Derek Jones says Wrexham should begin an authentic conversation among its citizens about the feeling and identity of the town
The choice of St Asaph as one of Britain’s newest cities has left many people baffled. Millions outside Wales had almost certainly never heard of the place, and in Wales itself, in Denbighshire even, there must be many who have questioned the appropriateness of placing a town of some 3,400 people in the same league as, say, Swansea (population 232.000), Birmingham (1,036,900), Newcastle (292,200) or Glasgow (592,500).
Wrexham (63,084, or 130,000 if the whole county borough is included), the third largest settlement in Wales, might be thought to have a greater claim to the accolade. Not so, according to the Bishop of St Asaph, the Right Revd Gregory Cameron: “I am delighted that these decisions are made not on the size of the population but on the quality of community life”. Wrexham, the only other Welsh contender in this round of designations, were clearly living in a different universe. Their application spoke of the emergence of the town as, “North Wales’ premier administrative, commercial, shopping and industrial centre”.
Wrexham spent some £20,000 on its application, St Asaph a mere £300. St Asaph won, and, on the face of it, there may be some kind of message there. While small is not always and of necessity beautiful, it may not be an entirely bad thing to have put down a marker against gigantism, whatever one might say about the meaning of the word ‘city’. The existence of Wales itself – a small country – is another such marker.
Once St Asaph’s euphoria has died down, however, its citizens might care to reflect that their application was probably mostly successful by default. Nominations for city status were invited from each of the constituent nations in the UK. However, only St Asaph and Wrexham applied from Wales. And Wrexham made a hash of it.
The county borough council decided to hold a local referendum on the issue. Just 1,500 people responded, with 503 in favour of making an application and 977 against. The council decided to go ahead anyway, dismissing the arguments against as ‘myths’. How on earth could the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister (which advises Buckingham Palace on these issues) have done otherwise than to put the Wrexham application to one side?
Consequently, St Asaph had an open field for a fair amount of special pleading. Like Wrexham, their application stressed the economy: St Asaph Business Park employs more people than the town has population, and, yes, some of what takes place there is high-tech in nature (its so-called ‘optics cluster’). On the other hand, Wrexham’s Industrial Estate is the second largest industrial park in the UK. St Asaph has an international music festival, but if that is an argument for city status, Llangollen might have equal claims.
Historically-speaking, St Asaph’s particular claim for city status in 2012 was that it had already been one. It was a cathedral city and was merely seeking re-admission to the club! If St David’s, why not St Asaph? For several centuries after Henry VIII founded Anglican dioceses focussed on places that had a cathedral, the presence of a cathedral was the only criterion for city status. That is how St Asaph – and other such small places as Ely and Southwell – gained the title.
The diocesan link was broken in 1889 when Birmingham petitioned for city status on the reasonable basis that it was big enough. In 1907, the Home Office laid down that a town could not become a city unless it had a population of 300,000, “a distinct metropolitan character”, and “a good record of local government”. The rules seem to have been applied flexibly since then. However, St Asaph had apparently lost its right to call itself a city somewhere along the line. Still, nothwithstanding the present Bishop of St Asaph, the size of a place has been a major determining factor in conferring city status for over a century.
The whole business is now confused and confusing. On the one side, it is said that that the conferment of city status is purely ceremonial, and a mark of respect. On the other hand, places like Rochester, can lose their status following local government reorganisation. Its successor authority, Medway, was among those which recently applied for designation – unsuccessfully. In Wales, old cathedral cities, such as Bangor and (perhaps for reasons of sentiment) St Davids have not been required to re-apply. In their case, if not in Rochester, also a cathedral city, once a city, it seems, always a city.
Why do citizens and their councils want the status? It seems that today, in most cases, they believe that conferment will bring economic benefits. Even St Asaph hopes for more tourists. It is said that Sunderland, made a city in 1992, is now much more prosperous as a result. If that were the case, Wrexham should have tried harder. It should have have avoided half-baked gimmicks that purported to have taken the democratic temperature.
On the other hand, Professor Bernie Callaghan, head of business and law at Sunderland University, says that no research has been done to show whether city status was influential or not in the recent transformation of Sunderland. Doubtless it played a small part, but surely general movements in the UK economy are likely to have been more important. St Asaph may achieve a small increase in the 800,000 tourists who visit every year, but surely not a significant one.
Having failed twice, Wrexham may now decide to let the matter rest for a generation, and some might argue that this would be no bad thing. Foolish mistakes notwithstanding, the whole system of choosing which places should be designated appears to be arbitrary, almost a matter of which one catches the attention of the civil servants. How otherwise, were applications from such places as Reading, Middlesbrough and Medway spiked? The very least that we should be asking for is a new look at the criteria.
On the other hand, it is now anomalous that Wrexham, north east Wales’ biggest urban concentration, should be less regarded, formally-speaking, than Bangor, or even, with all due respect to its achievement, St Asaph. Wrexham’s councillors still cannot call themselves ‘city fathers’. They should go back to the proverbial drawing board. There is plenty for Wrexham to shout about, historically, educationally, culturally, and economically. What now needs to happen is the nurture of some genuine urbanity, and an authentic conversation among its citizens about the feeling and identity of the place. One-off opinion polls should be shelved for the foreseeable future. They have little to offer to an authentic sense of city.