Administrative geography of the United Kingdom

The administrative geography of the United Kingdom is complex, multi-layered and non-uniform. The United Kingdom, a sovereign state to the northwest of continental Europe, consists of England, Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales. For local government in the United Kingdom, England, Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales each have their own system of administrative and geographic demarcation. Consequently, there is "no common stratum of administrative unit encompassing the United Kingdom".[1]

Because there is no written document that comprehensively encompasses the British constitution, and owing to a convoluted history of the formation of the United Kingdom, a variety of terms is used to refer to its constituent parts, which are sometimes called the four countries of the United Kingdom.[2] The four are sometimes collectively referred to as the Home Nations, particularly in sporting contexts. Although the four countries are important for legal and governmental purposes, they are not comparable to administrative subdivisions of most other countries.

Historically, the subnational divisions of the UK have been the county[3] and the ecclesiastical parish, whilst following the emergence of a unified parliament of the United Kingdom, the ward and constituency have been pan-UK political subdivisions. More contemporary divisions include Lieutenancy areas and the statistical territories defined with the modern NUTS:UK and ISO 3166-2:GB systems.

Map of the administrative geography of the United Kingdom
Administrative units of the United Kingdom
Lord Lieutenancies - home nations coloured
This map shows Lieutenancy areas, the separate areas of the United Kingdom appointed a Lord Lieutenant.


This structure was formed by the union agreed between the former sovereign states, the Kingdom of England (which included the conquered Principality of Wales) and the Kingdom of Scotland in the Treaty of Union and enacted by the Acts of Union 1707 to form the single Kingdom of Great Britain (1707–1800); followed by the Act of Union 1800, which combined Great Britain with the Kingdom of Ireland to form the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland. The independence of the Irish Free State in 1922, following the partition of Ireland, resulted in the present-day United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland.

Wales was incorporated into the English legal system through the Laws in Wales Acts 1535-1542, the earlier Statute of Rhuddlan having restricted but not abolished Welsh Law following the Edwardian conquest in 1282. As a result, England and Wales are treated as a single entity for some purposes, principally that they share a legal system (see English law), while Scotland and Northern Ireland each have a separate legal system (see Scots Law and Northern Ireland law).

Northern Ireland was the first part of the British Isles to have a devolved government, under the Government of Ireland Act 1920, and that continued until the Parliament of Northern Ireland was suspended in 1972. After a period of direct rule by the Westminster government and some abortive attempts at reinstating devolved government during the Troubles, the present-day Northern Ireland Assembly was established in 1998, and is currently in operation following a number of periods of suspension. The complex history of Northern Ireland has led to differing views as to its status. The term "Province" is often used by unionist and British commentators to refer to Northern Ireland, but not by nationalists.

Overview of administration

United Kingdom[L]
Legal jurisdiction England and Wales (English law) Northern Ireland law Scots law
Country England Wales[L] Northern Ireland[L] Scotland[L]
Region Greater London[C] Statistical regions[R]
County City of London[C] N/A Metropolitan counties Non-metropolitan counties (two tier)[C] Non-metropolitan counties (unitary authorities)[C][U] Isles of Scilly[C][S] Unitary authorities[C] Districts[C] Unitary authorities[C]
District London boroughs[C] Metropolitan districts[B][C] Non-metropolitan districts[B][C]
Parish Wards Civil parishes[C][T] Civil parishes Communities[M] Civil parishes Communities

The markers above link to relevant articles where available.

[B] Can have city, borough or royal borough status.
[C] Has a council.
[L] Has a legislature.
[M] May have a council.
[R] Used only for statistical and limited administrative purposes.
[S] Sui generis unitary authority. Not a county nor part of Cornwall. Powers similar to a mainland county.
[T] Can have city, town, village or neighbourhood status. Not all areas of England have parishes.
[U] Counties comprising one district. The council is at either county or district level.

Local government


England has no devolved national legislature or government.

The highest level subdivisions of England are the nine regions. The London region, known as Greater London, is further divided into the City of London and 32 London boroughs. This is administered by the Greater London Authority, including the directly elected London Assembly. The other regions are made up of metropolitan and non-metropolitan counties and unitary authorities. The counties are further divided into districts (which can be called cities, boroughs, royal boroughs, metropolitan boroughs or districts). The unitary authorities effectively combine the functions of counties and districts.

Below the district level, civil parishes exist, though not uniformly. Parish or town councils exist for villages and small towns; they only rarely exist for communities within urban areas.

Commonly, though not administratively, England's geography is divided into ceremonial counties, which in most areas closely mirror the traditional counties. Each ceremonial county has a Lord Lieutenant, who is the monarch's representative.

