City status in the UK can be associated with having a cathedral or a university, a particular form of local government, or having a large population.
Although any of these might be used to justify the popular use of the term ‘city’, in formal terms UK city status is granted by the monarch, on the advice of ministers.
In recent decades city status has been granted following a structured decision-making process. However, many UK cities are able to date gaining city status to the grant of a charter several hundred years ago. A small number, such as London, claim city status from ‘time immemorial.’
This Insight examines how a place becomes a city, whether ceremonial and local government structures signify a city status, and how city status can be lost.
The significance of a ‘city council’
Local government structures, despite their names, do not have a direct connection to whether somewhere has the status of a city.
A city will normally style its local authority as a ‘city council’, but this is not a category of local authority in its own right. In law, a city council could be a unitary authority (e.g. Manchester), a district council (e.g. Cambridge), or a parish council (e.g. Truro).
City status is distinct from the periodic reforms to local government structures in legislation such as the Municipal Corporations Act 1835, the local government acts of the late 1880s and early 1890s, and the local government acts of 1972 (England and Wales) and 1973 (Scotland). Some provisions in those acts led to the reform of city corporations and councils. But for the most part they did not affect city status (though see ‘Can a place lose its city status?’ below).
What about cathedrals?
Historically, cities were settlements with a cathedral, and those places remain cities. Thus, many settlements that are now comparatively small, such as Ely, Wells, or Salisbury, have long had city status. A cathedral is not a requirement for city status to be conferred, though Birmingham was the first town without a cathedral to become a city, in 1889.
How to become a city
In recent decades, city status has been granted through a series of competitive bids, managed by the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government (or its predecessors). The most recent rounds of bidding were:
- The Millennium competition in 2000, which awarded city status to Brighton, Inverness and Wolverhampton.
- To mark the Golden Jubilee, in 2002, Preston, Stirling, Newport (South Wales), Lisburn and Newry were awarded city status and Exeter was awarded a Lord Mayoralty.
- The Diamond Jubilee competition in 2012 granted city status to three towns out of 25 applicants: Perth in Scotland, Chelmsford in England and St. Asaph in Wales.
Though many towns continue to aspire to city status, they are not able to make ‘unsolicited bids’ to gain it.
What if there is a lord mayor?
City (and borough) councils will normally appoint a mayor. The mayor is usually the chair of the council and holds ceremonial duties related to the council and to the city or town. This type of mayor is often seen in public wearing gold chains or other items related to their office.
Some city mayors are entitled to style themselves ‘Lord Mayor’, via letters patent granted by the monarch. These grant the recipient a position or privilege. Recent nationwide competitions have also sought applications for lord mayoralties. These have been most recently granted to Chester (1992), Exeter (2002), and Armagh (2012).
Lord mayors are not the same as directly-elected executive mayors existing in some English local authorities (such as London or Greater Manchester). See Directly-elected mayors for more information on those. Having a lord mayor is not an indicator that a place has city status.
Can a place lose its city status?
Some areas have lost their city status. Rochester lost its individual city status following the 1974 local government reorganisation, when it merged with Chatham to form Medway Borough Council. Letters patent were granted at this time extending the city charter to the whole of the new borough council area. In January 1982, special letters patent were issued giving city status to the “City of Rochester-upon-Medway.”
A further local government reorganisation in 1998 merged the new council with the then Gillingham Borough Council to form the current Medway unitary authority. Medway Council papers from 2003 state that at this point: “a conscious decision was made by the former Rochester upon Medway City Council not to proceed to make the appointment of Charter trustees.” Charter trustees are a legal creation that maintains city status on behalf of a locality that does not have its own district or town council.
In other cases, city status has been lost and then regained. In City Status in the British Isles 1830-2002, John Beckett shows how Hereford lost its city status briefly in 2000, when its charter trustees were merged into a new city (parish) council in April. City status was restored via letters patent on 9 October.
St David’s, in Pembrokeshire, lost its city status in 1886 following a local government reorganisation. Its borough corporation was in practice defunct at this point and therefore there was no way of opposing this decision. The same happened to Armagh, in Northern Ireland, in 1840.
Beckett also shows that in 1994 the Queen granted city status to both places again, “in recognition of their important Christian heritage and their status as cities in the last century”.
About the author: Mark Sandford specialises in local government and devolution in England at the House of Commons Library.