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17 Jan 2001 : Column 134WH

City Status Determination

1.30 pm

Mr. Simon Burns (West Chelmsford): It is particularly fortunate and appropriate that I have secured this debate today because, as you will know, Mr. Hancock, it is now almost a month--it was just before Christmas--since it was announced which towns in England and Scotland, but sadly not in Wales, were to be honoured with city status by Her Majesty the Queen. We have one year to go before more towns are given city status to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Queen's accession to the throne in 1952.

What concerns me and many others is the mystery and the unknown qualities of the process that determines city status. One has to tread carefully, because city status is an honour conferred by the Queen. In reality, of course, politicians in the Home Office make the recommendations and take the decisions that lead to the conferring of city status. I am concerned about that, because one does not need to be a brain surgeon to realise that we are in the run up to a general election; yet, by some strange coincidence, of the numerous towns that bid for city status, those that succeeded contained marginal Labour parliamentary seats within their boundaries. It is odd that, from such a wide variety of applicants, only ones with Labour marginal seats should be so deserving of that honour.

One has to admire the Government. I say that with a degree of envy, having once been a member of a Conservative Government. The Government are highly political every second of every day of every week of every year that they have been in power. To me, as a politician, that is highly commendable. Only once during my time as a Member of Parliament did a Conservative Government confer city status; it was to the town of Sunderland in 1992. No one could claim that there was a parliamentary marginal Conservative seat within 100 miles of Sunderland. We did it on the merits of the case.

Mr. Mike Hancock (in the Chair ): Was that now or then?

Mr. Burns : It was in 1992. In the present case, however, it seems strangely suspicious that all three towns had a number of marginal seats within them.

Such an accusation could not be made if the main premise of my debate was met, and we knew more about the criteria for determining city status. What I was taught at school has been proved wrong because, twice in the past 10 years, my town of Chelmsford has failed to secure city status. I was taught that if a town had a cathedral, it must be a city. Chelmsford has had a cathedral since 1914, but it is not a city. Guildford, another town with a cathedral, does not have city status. However, St. David's in Wales has a cathedral; it is a small town, but it has been a city for many years. Others suggest that historic or royal connections may enhance a town's bid for city status. Most interesting, however, are the letters and documents that were leaked to the Northern Echo and the Liverpool Daily Post in March last year, which I am fortunate to have with me. They seem to throw out a great deal of civil service thinking and advice to Ministers on the question of city status criteria.

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I shall quote from the letter of the Home Office constitutional and community policy directorate that was prepared with the assessment of each individual bid. Interestingly, it seems that No. 10 had an interfering hand in the letter, as in most areas of government. The letter says:

Ms Julia Drown (South Swindon): Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Burns : No.

I do not think that anyone in this room would disagree with the idea that, for anything as significant and important as the millennium, it would be preferable to create more than one city. However, it seems a shame that the Government created two cities in England and one in Scotland, but no city in the Principality of Wales. Similarly, it seems odd to me as a Member of Parliament representing Essex that Essex does not have a single city, despite the fact that the county town is a local administrative centre with a university, a cathedral and royal connections through frequent visits by members of the royal family.

The most significant aspect of the covering letter was that the civil servants stated that the Government considered three factors when assessing a millennium city bid. The first was size, with a normal threshold of a population of 200,000, the second was geographical distinctiveness and significance, and the third was any royal or historical connections. When the document was leaked last March, it came as a bombshell to many people throughout the country who had worked hard to put together bids for city status. If some towns had known in advance that they did not stand a chance of gaining city status, as they did not have a population of more than 200,000, I suspect that they would not have wasted the emotional effort, hard work and financial resources to make a bid, because they would have been disregarded.

The Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department, the hon. Member for North Warwickshire (Mr. O'Brien), helpfully wrote to Members of Parliament on 29 March 2000 to say, to all intents and purposes, that we should not worry about the leak, because it was not true; all options were open and decisions would be taken on the merits of individual cases. As I said, we did not realise that the overriding criterion at that point was that there had to be a Labour marginal seat within the town boundaries.

