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Is there any real benefit to city status? Luckily for Reading, probably not

The town (sorry) has once again had its bid to become a city rejected, this time in a competition for the jubilee

Jonn Elledge
31 May 2022, 12.35pm

Eight towns have been made cities as part of the Queen’s Jubilee. Reading is not one of them

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PA Images / Alamy Stock Photo

Bliss was it that dawn to be alive, but to be from Milton Keynes was very heaven.

On Friday 20 May, residents of the Buckinghamshire new town – the home of roundabouts, concrete cows and a thousand jokes about how at least yoghurts have culture – awoke to find they lived in a widely derided town no more.

They would live, from then on, in a widely derided city.

Milton Keynes is one of eight towns being awarded city status to mark the Queen’s Platinum Jubilee. The others include Doncaster and Colchester (Essex’s third new city in a decade and second in the space of just a few months); Dunfermline in Scotland; Wrexham in north Wales; and Bangor in Northern Ireland (not to be confused with the other Bangor, in Wales, which was, confusingly, already a city).

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Rounding out the list were Douglas, the capital of the Isle of Man, and Stanley, in the Falklands. Neither is technically in the United Kingdom, and the latter contains fewer people than a fair-sized housing estate, but we are where we are.

Thirty other towns were left licking their wounds, among them some pretty substantial places, such as Middlesbrough, Bournemouth, and Reading, which has, hilariously, now been rejected four times, leading one to suspect that someone in Whitehall is pursuing a peculiar vendetta. (There would have been 31, except the seaside resort of Marazion was forced to quit the competition after it was revealed that nobody had asked Cornwall County Council’s views on the matter.)

This is, of course, a blow to local pride for those 30 towns. Whether it matters beyond that, though, is an open question.

City status brings no tax breaks, no funding, and no extra powers beyond being able to put ‘city of’ on signs

In its announcement of the successful candidates, the Cabinet Office claimed that “winning city status can provide a boost to local communities and open up new opportunities for people who live there” – but offered precious little evidence to support this assertion. It pointed to the records of Preston (a city since the 2002 Golden Jubilee) and Perth (2012, Diamond Jubilee), “where residents have described how their success contributed to increased national and global standing, putting them on the international map as a place to do business”. This, you will note, is just local pride once again, only with more words.

Actual, tangible benefits were hard to find in the Cabinet Office press release. There is a reason for this: city status brings a town no tax breaks, no funding, and no extra powers beyond being allowed to put ‘city of’ on your street signs.

As a result, the only actual figure to find its way into the press release was the claim that Perth has “reaped the full benefits, with the local economy expanding by 12% in the decade since it was granted city status”. But between the financial crash, COVID, and a lack of recent data, it’s difficult to say for sure whether 12% growth in a decade is vastly better than the rest of the country. In any case, it translates to an annual growth rate of just 1.14%, which hardly suggests a boomtown.

‘Evidence’ for the benefits of city status more often takes the form of quotes from local councillors or business groups about how it helped them to attract investment. This may or may not be true – but it’s worth noting that those very same councillors or business groups were often involved in the campaign to win city status in the first place, and so may be suffering from confirmation bias.

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To accompany its own campaign, Wrexham Council published a list of ‘10 key benefits’ of city status. Two concern local pride, five opportunities for promotion, and two are so baffling that they’re hard to even categorise (“opportunities for the community, infrastructure, and services to grow and develop more sustainably”; “increased expectations of ’place making’ that in turn create more vibrant places to live, work and invest”).

The last is, inevitably, “more potential to attract major projects”. But there is absolutely no reason to believe this is true. Bournemouth, Reading and, until recently, Milton Keynes have all been attracting investment quite happily without city status. Meanwhile some of the less likely cities – such as St David’s or St Asaph, both in Wales – are hardly having to fight wannabe investors off. People with vast sums of capital to spend, it turns out, rarely care about letters from the queen.

The real key factors, as Centre for Cities’ Paul Swinney recently wrote, are skills, real estate and transport. These, you will note, bear absolutely no relation to whether a place is a city or a town.

As to why city status should matter so much to the national government, there’s a pretty obvious answer

So is it all pointless, then? Well, possibly not. A few years ago, Steve Musson, a researcher at the University of (ironic, this) Reading, looked into the economic impact that city status had on the eight places granted it in 2000 and 2002. All but one of them, Wolverhampton, outperformed their neighbours, in terms of investment and unemployment.

That, though, does not imply any simple causal relationship. “Our research has shown that it is the process that new cities usually go through to mount their campaign that leads to most benefits,” he told the BBC last year. In other words, the resulting boost may come not from any bauble from the queen, but from bringing local political and business leaders together to think about how to sell themselves.

As to why city status should matter so much to the national government, there’s a pretty obvious answer. It matters for the same reason imperial measurements do: it will make some people happy, and it doesn’t cost any money. Boris Johnson’s government may have no answers when it comes to soaring energy bills, a flailing economy or the cost of living crisis – but it can make some people in Doncaster and Milton Keynes feel good about their homes again. And isn’t that just as good, really?

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