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26 February 2022

It’s time we tore this “city status” down

Pretending a place is a city just because the royal family said so is absurd.

By Jonn Elledge

Pop quiz, hot shot. What do these places have in common: Middlesbrough and Crawley; Bournemouth and Coleraine; George Town, capital of the Cayman Islands, and Goole?

The answer, as you won’t possibly have been able to guess unless you already know — because come on, one of the world’s leading offshore tax havens and Middlesbrough? — is that they are among the 38 places in the UK and the surviving remnants of its empire that recently applied to the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) for city status, as a mildly baffling sideshow to the Queen’s platinum jubilee celebrations. Others on the list, which gets weirder and weirder the longer you look at it, include Colchester, which is probably the oldest settlement in these islands yet has still never been allowed to call itself a city; South Ayrshire, which isn’t actually a settlement at all, it’s a council district; Stanley, which is in the Falkland Islands; and Gibraltar, which is in Gibraltar.

There should have been more. Marazion, a tiny Cornish resort home to so few people (1,440 at the last count) that it’d struggle to rise to the status of “village”, got a lot of attention for its bid, but was bumped off the list when somebody noticed that nobody had asked how Cornwall Council felt about all this. Then there’s Southend, which would almost certainly have been shortlisted too, except that, in a rare bit of good PR strategy from a government with Boris Johnson at its head, someone decided to just give it the status automatically in tribute to its much-admired MP David Amess, who was killed at a constituency surgery last autumn. Next Tuesday it’ll be getting a visit from Prince Charles to confirm it. Prince Andrew, one assumes, has other plans.

In my time editing Citymetric I often found cause to write about Southend, the largest settlement in my home county of Essex, and every time I did I received the same, predictable response: “That’s not a city.” And as you can tell from the fact it won’t be one until the Prince of Wales pops the paperwork round next week, that was technically true.

Here’s the thing, though. Southend is home to nearly 200,000 people, with another 100,000 in the wider urban area. It has multiple train stations, its own economy and commuter belt, and let’s not forget the longest pier in the world. Had it existed at the time of Alexander the Great, which obviously it didn’t, today’s Southend would have been a contender for title of largest city in the world (making that pier, one assumes, a contender for the title of “eighth wonder”). Southend today holds a third of the population that ancient Rome did at its height. So what does it mean to say that it doesn’t count as a city? Do we care so much about the views of the royal family that we’re allowing them to contradict objective reality? Again?

There are other arguments against the UK’s ridiculous notion of official city status. It’s weird enough that sizable settlements like Bournemouth or Middlesbrough don’t have it. It’s weirder still that somewhere like St Davids (population: 1,600) or St Asaph (3,355) does. The reason seems to be that they have cathedrals, and sure, I understand why this made a difference to a place’s status when Edward III was still moving about, but come on, St Asaph got its shiny label last time the Queen passed a round number. It’s just silly.

Then there’s the fact that it incentivises the wrong behaviour among local grandees. Huge amounts of time and money go into persuading national government to give places a gong: that’s time and money that isn’t then available to do anything that might actually improve the lot of local people. At least with somewhere like Marazion you can make a case that it worked as a PR campaign for a resort town but, honestly, what will somewhere like Dudley get out of its city status bid? Or Northampton? Is this really where we want council leaders to be putting their energy?

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Worse still is the behaviour it encourages within national government. I don’t know why the powers that be decided that this was the time to start dangling city status in front of colonial outposts like George Town or Gibraltar but it’s hard to escape the suspicion that it’s at least partly motivated by the same culture war nonsense that motivates everything else this government does. Just imagine the grin on Nadine Dorries’ face when she gets to say there’s now officially a British city in the Falkland Islands at last. That in itself is enough reason to tear the whole stupid edifice down, surely.

If you want just one sentence to demonstrate that official city status is ridiculous, though, consider this. London is simultaneously the smallest city in England (if measuring the population of the square mile, the official City of London), and the largest in the UK (if measuring in any way that a normal human being might remotely recognise as making sense). This is patently ridiculous. Why have we put up with it? Why are we not storming the DCMS to make them sort themselves out?

The argument in favour of official city status is that successive governments have refused to grant it to Reading for decades, for no reason I can see besides pettiness, and that is to be fair very funny. But that is not a good enough reason to keep a broken system. Official city status is quite, quite ridiculous, however long the Queen happens to have reigned. We should stop it, now.

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