Subdivisions of the United Kingdom

Subdivisions of the United Kingdom

The subdivisions of the United Kingdom are complex, multi-layered and non-uniform. As a result of a lack of a formal British constitution, and owing to a convoluted history of the formation of the United Kingdom, a variety of terms exist which are used to refer to them.cite web|url=||author=Scottish Parliament|accessdate=2008-08-01|title=Your Scotland questions; Is Scotland a country?|quote=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”.]

The United Kingdom, a sovereign state to the northwest of continental Europe, comprises England, Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales. These four are variously described as parts, countries, constituent countries, or nations. Wales is at times referred to as a principality, and Northern Ireland as a province. The four are sometimes collectively referred to as the Home Nations, particularly in sporting contexts.

Historically, the subnational divisions of the UK have been the county [Bryne, T., "Local Government in Britain", (1994)] 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 and systems.


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 united Kingdom of Great Britain (1707-1800); followed by the Act of Union 1800, which united 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, and the partition of Ireland, resulted in the current 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 UK to have a devolved government, under the Government of Ireland Act 1920, until the Parliament of Northern Ireland was suspended in 1972. After a period of direct rule by the UK government and some abortive attempts at reinstating devolved government during the Troubles, the modern 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 used more often by unionist and British commentators to refer to Northern Ireland, but not by nationalists.

In the UK


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. The other regions 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. They are prevented from existing within Greater London.

Commonly, though not administratively, England's geography is divided into ceremonial counties (also known as the geographic counties), which 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 26 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 2007. This is legally referred to as the Scottish Executive in the Scotland Act 1998 and by the UK Government.

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 assembly, the National Assembly for Wales, along with the Welsh Assembly Government.

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 English parish councils.


Various terms have been used to describe England, Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales. This fact is illustrated by the following two tables.

Terms used for England, Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales individually

The following table presents reliable sources for the terms most commonly-used to describe the countries of the United Kingdom. The references are listed per country, and in some instances are used more than once, when more than one country is referred to in the source. To avoid duplication, individual examples have been found wherever possible. Each term is restricted to 36 examples per use. Some of the table is still under completion.

"Countries of the United Kingdom"

The following table presents 36 reliable sources that use the term "Countries of the United Kingdom" when referring. to England, Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales taken together.

Legal terminology

Terminology in the Acts of Union

* The Laws in Wales Acts 1535–1542 annexed the legal system of Wales to EnglandLaws in Wales Act 1535, Clause I] to create the single entity commonly known today as England and Wales. Wales was described as the "Country, Principality and Dominion", "Dominion of Wales" or the "Dominion, Principality and Country" or "Dominion and Principality" of WalesLaws in Wales Act 1542] . Outside of Wales, England was not given a specific name or term.
* The Acts of Union 1707 refer to both England and Scotland as a "Part of the united Kingdom" ["e.g." "... to be raised in that Part of the united Kingdom now called "England", "...that Part of the united Kingdom now called "Scotland", shall be charged by the same Act..." Article IX]
* The Acts of Union 1800 use "Part" in the same way. They also use "Country" to describe Great Britain and Ireland respectively, when describing trade between them ["e.g." "That, from the first Day of January one thousand eight hundred and one, all Prohibitions and Bounties on the Export of Articles, the Growth, Produce, or Manufacture of either Country, to the other, shall cease and determine; and that the said Articles shall thenceforth be exported from one Country to the other, without Duty or Bounty on such Export"; Union with Ireland Act 1800, Article Sixth.]
* The Government of Ireland Act 1920 does not use any term or description to classify Northern Ireland nor indeed Great Britain.

Current Legal Terminology

The Interpretation Act 1978 provides some definitions for terms relating the countries of the United Kingdom. Use of these terms in other legislation is interpreted following the definitions in the 1978 Act. The definitions are listed below

*"England" means, subject to any alteration of boundaries under Part IV of the Local Government Act 1972, the area consisting of the counties established by section 1 of that Act, Greater London and the Isles of Scilly." This definition applies from 1 April 1974.

*"United Kingdom" means "Great Britain and Northern Ireland." This definition applies from 12 April 1927.

*"Wales" means the combined area of the 21 original counties re-formulated into 8 new counties under section 20 of the Local Government Act 1972, as originally enacted, but subject to any alteration made under section 73 of that Act (consequential alteration of boundary following alteration of watercourse).". In 1996 these 8 'districts' were redistribed into the current 26 unitary authorities.

Note that there is no definition of Scotland or Northern Ireland. Even in the Scotland Act 1998 there is no delineation of the country, with the definition in section 126 simply providing that Scotland includes "so much of the internal waters and territorial sea of the United Kingdom as are adjacent to Scotland". See also Scottish Adjacent Waters Boundaries Order 1999 and Anglo-Scottish border.

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 a subdivision and codes for the UK. See and .


See also

*Countries of the United Kingdom
*British Isles (terminology)
*British overseas territories
*Crown dependencies
*Etymological list of counties of the United Kingdom
*List of subnational entities
*Office for National Statistics coding system for counties, districts, wards and census areas

External links

* [ Browsable list of all UK local authorities' contact details and websites on the Business Link website]

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