Northern Ireland

Northern Ireland has the Northern Ireland Assembly and Northern Ireland Executive established under the Good Friday Agreement. During periods where the devolved institutions were suspended, executive government in Northern Ireland was administered directly by the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland and laws made in the United Kingdom Parliament - known as "direct rule" in contrast to devolution.

For local government, Northern Ireland is divided into 11 districts, which are unitary authorities.

Northern Ireland is divided into six traditional counties. Though widely used, these no longer serve any administrative purpose.


Scotland has a devolved legislature, the Scottish Parliament, with a government, known as the Scottish Government since 1999.

Below the national level, Scotland has 32 council areas (unitary authorities). Below this uniform level of subdivision, there are varying levels of area committees in the larger rural council areas, and many small community councils throughout the country, although these are not universal. Scottish community councils have few if any powers beyond being a forum for raising issues of concern.


Wales has an elected, devolved legislature, the National Assembly for Wales, from which the Welsh Government is drawn. Below the national level, Wales consists of 22 unitary authorities: 10 county boroughs, 9 Counties, and 3 Cities. Below these are community councils, which have powers similar to those of English parish councils.

Wales is also divided into preserved counties, which are used for ceremonial purposes. Although based on the counties used for local government between 1974 and 1996, they no longer have an administrative function

Democratic representation


In terms of the Parliament of the United Kingdom, each of the electoral areas or divisions called constituencies elects one Member of Parliament to represent it at the House of Commons of the United Kingdom. Constituencies also exist for the devolved Scottish Parliament, Welsh National Assembly and Northern Irish Assembly.

Local government

The wards and electoral divisions of the United Kingdom are electoral districts at subnational level represented by one or more councillors at local authority level, or else used to divide the electorate into electoral districts for voting. It is the primary unit of British electoral geography.

Informal divisions

There are also many informal, historical and special purpose regional designations. Some such as the Highlands of Scotland have or have had, to some extent, formal boundaries. Others such as the London commuter belt are more diffuse. Some such as Snowdonia (Eryri) have a formal boundary in some contexts; in this case as a National Park. Others such as The Fens of eastern England are quite distinctly defined by geography but do not form any official entity.

International subdivisions

Both Eurostat and the International Organization for Standardization have developed subdivision codes for the UK. See NUTS:UK and ISO 3166-2:GB.

Dependent territories

The United Kingdom has 14 British overseas territories scattered around the world. Unlike some former colonial powers, the British Government does not classify its overseas possessions (or the crown dependencies, which share historical ties with the British Crown) as subdivisions of the United Kingdom itself; rather, each is treated in law as a separate jurisdiction. Most have their own legislatures and a degree of autonomy usually exceeding that of the devolved UK nations, including fiscal independence.

However, the UK retains varying degrees of responsibility in all of the territories, currently ranging from full political control to a largely ceremonial presence. The main reserved matters are the areas of diplomacy, international treaties, defence and security. The UK also retains in all territories a residual responsibility for 'good governance', a loosely defined constitutional concept recently exemplified by its imposition of direct rule following alleged serious corruption in the Turks and Caicos Islands. The UK parliament at Westminster, and the British Government through the Privy Council, both retain the power to legislate for the overseas territories - though by convention will usually only do so with each local government's consent.

The three crown dependencies within the British Isles are self-governing[4] possessions of the British Crown. They are distinct from the British overseas territories of the United Kingdom.[5]

See also


  1. ^ United Nations Economic and Social Council (August 2007). "Ninth United Nations Conference on the standardization of Geographical Names" (PDF). Archived from the original (PDF) on 30 October 2008. Retrieved 2008-10-21.
  2. ^ Scottish Parliament. "Your Scotland questions; Is Scotland a country?". Archived from the original on 21 June 2008. Retrieved 2008-08-01. As the UK has no written constitution in the usual sense, constitutional terminology is fraught with difficulties of interpretation and it is common usage nowadays to describe the four constituent parts of the UK (Scotland, England, Wales and Northern Ireland) as “countries”.
  3. ^ Bryne, T., Local Government in Britain, (1994)
  4. ^ "Archived copy" (PDF). Archived (PDF) from the original on 2015-10-22. Retrieved 2015-03-09.CS1 maint: Archived copy as title (link) Background briefing on the Crown dependencies: Jersey, Guernsey and the Isle of Man
  5. ^ Commons, The Committee Office, House of. "House of Commons - Crown Dependencies - Justice Committee". Archived from the original on 23 June 2012. Retrieved 3 May 2018.