I know that the Under-Secretary wrote that letter in good faith to reassure us. The fact that, when the announcement came, the two towns in England had populations of considerably more than 200,000 is probably simply coincidence. However, when we look at the other leaked document from the Home Office--the individual assessment for Ministers of each town that applied--we begin to understand that, notwithstanding what the Under-Secretary said, the threshold of population seems to be significant.

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As an example, let us take Blackburn, which is the constituency represented by the Home Secretary. In many ways, I am reassured that Blackburn did not receive city status because although the Home Secretary excused himself from any deliberations, as was totally above board and right, I assume that ambitious junior politicians would be more than happy to make the Home Secretary's day by giving Blackburn city status. Even the present Government did not have the gall to hit the jackpot on Blackburn. According to civil servants, Blackburn would have failed anyway, because it has

Brighton and Hove--

Mr. Bob Russell (Colchester): Two towns.

Mr. Burns : Brighton and Hove are two towns and, interestingly, became a city. The civil servant's analysis concedes:

Chelmsford richly deserves city status, for unanswerable reasons, although I hope that my performance today will not blight its chances in 12 months' time. That is a risk, but I know the Minister from many years ago, and I know that she is eminently reasonable and fair and has a good sense of humour. Provided she is still in office after the general election, I am sure that Chelmsford will not be blighted by this helpful debate. Chelmsford seemed to be doing well in the assessment, because of royal connections, its cathedral and other characteristics. However, sadly,

Colchester's population of 157,000 is also, regrettably,

Dover badly missed being chosen because its population is only 103,216, according to civil servants. That is

Ipswich, with its population of 117,000,

Maidstone, which is, of course, the seat of my right hon. Friend the Member for Maidstone and The Weald (Miss Widdecombe), the shadow Home Secretary, fell well below the threshold with a population of 137,000.

Middlesborough is well below the threshold, as the civil servants have noted.

Preston is significantly below the threshold.

Ms Drown : Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Burns : No; I shall mention Swindon shortly.

17 Jan 2001 : Column 137WH

Reading, with a population of 143,000, is well below the threshold. Swindon is not well below, but is still below, the threshold.

Ms Drown : Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Mike Hancock (in the Chair ): Order. I remind hon. Members that the rules for half-hour debates in this Chamber are that if hon. Members intend to speak they must obtain the permission of the initiator of the debate and of the Minister. One hon. Member has done that today, but it is fruitless for any who have not followed the Speaker's advice, given some time ago on the conduct of debates here, to try to intervene. Only if the hon. Member for West Chelmsford (Mr. Burns) is willing to take interventions will the hon. Member for South Swindon (Ms Drown) be able to intervene in his speech.

Mr. Burns : Swindon seemed really to arouse the ire of civil servants, who took the view that

Ms Drown : On a point of order, Mr. Hancock. Does not etiquette allow an hon. Member to respond when another hon. Member mentions his or her constituency?

Mr. Mike Hancock (in the Chair ): Those conventions relate to the naming of the hon. Member, not a constituency or part of one. The hon. Lady will have her opportunity to intervene if the Minister wants to let her, but not now.

Mr. Burns : Thank you, Mr. Hancock. It seems, notwithstanding the Under-Secretary's letter, that there are criteria and, if so, presumably--as with any competition--there is some benchmark by which to winnow the successful candidates from the unsuccessful. I cannot believe that there are no criteria. It is a pressing issue because presumably we shall go through the whole performance again during the course of the year to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the accession next year. The criteria must be known in a fully transparent way if only to be fair to those towns that aspire to the privilege and honour of city status, so that they will know at least what they are competing for and how they can best make their presentation to the Home Office so as to maximise their chances of a successful bid. It means a great deal, as is shown by the highly competitive nature of the competition last year. People want to enhance their area and to enjoy a greater sense of civic pride by having the honour of city status bestowed on them.

