Does Northern Ireland Need Another City?

An unspecified number of towns across the UK are due to have city status bestowed upon them next year as part of the Queen’s Platinum (70 years) Jubilee, which means that the wait is on to see if Northern Ireland will gain its sixth (and possibly even its seventh ?) city.

Under UK law cities can only be created if they are chartered by the monarch – or more accurately in modern times, via an Act of Parliament. Local authorities have therefore been invited to enter a competition for what the Government describes as “the prestigious and rare civic honour of city status”, which it will bestow upon “a select number of worthy towns”. Despite widely-held popular beliefs about what is required to become a city, there are actually no automatic qualifying criteria (and contrary to myth, lots of examples of cities without a cathedral or a university). Instead the criteria that will be taken into consideration for this latest round of city-making includes ‘a distinct identity, history, heritage and civic pride’. The conferment of city status also delivers no special benefits to any place upon which it is bestowed – other than the right to be called a city. In reality, however, humans attach a certain amount of prestige, civic pride and kudos to city status. It’s a title that therefore stirs something deep within the loins of many councils and elected representatives, who often clamour repeatedly for their patch to land the coveted status.

Contrary to the government’s assertion that city status is a “rare honour”, the rate at which new cities are being created within the UK has accelerated dramatically in recent decades. Whilst only 14 places received the honour across the entire 20th century (the last of which were Sunderland in 1992 and Armagh in 1994), 11 new cities have already been created so far this century – with more now guaranteed for next year. It is also plausible that a further set of cities could be created in 2027 if the Queen reaches her 75th year in office. And it is also a racing certainty that the eventual coronation of her successor will similarly be marked by the creation of yet more new cities. It is becoming no “rare honour” indeed.

The last competition for city status was held to mark the Diamond Jubilee in 2012, and it selected a town in each of England, Scotland and Wales – but not NI. Amongst the long list of contenders that lost out that year were Carrickfergus, Coleraine, Ballymena and Craigavon. Prior to that, five new cities were created to mark the 2002 Golden Jubilee – with Northern Ireland accounting for two of those (Lisburn and Newry). It was felt by many at the time that this decision was a classic NI balancing act or ‘fudge’, designed to avoid granting the honour to a single town with either a heavily unionist or nationalist population. So instead we got parity of esteem, city status-style. The full list of new cities created in the UK so far this century is :

UK CITIES CREATED THIS CENTURY

Year Occasion Town Location Population
2012 Diamond Jubilee – Chelmsford

– Perth

– St Asaph

– England

– Scotland

– Wales

– 115,000

– 50,000

– 3,500

2002 Golden Jubilee – Preston

– Stirling

– Newport

– Lisburn

– Newry

– England.

– Scotland.

– Wales.

– N.Ireland.

– N.Ireland.

– 145,000.

– 40,000.

– 155,000.

– 48,000.

– 28,000.

2000 Millennium – Brighton

– Wolverhampton

– Inverness

– England

– England

– Scotland

– 230,000.

– 260,000.

– 50,000

The deadline for local authorities to apply for the 2022 round of city-making is 8th December 2021, and a number of contenders from Northern Ireland are already jockeying for position. Ballymena has thrown its name into the ring for the third competition in a row – though unlike in 2002, it will not have to compete against near neighbour and fellow Antrim settlement Carrickfergus this time. Ballymena has long fashioned itself as ‘The City of the Seven Towers’, despite only ever being a town, and that fact will doubtless feature heavily within its submission. An application is also being made on behalf of Bangor – despite a split on Ards and North Down council over the issue earlier this month. Councillors from Newtonards and the Ards Peninsula fear that the status would exacerbate what they see as an already existing over-emphasis upon the seaside town within their District. Meanwhile Causeway Coast and Glens councillors are due to consider next week whether to put forward an application from their area – with Coleraine the likely option if they do (having already been unsuccessful in the 2012 contest). It therefore seems likely that NI’s entrants will be Bangor (60,000 population), Ballymena (30,000) and Coleraine (25,000).

