Administrative Geography

What is administrative geography?

Administrative geography is concerned with the hierarchy of areas relating to national and local government in the UK, and this multi-layered hierarchy is complicated by the differing structure in each constituent country of the UK. In addition, the boundaries of many of the layers in the hierarchy are subject to either periodic or occasional change.

Office for National Statistics: 
A Beginner's Guide to UK Geography (p6)

Administrative geography is a way of dividing the country into smaller sub-divisions or areas that correspond with the area of responsibility of local authorities and government bodies. These administrative sub-divisions and their associated geography have several important uses, including:

  • Judicial: defining jurisdiction of county courts, magistrates courts and assizes
  • Electoral: splitting the areas up into constituencies for local, national and international government
  • Administrative: mapping boundaries of local councils and administrative bodies
  • Demographic: national census data is recorded by individuals. Census reporting is at the Output Area level (circa 120 households)
  • Public health: helps in the planning of service provision in healthcare

Administrative areas ensure that each public body has a clearly defined area of responsibility, which can be measured and budgeted for appropriately. Three separate offices oversee the control of the geographies and publication of data that use them:

Administrative geography vs postcode geography

In a similar way to postcode areas, administrative geography has evolved organically, just over a much longer period. As such, a lot of the borders seem almost arbitrary as they have been defined over hundreds of years according to priorities at the time. Additionally, there are multiple layers to the geography to accommodate local, regional, and national areas of responsibility, and each sub-division has been built up in different ways for different purposes, during different periods.

To make the system workable, borders are often reviewed, either as a rationalising measure or to take account of population, social, or governmental changes. This brings its own uncertainty as areas change and make old maps obsolete.

Any resemblance to postcode geography is fleeting. Postcodes are a much more recent development and were developed for a single reason - to administer postal deliveries (see our postcode blog for more on this). Although some boundaries and areas may have similarities, administrative boundaries rarely - if ever - align with other postcode boundaries. With the private sector tending to use postcode geography as a - slightly more logical - benchmark, and the public sector looking more to the private sector for solutions, having two entirely different frames of reference can prove difficult.

A map showing how administrative boundaries differ from postcode boundaries.

Working with administrative geography

Converting data between the postcode and administrative geography is the main challenge to working in this area.

  • Data collection and business intelligence:
    For example, census data is central to most demographic profiling and is collected in administrative areas. However, to complement census data, commercial and transactional data, such as credit scores and purchase trends, is often added to the mix and this is collected in postcode areas. The biggest audience for demographic profiling is the private sector so it is often created with postcode geography in mind, which presents a challenge when a public sector body wishes to use it. For example one of our local authority clients uses our P2 People & Places geodemographic data to efficiently target service provision. One reason they came to us is that our product is available in both postcode and administrative areas and offers maximum discrimination of data for less affluent groups.

  • Targeting and service provision:
    Private companies pitching for public sector contracts can also struggle to tailor their services to fit administrative geography. For example, a lot of our customers come to us to work out which customer postcodes fall into a particular administrative area. You will also need a geographic information system that is able to work with both postcode and administrative geography, such as our own Prospex GIS.

  • Ongoing comparisons:
    Both the postcode system and administrative boundaries are regularly changing, so whichever mapping solution you use will also need to be regularly updated to ensure that both datasets remain up to date and provide accurate comparisons. Talk to us to see how we can help you with this.

A brief history of administrative geography

The shire or county is an administrative unit used to manage tax collection, the raising of military forces, administration and enforcement of justice, local government and parliamentary representation. The nature of shires and how they were setup has been complicated by hundreds of years of change, different legal and government systems, and several wars of conquest and rebellion.

In England

The Romans were the first to take constantly changing tribal territories and create administrative areas - usually defined by topographical and geographical features. After the Romans left, their administrative divisions fell into disuse and it was not until the 5th century that the areas that would become the English counties started to take shape.

