The ABC recognises ninety-two historic counties of the United Kingdom; and provides a gazetteer of British place names to enable their identification. The gazetteer identifies the corresponding historic county with respect to the Counties (Detached Parts) Act 1844, in addition to cross-referencing other administrative areas.
The Association does not believe that counties corporate enjoy county status "in the ordinary sense of the term" and includes them within the historic county or counties in which they lie geographically.
The association declares that the "most authoritative definition of the boundaries of the Counties of Great Britain is that obtained by the Ordnance Survey during its first national survey of Great Britain".
Areas transferred from one county to another by the Counties (Detached Parts) Act 1844 are "considered to be associated with both their parent County (from which they are detached) and the County in which they locally lie."
The ABC has declared that it does not want further local government reorganisation. Instead it would rather see an official distinction made between current administrative units known as counties, and those areas known as counties before the local government reforms of 1965 and 1974, which were not abolished.
It seeks to bring about an official change in government terminology to bring it in line with its interpretation of the Local Government Act 1888—the original piece of legislation which created the county councils in England and Wales, though there have since been several further changes. The Act specifically called the areas it created "administrative counties" (although it also amended what it called the "counties"), and the ABC wishes to see this terminology consistently used to describe them. Also it wishes to see the term "county" stripped from the unitary authorities that use it, a measure which it claims will remove what it sees as confusion resulted from the status of various entities termed counties since 1888. In particular, ABC uses scare quotes around the word "county" when not referring to the counties as defined by them.
Other policies include:compelling the Ordnance Survey to mark the historic county borders on their maps
lobbying for the erection of boundary signs at these boundaries
making the ceremonial counties match the boundaries of the historic counties they promote
that the English regions should be redefined in order to ensure that the counties as they describe them should "be brought wholly within one region or another"
The ABC was founded in 1989, holding its inaugural conference on 1 April in historic Monmouthshire. This was at the beginning of a period of review of local government areas: in March 1989 the Secretary of State for the Environment, Nicholas Ridley had ordered an urgent review of the future of Humberside. Later in April the MP Nicholas Bennett unsuccessfully introduced a bill into the Commons to introduce a system of unitary authorities in Wales based on historic counties. Following the establishment of the Local Government Commission for England in 1992, the ABC became active in the review process, advocating the restoration of historic county boundaries. The LGCE's review resulted in the restoration of Herefordshire and Rutland to local government and ceremonial status, and the abolition of the unpopular counties of Avon, Cleveland and Humberside. Attempts to resurrect Cumberland and Westmorland failed to gain the support of either the LGCE or the public. The creation of a Huntingdonshire unitary authority was also eventually rejected in spite of strong support locally.
In 2007 it was announced that a number of unitary authorities would be formed in 2009. Among the councils that were to gain unitary status were the county councils of Durham, Northumberland, Shropshire and Wiltshire, which were to absorb all of the district councils in each county. The ABC launched a campaign in November 2007 for the new unitary councils to be renamed to reflect what they asserted to be "real counties":They suggested that the new authority for County Durham should be named either "Central Durham and Teesdale" or "Mid Durham and Teesdale". The leader of Durham County Council rejected this suggestion, noting that residents of the area were proud of their county name, and that the "only redeeming feature is that it would give us one of the longest council names in the country". "Given our proud heritage and all that our area has to offer, I would hope that our county would be known for much more than that." Another member of the council suggested that if these "unelected people...want to change the name, then they should pay for it", a cost he estimated at £4 million.
The group suggested naming the new authority for Northumberland "Northumberland Heartlands Council", "North and West Northumberland Council", "Rural Northumberland Council" or "Northumberland Moors and Coast Council". However, when the people of the county were asked to choose whether they wanted the name of the council to remain as 'Northumberland County Council' or to change to 'Northumberland Council' the outcome was to retain the old county council name.
Suggested renamings of Shropshire Council were "Shropshire Heartlands Council", "Heart of Shropshire Council" and "Shrewsbury and Rural Shropshire Council".
