both a ceremonial and an administrative area. The latter is a shrivelled ghost of its historical past - in the early twentieth century County Durham included Gateshead, South Shields, Sunderland, Hartlepool and Stockton as well as Darlington. Successive local government reorganisations have left an administrative rump covering Teesdale, Wear Valley, Sedgefield, Chester-le-Street, Derwentside, Easington and Durham City. Now, whilst Stockton, Darlington and Hartlepool remain part of the historic county (with a Lord Lieutenant appointed by the Crown), Sunderland, Gatehead and South Shields have been removed to Tyne and Wear.
In the 1960's, national government sought reforms which re-created local government in units which apparently made economic sense. Cleveland, Avon and Humberside and the like all seemed beaurocratically sensible, but suffered because they didn't chime with people's sense of local identity.
The County system itself is a mess. Created by the Anglo-Saxons, it was originally dynamic, with counties formed and reformed to reflect local realities. It ended up being pickled in aspic as a result of the Norman Conquest - faced with a significant language problem, the invaders found that they had to rely on existing structures through which to rule, and they became set. One of the ironies of the County system is that Rutland was due to be absorbed into Leicestershire immediately before 1066, as a unviable administrative unit. The Conquest saved it, and it lingers on today (pop. 33,000)
County Boroughs have further complicated the picture. Bristol became a City and County in 1373 following a charter from Edward III. County Boroughs, however, retain their existing county allegiances - so Bristol comes under the Lord Lieutenancy of Gloucestershire and Darlington, even after its "independence" in 1997, that of Durham.
On one level, this is a lot of flummery, and the old distictions should be swept away - it's fair to say that counties like Middlesex really only exist now because of the cricket team. However, a sense of place is important. It irritates me that the administrative Durham County Council calls itself "The Land of the Prince Bishops" when the original capital of County Durham was Sadberge, which is of course in Darlington. After all, it is the Mayor of Darlington, and not the Chairman of the County Council who receives each new Bishop of Durham into the bishopric on Croft Bridge.
For all they're scorned, road side boundaries are important. Darlington in economic terms looks to the Tees Valley (indeed working with our Tees Valley colleagues was a prerequisite of gaining unitary status). There are plenty of people in Darlington who still think of themselves as residents of County Durham, however.
At the end of the day, successive local government acts have allowed the likes of Middlesex and Cleveland to linger on, if poeple want to adhere to them. How can we square the circle of the administrative and historic Durham Counties? Answers on a postcard...