There’s one English county whose county town is in a different county

Kingston Bridge. Image: KTO288/Wikimedia Commons.

It’s not unusual, when you have an area with two big towns that dominate it, to stick the capital in a more neutral place. Australia has Canberra because of Melbourne and Sydney’s rivalry; Brazil has Brasilia because Rio de Janeiro and Sao Paulo are in much the same boat.

This is less common in the UK. London, Cardiff and Belfast are by far the biggest towns of their constituent countries, and Edinburgh gets to be the capital despite being rather smaller than Glasgow because the ‘thousands of years of history’ card is a strong one.

What is very unusual anywhere – outside of actual colonies – is to have your capital in a completely different place from the territory it governs. Even the people of West Germany recognised this, with West Berlin being an odd semi-occupied zone rather than the capital of their country. This was instead in Bonn, a lovely but boring country town that you should absolutely visit, and which filled the kind of role as capital that John Major did as Prime Minister.

And yet, if you’re a Londoner, you’re within an Oyster ride of precisely this arrangement. And you don’t even have to leave the city’s boundaries.

The county of Surrey, as it’s defined these days, is a pipe-shaped lump of land that roughly tracks the south-western quadrant of the M25, stretching from the M3 to the M23, and running until you run out of suburbia and hit real countryside. Or, if you prefer public transport, South Western Railway’s outer-suburban trains. It’s slightly further out of London than Reginald Perrin or The Good Life, but closer in than Butterflies or the Vicar of Dibley.

But it used to be grand. Almost all of what is now South London was in the mediaeval county of Surrey. The Canterbury Tales were written there, Shakespeare’s plays were debuted there; the things that the guilds who controlled the City of London didn’t like took place there. And the county town of Surrey was in what is now Walworth, one of the bits of inner south London that the Tube map still doesn’t quite feature, but within half an hour’s walk of Bank.

By the 1880s, it was clear that London had spread beyond the borders that ancient English rules had laid down, and so the London County Council was created, encompassing pretty much everywhere we’d now think of as Inner London. This very much included Walworth.

Surrey lost some of its most shady and interesting inner London parts (not, necessarily, to the shame of the people involved in the rest of it) and quite sensibly built a new County Hall in a town that was part of Surrey.


Kingston-upon-Thames, when County Hall was constructed in 1893, was a river resort and retreat, and the kind of town that the wealthiest of railway commuters might be willing to head to London from, whilst living a relatively disease-free rustic life. As such, it symbolised Surrey’s aspirations perfectly.

But then more development happened.

The county of Greater London was created in 1965, reflecting the suburbanisation that the mainstreaming of railways and the Underground had brought to the city, turning former commuter-belt towns into outright suburbs and villages into new towns. In the interim, Kingston had been linked into London with further rail and road-building. So, to nobody’s great surprise, Kingston-upon-Thames became part of Greater London in the 1965 review.

If you were sensible, you might think that Surrey would run another 1893 attempt, and shift its County Hall to somewhere that was, well, in it. But you’d be wrong.

Surrey has ancient rivalries, of the sort that normally only manifest themselves in football teams. Its two most prominent settlements are Guildford and Woking. The former is ancient and fancy; the latter is wealthy and diverse and more directly integrated into London. They hate each other at least as much as Melbourne and Sydney. Meanwhile, the people in the country towns that make up the south of the county hate Guildford and Woking.

For the last 60 years, politicians have been making half-arsed attempts to solve this problem. In 2003, the council managed to agree on an attempt to build a new County Hall in Woking, but the money ran out. As of 2017, MPs for small towns still try to play on regional patriotism to sort out enormous absurd pork barrels, and get shot right down again.

And the strangest thing is, nobody particularly cares. It’s become completely normal for the people of Surrey over the last 50 years to accept the fact that their capital is in a different place from their actual county, to the point where they aren’t even interested.

I can’t help but think of another question here: if habituation is that easy, how on earth did we fail to make the case for the EU?

 
 
 
 

Tackling toxic air in our cities is also a matter of social justice

Oh, lovely. Image: Getty.

Clean Air Zones are often dismissed by critics as socially unfair. The thinking goes that charging older and more polluting private cars will disproportionately impact lower income households who cannot afford expensive cleaner alternatives such as electric vehicles.

But this argument doesn’t consider who is most affected by polluted air. When comparing the latest deprivation data to nitrogen dioxide background concentration data, the relationship is clear: the most polluted areas are also disproportionately poorer.

In UK cities, 16 per cent of people living in the most polluted areas also live in one of the top 10 per cent most deprived neighbourhoods, against 2 per cent who live in the least deprived areas.

The graph below shows the average background concentration of NO2 compared against neighbourhoods ranked by deprivation. For all English cities in aggregate, pollution levels rise as neighbourhoods become more deprived (although interestingly this pattern doesn’t hold for more rural areas).

Average NO2 concentration and deprivation levels. Source: IMD, MHCLG (2019); background mapping for local authorities, Defra (2019).

The graph also shows the cities in which the gap in pollution concentration between the most and the least deprived areas is the highest, which includes some of the UK’s largest urban areas.  In Sheffield, Leeds and Birmingham, there is a respective 46, 42 and 33 per cent difference in NO2 concentration between the poorest and the wealthiest areas – almost double the national urban average gap, at around 26 per cent.

One possible explanation for these inequalities in exposure to toxic air is that low-income people are more likely to live near busy roads. Our data on roadside pollution suggests that, in London, 50 per cent of roads located in the most deprived areas are above legal limits, against 4 per cent in the least deprived. In a number of large cities (Birmingham, Manchester, Sheffield), none of the roads located in the least deprived areas are estimated to be breaching legal limits.

This has a knock-on impact on health. Poor quality air is known to cause health issues such as cardiovascular disease, lung cancer and asthma. Given the particularly poor quality of air in deprived areas, this is likely to contribute to the gap in health and life expectancy inequalities as well as economic ones between neighbourhoods.


The financial impact of policies such as clean air zones on poorer people is a valid concern. But it is not a justifiable reason for inaction. Mitigating policies such as scrappage schemes, which have been put in place in London, can deal with the former concern while still targeting an issue that disproportionately affects the poor.

As the Centre for Cities’ Cities Outlook report showed, people are dying across the country as a result of the air that they breathe. Clean air zones are one of a number of policies that cities can use to help reduce this, with benefits for their poorer residents in particular.

Valentine Quinio is a researcher at the Centre for Cities, on whose blog this post first appeared.