External links

History of England

England became inhabited more than 800,000 years ago, as the discovery of stone tools and footprints at Happisburgh in Norfolk has revealed. The earliest evidence for early modern humans in North West Europe, a jawbone discovered in Devon at Kents Cavern in 1927, was re-dated in 2011 to between 41,000 and 44,000 years old. Continuous human habitation in England dates to around 13,000 years ago (see Creswellian), at the end of the last glacial period. The region has numerous remains from the Mesolithic, Neolithic, and Bronze Age, such as Stonehenge and Avebury. In the Iron Age, England, like all of Britain south of the Firth of Forth, was inhabited by the Celtic people known as the Britons, including some Belgic tribes (e.g. the Atrebates, the Catuvellauni, the Trinovantes, etc.) in the south east. In AD 43 the Roman conquest of Britain began; the Romans maintained control of their province of Britannia until the early 5th century.

The end of Roman rule in Britain facilitated the Anglo-Saxon settlement of Britain, which historians often regard as the origin of England and of the English people. The Anglo-Saxons, a collection of various Germanic peoples, established several kingdoms that became the primary powers in present-day England and parts of southern Scotland. They introduced the Old English language, which largely displaced the previous British language. The Anglo-Saxons warred with British successor states in Wales, Cornwall, and the Hen Ogledd (Old North; the Brythonic-speaking parts of northern England and southern Scotland), as well as with each other. Raids by Vikings became frequent after about AD 800, and the Norsemen settled in large parts of what is now England. During this period, several rulers attempted to unite the various Anglo-Saxon kingdoms, an effort that led to the emergence of the Kingdom of England by the 10th century.

In 1066, a Norman expedition invaded and conquered England. The Norman dynasty established by William the Conqueror ruled England for over half a century before the period of succession crisis known as the Anarchy (1135–1154). Following the Anarchy, England came under the rule of the House of Plantagenet, a dynasty which later inherited claims to the Kingdom of France. During this period, the Magna Carta was signed. A succession crisis in France led to the Hundred Years' War (1337–1453), a series of conflicts involving the peoples of both nations. Following the Hundred Years' Wars, England became embroiled in its own succession wars. The Wars of the Roses pitted two branches of the House of Plantagenet against one another, the House of York and the House of Lancaster. The Lancastrian Henry Tudor ended the War of the Roses and established the Tudor dynasty in 1485.

Under the Tudors and the later Stuart dynasty, England became a colonial power. During the rule of the Stuarts, the English Civil War took place between the Parliamentarians and the Royalists, which resulted in the execution of King Charles I (1649) and the establishment of a series of republican governments — first, a Parliamentary republic known as the Commonwealth of England (1649–1653), then a military dictatorship under Oliver Cromwell known as The Protectorate (1653–1659). The Stuarts returned to the restored throne in 1660, though continued questions over religion and power resulted in the deposition of another Stuart king, James II, in the Glorious Revolution (1688). England, which had conquered Wales in the 13th century, united with Scotland in 1707 to form a new sovereign state called Great Britain. Following the Industrial Revolution, Great Britain ruled a colonial Empire, the largest in recorded history. Following a process of decolonisation in the 20th century, mainly caused by the weakening of Great Britain's power in the two World Wars, almost all of the empire's overseas territories became independent countries. However, as of 2018, its cultural impact remains widespread and deep in many of them.

Index of United Kingdom-related articles

The following is an alphabetical list of articles related to the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland.

List of communities in Wales

This is a list of communities in Wales sorted by principal area. The 'community' is the lowest tier of local government in Wales, and is usually represented by a community council. A Welsh community is broadly equivalent to an English civil parish. In total, Wales is divided into 878 communities, of which about 768 (87%) are represented by community councils.

Local government in the United Kingdom

Local government in the United Kingdom has origins that pre-date the United Kingdom itself, as each of the four countries of the United Kingdom has its own separate system. For an overview, see Administrative geography of the United Kingdom. For details, see:

Local government in England

Local government in Northern Ireland

Local government in Scotland

Local government in WalesFor the history of local government in each country, see:

History of local government in England

History of local government in Northern Ireland

History of local government in Scotland

History of local government in WalesFor local government entities in each country, see

Category:Local authorities of England

Category:Local authorities of Northern Ireland

Category:Local authorities of Scotland

Category:Local authorities of Wales

Terminology of the British Isles

The terminology of the British Isles refers to the various words and phrases that are used to describe the different (and sometimes overlapping) geographical and political areas of the islands of Great Britain, Ireland, and the smaller islands which surround them. The terminology is often a source of confusion, partly owing to the similarity between some of the actual words used, but also because they are often used loosely. In addition, many of the words carry both geographical and political connotations which are affected by the history of the islands.

The purpose of this article is to explain the meanings of and relationships among the terms in use; however many of these classifications are contentious and are the subject of disagreement (See the British Isles naming dispute).

United Kingdom articles
Administrative geography of the United Kingdom
United Kingdom local government
England local government
Northern Ireland local government
Scotland local government
Wales local government
Subdivisions of Europe
Sovereign states
States with limited
Dependencies and
other entities
First-level administrative divisions in European countries
Sovereign states

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