A brief history of Local Numbers in the UK

Telecoms /

Local Numbers are second nature to us. Certainly for me it’s difficult to imagine a time when area codes weren’t presented as they are now.

Area codes were introduced back in 1958 when callers were, for the first time, able to call another telephone number directly instead of via a manual telephone exchange operator. Over the next 20 years uniform exchange codes (STD codes) were allocated to every exchange in the country until completion in 1979.

The exchange codes were originally assigned based on two letters of the respective place's name and the corresponding numbers on a telephone dial. For example, Aylesbury was given the STD code 0AY6. As time went on and number shortages increased, local numbers were gradually converted to five or six-figure numbers and the STD code changed to the (0XXX) format.

The Telephone Numbering Plan

A telephone numbering plan is a type of numbering scheme used in telecommunications to assign telephone numbers to subscriber telephone networks in the UK. This plan has been changed many times down the years, but why?

Most recently, the rapid expansion of mobile users and multiple telecoms operators meant the demand for telephone numbers exceeded the available number ranges, which prompted the need for a more sustainable solution.

  • Replacing London 01 - In May 1990, the London 01 area code was replaced with 071 and 081 to free up the 01 code range. This doubled the available numbers from 8 million to 16 million.
  • PhONEday - On the 16th April 1995 the digit "1" was inserted into all UK geographic area codes, hence the nickname “PhONEday”. For example, turning London 071 into 0171.
  • The Big Number Change - The 22nd April 2000 saw a breakthrough in increasing the available ranges within the London area. This was achieved by assigning the now freed up 02 area code. This gave London a city wide area code. Previously 0171 numbers turned into 0207 and 0181 into 0208. This increased the number by one digit expanding the available numbers further.

Recent changes introduced by Ofcom

Ofcom have needed to introduce a number of changes to expand available numbers.

  • New London ranges - From June 2005, Ofcom ceased to allocate new number blocks to suppliers in the 0207 and 0208 ranges. Those that have not yet exhausted their existing blocks are able to continue to issue and re-issue them to their customers. All future number allocations will be made from the newer 0203 range.

There can be no doubt this change benefited all those involved. However with most new developments, there is controversy. Even today, customer’s still prefer to purchase London numbers from the older 0207 and 0208 ranges as a consequence of people’s general perception of these numbers. At the same time many will have been delighted by the prospect of an additional London number range to choose from.

  • Closed Local Dialling - It’s normally been the case that when you’re dialling within the area code from a landline you don’t have to dial the area code. Using a mobile this isn’t the case, you always have to dial the area code. However, this is now expanding into several area codes where, even if you’re calling from a landline you’ll have to dial the area code (known as ‘Closed Local Dialling’). This is already in place in Bournemouth, and several other areas in the UK will undergo similar changes in the near future to ensure the availability of telephone numbers.
David Orrell