As smaller kingdoms rose and fell, and Saxon and Danish raiders put down roots, the 7 kingdoms of England of the 7th century became a single English kingdom in 927 AD. The resulting kingdom was subdivided into a number of shires by the middle of the 11th century. The feudal system, introduced by the Normans, changed local government, taxation and justice. The shires (administered by a Sheriff) became counties (areas under the control of a count).

Counties were subdivided to ease administration burdens, for example Yorkshire has the North, East, and West Ridings. These larger areas were further split into smaller elements known as Hundreds in most counties, Wapontakes here in Yorkshire, Lincolnshire and Nottinghamshire, and Wards in Durham, Northumberland, Cumberland and Westmorland. A Hundred (or its equivalent) was divided into tithings and parishes. Which were in turn divided into townships and manors.

In Scotland

The first Scottish shires were created in the 11th century as previous forms of government were replaced with Norman feudal structures and the process was complete by the middle of the 12th century. By the middle of the 17th century, the remaining shires were formed by territorial expansion or subdivision of existing shires, and they started to be used for local administration and judicial purposes. The 1707 Act of Union started a process of bringing Scottish local governance into line with the rest of Great Britain. By the end of the 18th century the Scottish county system matched that of England, Wales, and Ireland.

To further complicate things in Scotland, the burgh, an autonomous municipal corporation, was used for local administration. A burgh was typically a settlement with a castle and a marketplace. By 1516 there were over a hundred burghs used for administration as well as local and international trade and commerce. Burghs had rights of representation in the Parliament of Scotland and after the Act of Union many became Parliamentary burghs represented in the Parliament of Great Britain. Burghs sat alongside, but were not part of, the county system.

In Wales

The Normans began the move towards rational administrative areas with the creation of marcher lordships, such as Glamorgan, which served as semi-autonomous administrative divisions. However, counties in the strict sense first appeared in Wales in the 13th century and were only completed under the Act of Union 1536. Many of these counties were created from existing marcher lordships.


George Carrington Gray's 1824 map of the counties of England [Public domain]

George Carrington Gray's 1824 map of the counties of England.
Public domain, via Wikipedia.

Creating modern administrative geography

The end of the 19th century saw changes to establish local government through counties. Historical counties were reformed as “administrative counties” and larger towns and cities became “county boroughs”. At the start of the 20th century the systems of local government and associated geographies were very similar across the United Kingdom. However, changes continue into the 21st century with a modern trend for consolidation from the two tier county/district model into “unitary authorities” - or “super districts” in Northern Ireland.

You might also like:

Our other blogs

British Population Survey (BPS)

The British Population Survey (BPS) is a survey of household income and shopping habits collected by face-to-face interviews. We take a look at the BPS in detail, what exactly it is made from and how its data can be usefully applied by businesses and public organisations.

What is geodemographic profiling?

More than 64 million people live in the UK, each with their own outlook, priorities, needs and way of life. Geodemographic profiling offers a way to group these individuals to try and identify the right audience for your product or service.

The census helps you to understand your customers

The UK Census 2021: what it is, how is it made, and how can it be used to help your organisation with demographic analysis.

Using geographic intelligence to grow the UK’s broadband network

Using geographic intelligence to sustainably grow the UK’s broadband network.

Mapping efficient sales territories

We've worked with mapping, demographic, and travel data for a long time, and have become specialists in territory mapping. So we'd like to share a few tips on how best to define sales catchments for your team, or embark on territory review.

TimeTravel: the latest update

We look at the latest update to TimeTravel, our dataset of drive times and distances between any postcode sector or district. What has changed in the UK road and geographic network, plus new features to make it even more accurate.

How to create a postcode map

Turning a list or spreadsheet of postcode data into a series of points on a map isn't as simple as using an Excel wizard to do it for you, but it isn't rocket science. We look at the best way to create a postcode point/pin map.

