Humberside - the county no one loved

BRIDGE TO THE PAST: The River Humber was long seen as a natural boundary.
BRIDGE TO THE PAST: The River Humber was long seen as a natural boundary.
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It’s more than 20 years since Humberside was abolished and yet the name has stubbornly refused to fade away, as John Grainger reports.

This month saw the 22nd anniversary of the abolition of Humberside. The date passed all but unnoticed, but its significance lay in the fact that Humberside only officially existed for exactly 22 years – which means that it has now been history for slightly longer than it was fact.

Yet if the anniversary was forgotten, the name is very much still alive. The local airport and BBC radio station still bear its name, as do the police and fire services, the Scouts and myriad private businesses, such as Humberside Instruments, Humberside Machinery and Humberside Doors.

The refusal of Humberside to go quietly into the night would be quite understandable if it had held a special place in the hearts of the people who live there, but poll after study after survey have found that it always struggled to be loved.

A new Ipsos MORI survey for the British Counties Campaign (BCC) found that 84 per cent of adults who remember its introduction in 1974 were opposed to it.

“Humberside was detested,” says the BCC’s Andrew Donaldson. “People in the East Riding were quite vehement about it. People in Yorkshire tend to feel even more strongly about this subject than they do elsewhere.”

Humberside was one of the products of the Local Government Act 1972, after it had been broadly agreed that the UK’s economic landscape had changed and that its administrative areas needed to reflect the new reality.

A Royal Commission finally recommended a one-tier structure for local government, which the Labour Party accepted. The Conservatives, however, won the election on a two-tier platform, and the bill that was eventually passed provided for a patchwork of one and two-tier areas.

To traditionalists’ horror, ancient counties were sliced and diced with abandon. Some were renamed, and others ‘disappeared’ altogether. Still others were created from scratch. Out went Westmorland, Rutland and Yorkshire’s three Ridings, and in came Merseyside, Avon, Cumbria, Greater Manchester, Humberside and Cleveland.

For Pam Moorhouse, the pain is still raw. The 72-year-old from Grimsby is a founder member of the BCC and is campaigning with vigour for the abolition of North and North East Lincolnshire and the reunion of these areas with the rest of Lincolnshire. “They are deliberately wiping out our history. These counties have been around for a thousand years, this is about where people live – it is our history and it’s important,” she says.

“Millions of people across the country are still very upset about the changes, and rightly so, because they were robbed. If this carries on, then we will lose the history altogether.”

A full return to the historic counties appears unlikely – entities such as Greater Manchester may well be too established and successful to get rid of – but most campaigners are simply demanding a recognition of the historic boundaries and nomenclature alongside the modern-day administrative divisions.

They have already made some headway. The East Riding reappeared when Humberside was abolished in 1996, and in 2013, the Royal Mail advised commercial customers that areas such as Humberside “ceased to exist several years ago and are therefore no longer relevant for use when you are addressing your mail”.

Royal Mail finally removed Humberside from its address lists in 2014, after a campaign by Graham Stuart, MP for Beverley and Holderness, who distributed stickers saying: “I don’t live in Humberside! It’s East Yorkshire! Return to sender”.

That same year, the then communities secretary, Eric Pickles, marked St George’s Day on April 23 by officially asserting that England’s historic and traditional counties – including Yorkshire and its three Ridings – still existed, and were now recognised by the government.

So if the tide of county history has turned, why do some of the locality’s most important institutions retain the dreaded H-word in their names? In the case of the police and fire services, there may be some operational reasons, but it comes down largely to government inertia.

Humberside Police and Humberside Fire Service (now Humberside Fire and Rescue) were created as a direct result of the Local Government Act 1972, which stated that all the new administrative areas should have their own services.

Reversing the process would cost money, so when Humberside was abolished, the status quo was maintained, rather than splitting these emergency services between their original counties.

The case of BBC Radio Humberside is arguably founded far more in practicality. The station was created in 1971 – three years before Humberside came into being – and took the name because it served an audience on both sides of the estuary.

Radio waves are no respecters of river boundaries. In fact, Radio Humberside transmits as far south as Kings Lynn in Norfolk, making a nonsense of the notion that it should be renamed solely after a part of Yorkshire.

“We’ve been broadcasting for more than 47 years and the station is an established and recognised brand,” says Martyn Weston, managing editor at BBC Radio Humberside. As for Humberside Airport, there are compelling economic reasons why it has decided to retain its name, which also dates from 1974.

At a time when the area is aiming to raise its profile abroad as a hub for wind and wave energy production, the airport, which is in North Lincolnshire, sees the Humberside brand as important to its international image.

“Knowledge of the Humber has grown substantially over the last few years, with significant growth and development taking place, especially along the ‘Energy’ estuary area,” says Deborah Zost, the airport’s managing director.

“Humberside Airport has benefited from the interest in the region, with many international companies using the airport as a known gateway to the Lincolnshire and Yorkshire area.

“With so much focus on gas exploration and the renewable energy sector, we need to ensure that our airport continues to be associated with the Humber as it is regarded extremely positively to the wider UK audience and internationally.”

Does all this matter? Clearly it 
does to Ms Moorhouse and allies such as MP Graham Stuart, but BCC’s poll suggests that interest is rather 
stronger among older people than it is among those who grew up with Humberside.

Which means that – like the ancient Celtic kingdom of Elmet, which lives on in two West Yorkshire place-names and a parliamentary constituency 1,400 years after its demise – Humberside may cease to be, but it might yet refuse to die completely.

Humberside was created by the Local Government Act 1972 - itself the result of a long, drawn-out process of research, consultation and government enquiries that had started in the 1950s.

It was composed of land on both sides of the Humber estuary, from parts of the East and West Ridings of Yorkshire, plus the northern fringe of Lincolnshire.

Rather than regarding the River Humber as a boundary, as it had 
been for millennia (the ancient kingdom of Northumbria was so named because it lay north of the Humber), it took the estuary to be its ‘backbone’ – an approach which was encouraged by the construction of the Humber suspension bridge, which started in 1972.