1. Governance
February 15, 2016

This is why we ignore official UK city status: because it's really, really stupid

By Jonn Elledge

 This is St David’s.

Click to expand, should that be something you wish to do. Image: Google.

St David’s lies on the River Alun, on the aptly named St David’s Peninsula in Pembrokeshire, the western extremity of Wales. It has a cathedral. It has a city hall.

But that’s about all it has, if we’re honest, because St David’s is tiny: its population at the time of the 2011 census was just 1,841, which is a fraction of the population of a fair sized housing estate.

For this reason, it’s not the sort of place that CityMetric would normally have much to say about. It’s not a major regional economic centre; there is no plan for a St David’s city devolution settlement. And there’s definitely no St David’s Metro network because, well, look:

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Click to expand. Image: Google.

I mean, what would be the point?

So why are we banging on about it today? Because, for 22 years, St David’s has been Britain’s smallest city. It was considered a city in archaic times, but lost the title in the 19th century when somebody pointed out it was silly. But we live in a very silly age, so in 1994, despite the fact it hadn’t really grown since then, it got its title back again.

This country is ludicrous sometimes.

St David’s is the most extreme example – but it’s not the only UK “city” that is frankly not really worthy of the name. Here’s St Asaph, at the other end of Wales, in Denbighshire:

Click to expand. Image: Google.

St Asaph is a bustling place compared to St David’s: an incredible 3,355 people live there, and it even has a main road (the A55!). But it’s still pretty small, as you can tell from the fact that, if you switch to Google Earth, you can just about make out individual houses.

Click to expand. Image: Google.

Then there’s Wells, in Somerset, which with 10,500 people is a veritable metropolis:

Click to expand. Image: Google.

Truro, the capital of Cornwall, has nearly 19,000 people, making it almost twice as big again. And is so big that different districts of it actually have their own names:

Click to expand. Image: Google.

But it’s still only about an eighth the size of even the smallest London borough.

All these places have two things in common. One is that they have been recognised as cities by the British government, by either Royal Charter (a form of legal instrument in which the Crown bestows some ancient right), or letters patent (same).

Such status used to be pretty ad hoc and informal: some cities have had it for “time immemorial” (a posh way of saying “since no one knows when”); others were granted it by Henry VIII, when his campaign to reform the church required the setting up of a bunch of new cathedrals in a 16th century attempt to break up a sort of religious monopoly.

Then, three hundred years later, Queen Victoria started visiting places scattering city status in her wake. And these days roughly once a decade assorted local authorities spend a lot of public money trying to win ceremonial city status, which is definitely not a waste of anyone’s time or money or anything.

The other thing these cities have in common is that today, with varying degrees of irony, people have mentioned their names to us on social media, and demanded to know why CityMetric doesn’t recognise them as British cities.  Especially when we do recognise places that very definitely aren’t cities.

All this came up because, earlier, we ran an article under the following headline:

Southend is Britain’s only high-wage, high-welfare city. What gives?

That article, by the Centre for Cities’ Paul Swinney, is a fascinatingly wonkish piece of work about the unusual demographic and financial problems faced by the Essex commuter-town-cum-seaside-resort. But a lot of people seemed to reject the premise of the question, because they were too busy responding with things like this:

Now, officially, that much is true. Southend put in a bid for city status in 2012, but was rejected in favour of Essex’s county town, Chelmsford.

And yet, Southend is still comfortably the largest settlement in the county – indeed, in the whole of the East of England. The borough proper has a population of around 175,000; its wider urban area nearly 300,000. You could comfortably fit the whole of St David’s into its central shopping area:

Click to expand. Image: Google.

Zoom the map out to the point where you can see most of the Southend area and, at the same scale, St David’s all but disappears:

Click to expand. Image: Google.

So, in official legal terms, no, Southend is not a city, and yes, St David’s is.

But in any sense that should matter to anyone who isn’t a direct descendent of Edward III – population, economy, effect on the environment – it seems to us that Southend, a place substantially bigger than Reykjavík, has a far greater claim to coverage on a cities-focused news website than St David’s.

So do places like Middlesbrough, and Bournemouth, and Reading, none of which are officially cities, but all of which face city-style problems. There’s no universally accepted way of defining what should count as a city and what doesn’t – but it seems self evident to us that places with 200,000 people have a better claim than those with 10,000 people.  

And so, while the British government keeps granting city status to villages with delusions of grandeur, or cities that are actually bits of other cities, we intend to go on ignoring it.

So there.

(And incidentally: No, you don’t need a cathedral to win city status because it’s not 1534. They scrapped that rule in the 19th century. So now you know.)

Jonn Elledge is the editor of CityMetric, and tweets as @jonnelledge.

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