Living Costs and Food Survey

The Living Costs and Food survey (LCF) is compiled every year and is used by the UK and European governments, Department for Transport (DfT), and Her Majesty’s Revenue and the Customs (HMRC). But what is it, and why should we care?

Cycle to work day

Each year for #cycletoworkday we take a look at cycling statistics across the country and try to map that data and find interesting trends. This is mainly because we at Beacon Dodsworth are either a little bit obsessed about cycling, or we tend to worry about the environment.

Mapping for local projects

Recently, we were contacted by a company responsible for organising charity door knockers. They needed more than 9,000 postcode sectors mapped at A4 size to use at a local level to plan fundraising routes and clearly define territories for each agent.

Social change over 10 years

With the next census due to take place this year, we thought it was a good time to take stock of some of the changes and trends we noticed between the 2001 and the 2011 census. What difference does 10 years make to our society and the people that live within it?

Beacon Dodsworth New Office

Now we are back in the office, we continue to support hybrid working. So, we’ve taken the opportunity to downsize our office to make us more resilient to future lockdowns, staff self-isolation, and any other uncertainty the modern world might throw our way.

Postcode to postcode drive time and distance

What happens if we want a postcode to postcode drive time lookup table?

Administrative Geography

Administrative geography is a way of dividing the country into smaller sub-divisions or areas that correspond with the area of responsibility of local authorities and government bodies. We take a look at administrative geography, what it is and how to use it.

Who spends most on Fruit and Veg

National Vegetarian Week (#NationalVegetarianWeek) this year ran from 10th to 16th May. It gave us the opportunity to highlight how GIS mapping can be used to create marketing campaigns and raise awareness of the benefits of eating more fruit and veg.

Data visualisation and colour blindness

John, our director talks about living and working with colour blindness in the mapping industry where colours are pivotal in adding dimensions to people's understanding.

How far is it to the beach

We use Beacon Dodsworth's scripting technology to answer that most important of questions when the sun finally does threaten an appearance.

All you need to know about postcodes but were afraid to ask

The humble postcode has been around for years. We look at how postcodes are used and what led to their introduction.

Yorkshire Day

As a Yorkshire-based company, we wanted to help celebrate Yorkshire Day, which takes place on 1st August. Naturally, we wanted to put a geographic spin on the celebration, so we took a look at drinking preferences within God’s own county.

The foundations of geographical analysis

Displaying data on maps makes it easier to understand as well as giving a new perspective on a problem. Using a GIS to prepare and present data has become increasingly popular over the last 20 years, but graphical displays of data on maps were around long before computers came along.

How to back up your Prospex data

Keep your GIS projects safe by using the in-built Prospex back up process. Here is how.

The power of postcode sectors

Postcode sectors are aggregations of individual postcodes and they provide meaningful geographical reporting areas in any GIS. However, they aren't as easy to map as you might think. Here is how we do it.

The new normal for the GIS world

Toby, our Account Manager, looks at the changes to working style and client needs in the geodata industry following the COVID-19 outbreak.

Where is the North

We've used the territory manager tool in Prospex GIS to split the UK into north, south and east and west with equal population counts.

What is GIS software?

A Geographical Information System (GIS), is a tool for analysing, visualising, managing and presenting data that is related to a physical, geographical location. That link to geography is the key difference between GIS and other data visualisation techniques.

Mapping GP prescription data

An article by Allan Brimicombe (Head of Centre for Geo-Information Studies at the University of East London) & Pat Mungroo on using GP prescription data to understand health needs.

Geodemographics and the University of East London

The University of East London explain how they have been using our P² People & Places geodemographic classification.

Google Fusion Tables

After almost 10 years of service, Google retired their Fusion Tables product at the end of 2019. This tool was very useful at visualising and sharing large amounts of tabular data - particularly amongst small and mid-sized businesses. So what can we do to fill the gap left by this tool?

Get in touch
Call  01904 701020, complete   or