Following the recent murder of David Amess MP, who had been a long-standing advocate of city status for Southend-On-Sea (310,000 population), the Prime Minister has already confirmed that the Essex town will be one of the places granted city status next year. My hunch is that this decision will make it likely that there will be at least one other successful applicant from England – all of which I suspect will numerically impact NI’s chances this time around. On the other hand – with Boris Johnson seeking low-cost ways to re-ingratiate himself with the DUP/unionism after the Protocol debacle, and all three of NI’s contending towns being staunchly unionist areas, it wouldn’t surprise me if Ballymena made it over the line this time either.

The burning question behind all of this, however, is whether Northern Ireland really needs or warrants another city. We already have five – Belfast (340,000 population), Derry (105,000), Lisburn, Newry and Armagh – with the last three of those realistically being towns by any credible measure. Creating additional cities in England makes perfect sense, given its population of 56 million people and the fact it has a stream of large towns actively seeking the status – e.g. Reading (340,000 population), Dudley (312,000), Swindon (190,000) and Middlesborough (170,000). The only Scottish town believed to be applying for city status this time round is Dumfries (50,000), whilst an entry is also expected from Wrexham (66,000) in Wales. If awarding city status to more places in England makes sense, the case for doing so in Scotland or Wales would appear significantly weaker. And even more so when it comes to Northern Ireland, which already has the UK’s highest number of cities per capita :

LOCATION OF UK’S 69 CURRENT CITIES (2021) :

Place Population Number of Cities Average People per City Status
England 56.5m 51 1,107,843
Scotland 5.5m 7 785,714
Wales 3.2m 6 533,333
N.Ireland 1.9m 5 380,000
Total 67.1m 69 972,464

For Northern Ireland in particular, it feels like the creation of more new cities would stray into the realms of doing so ‘just for the sake of it’. If Reading is considered worthy of city status, for example, that shouldn’t automatically mean that somewhere potentially ten times smaller in NI should also be awarded the title – out of a perceived need to balance the books politically. There is a further geo-political consideration here that will doubtless escape the London-based judges of this competition. All 3 expected applicants for city status from NI are located East of the Bann – as indeed are four of NI’s five already existing cities. This despite 28% of the north’s population living in the west, including key county towns like Omagh (population 20,000) and Enniskillen (14,000). There is of course nothing to stop Fermanagh-Omagh District Council from submitting an application for one of the two major towns within its patch to secure city status (though choosing between the two could prove divisive for its elected representatives). With Northern Ireland already heavily weighted towards the East in every facet of life, however, making a decision that reduced to just 17% the share of cities in the western half of the jurisdiction would be remarkably deaf towards the steady calls for greater regional balance here.

Could it also be the case that linking city-making so closely to the monarchy is procedurally sub-optimal from a Northern Ireland perspective (for obvious reasons of politics and identity) ? Would that help explain why almost all towns that have sought the status since the millennium have been staunchly unionist areas located in the East of the jurisdiction ? Or do nationalist areas just not covet city status (for whatever reason) ?

Balanced against all of this is the obvious question of who cares how many cities there are in NI ? And does it really matter either way ? In essence, of course, it doesn’t. Though if city status is to continue carrying genuine value within the UK (as it presumably does – given that the establishment sees it as something worth marking key events with, and also the fact that so many towns compete to secure it) then bestowing it for anything other than demonstrably reasonable grounds would only serve to diminish its worth. And that’s where any desire to create new cities in NI just because they’re being created in England or elsewhere in Britain would be a deeply flawed approach. It’s feasible that there could be up to 3 different rounds of city creation within the UK over the next decade. And if somewhere in NI was to secure the status in each of those rounds, then we really would be starting to scrape the barrel in terms of where could genuinely be considered worthy of the title in future. How long before we end up with the City of Banbridge, Cookstown or even Dungiven ?