ABC suggest naming the new authority for Wiltshire "Heart of Wiltshire Council", "Wiltshire Heartlands Council", "Wiltshire Plains and Downs Council" or "Salisbury and Rural Wiltshire Council". However, the name "Wiltshire Council" had already been chosen in September 2007.
Successes for the "traditional counties movement" include:Successfully lobbying the Royal Mail to have historic, in addition to administrative and former postal, counties included in the Postcode Address File's Alias record, which is used to "find the correct postal addresses from ‘postally-not-required’ data".
The erection of signs marking the historic boundary between Lancashire and the West Riding of Yorkshire on the A59.
The erection of signs by Trafford Metropolitan Borough Council marking the historic boundary between Cheshire and Lancashire.
The erection of signs by Oldham Metropolitan Borough Council and Saddleworth Parish Council marking the historic boundary between Yorkshire and Lancashire.
None of the three main political parties has a direct commitment to support the group or adopt the ABC's cause.
UKIP has said it would "dismantle regional government and return powers to traditional county and borough councils" in its local-issues manifesto.
The English Democrats statement of principles states "We favour recognition for traditional counties, which would include the reunification of Yorkshire".
Some MPs overtly support recognition of the historic counties - notably the former Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, the Rt Hon Eric Pickles MP, who was quoted on the departmental website as saying: "The historic English counties are one of the oldest forms of local government in Western Europe. Their roots run deep. And no amount of administrative reshuffling can delete these longstanding and cherished local identities."
A Private Members Bill, the Historic Counties (Traffic Signs and Mapping) Bill, was twice introduced into the 2001–05 Parliament, first by John Randall (Conservative, Uxbridge) in 2003, and again in 2004 by Adrian Flook (Conservative, Taunton), who "[paid] tribute to the Association of British Counties for trailblazing the campaign". The Bill did not proceed to second reading in either year.
Another Private Members Bill, the Historic Counties, Towns and Villages (Traffic Signs and Mapping) Bill, was introduced to Parliament on 31 January 2007 by Andrew Rosindell (Conservative, Romford) under the Ten Minute Rule. It was ordered to be brought in by a group of 12 MPs. Mr Rosindell "[thanks] the Association of British Counties, a society dedicated to promoting awareness of the 86 historic counties of Great Britain, which has campaigned tirelessly for their recognition through proper signage denoting historic county boundaries". The Bill did not proceed beyond second reading but was supported by the Conservative opposition. It was opposed by the government.
John Butcher, Conservative MP for Coventry South West until 1997, was an active member of the group, campaigning in Parliament during the 1990s UK local government reform. In 1991, he suggested to the Secretary of State for Wales the use of the traditional county names Radnorshire, Montgomeryshire and Monmouthshire for unitary authorities in Wales In a 1996 debate, declaring he was honorary president of the ABC, he noted his approval of the abolition of the postal counties, meaning that "people who live in places like "Birmingham, Walsall and Coventry can now use in their addresses the ancient pre-1974 counties".
The following statements have been made regarding the status of the historic counties (though they are not Government policy statements):
Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, the Rt Hon Eric Pickles MP, who was quoted on the departmental website as saying:
Quoted in The Times of 1 April 1974:
Paul Beresford, then Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Environment, on 4 December 1995.
When the ABC first emerged it was stated to have been "formed by about 30 county groups". Among those listed at the time were the Friends of Real Lancashire, the Voice of Rutland, the Back to Somerset Campaign and the County of Middlesex Trust. Of these only the first now appears to be active.
According to their websites, the following groups are affiliated as of September 2012:The Caernarfonshire Association
Friends of Real Lancashire
The Huntingdonshire Society
The Monmouthshire Association
The Oxfordshire Association
The Sussex Association
The Warwickshire Association
The Westmorland Association
Yorkshire Ridings Society and their local group the Saddleworth White Rose Society
The Middlesex Federation has similar aims for Middlesex but is not affiliated to the Association of British Counties.
The direct action group CountyWatch shares some of the aims of the ABC, but is not affiliated to the Association.The Counties - quarterly to members
The Gazetteer of British Place Names
Be Properly Addressed: A Traditional County Postal Directory
Numerous consultation responses