On a serious note, I urge the Minister and the Home Office to seek to ensure that there is far greater transparency so that there is a greater understanding by those wishing to seek city status and those responsible

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for submitting bids of exactly what is being looked for. I also urge that there be an opportunity, if the criteria are considered unfair or ludicrous--such as a population threshold--to argue out the merits and to persuade the Government to think again.

In conclusion, I ask the Minister to ensure that when city status is conferred next year, the process is far swifter. Last year, three towns were made cities to celebrate the millennium. We--and our forebears--have known for 99 years that there was going to be a millennium in the year 2000, and certainly for many years it had been considered a suitable occasion to mark with the creation of some cities. The bids were submitted to the Home Office relatively early in 1999. The wait until 18 December 2000 to determine them--notwithstanding what turned out to be the helpful and sensible interference of No. 10 Downing street--was an unacceptably long time during that year. It would have been better to have made the announcement at the beginning of the millennium year as part of the initial celebrations instead of dragging it out with leaked documents and false starts. I ask that next year, with the anniversary of the Queen's accession, we seek to have the announcements made for all parts of the kingdom as close to the beginning of February, which marks the celebration of the Queen coming to the throne, as possible.

Mr. Mike Hancock (in the Chair ): Before I call the hon. Member for Reading, East (Jane Griffiths) to speak, may I ask her to avoid taking interventions, to give the Minister sufficient time to cover all the relevant points raised and to take the eager interventions of her colleagues if she so desires?

1.48 pm

Jane Griffiths (Reading, East): I agree with the hon. Member for West Chelmsford (Mr. Burns) that it would be beneficial if there were clear criteria for the awarding of city status. I do not agree with the hon. Gentleman that such criteria exist in some shadowy form, and that various towns that made bids were unsuccessful because they did not meet those criteria. I do not believe that that was the case. I believe that the successful bids were so on the basis of merits as assessed by Ministers and others.

In Reading, we were disappointed to be unsuccessful at our second attempt, but we are not down-hearted. Reading is a wonderful place to live and work, and spans history from the 11th century abbey to the 21st century Oracle centre. I look forward to the Minister's response to the hon. Member for West Chelmsford, because he has made some interesting arguments.

1.49 pm

The Minister of State, Home Office (Mrs. Barbara Roche ): I congratulate the hon. Member for West Chelmsford (Mr. Burns) on securing this debate on the procedure for determining city status. It is an important subject, which is dear to the hearts of hon. Members on both sides of the House.

I fully understand the desire of the residents and representatives of pleasant and long-established towns--such as Chelmsford and Reading--that the merits of their towns should be recognised by the conferment of city status. Although such status confers

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no additional powers or functions upon a town, it is clearly a sought-after mark of distinction. That was obvious from the 39 applications that were submitted for the grant of city status to mark the millennium. It was obvious to Ministers, particularly my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary, who is responsible for the area, from the size of their mailbags on the issue.

As the hon. Member for West Chelmsford said, city status is a royal prerogative and, traditionally, the reasons for the selection of a town are not divulged. Hon. Members will know, however, that the new cities created for the millennium--Brighton and Hove, Inverness and Wolverhampton--all have long histories as important and distinctive centres for their surrounding areas.

The hon. Member for West Chelmsford clearly feels strongly about Chelmsford and other Members feel equally strongly. It is understandable that people should feel disappointed and want to know why their towns were not honoured on this occasion.

It is somewhat surprising that so many local authorities have been ready to enter a competition without a clear indication of the criteria to be applied to their applications, yet that has, for many years, been part and parcel of the system of conferring city status under the royal prerogative. I assure hon. Members that the applications received were of a high standard, and that they all received fair consideration.

Ms Drown : I wanted to have a wider debate on the issue. However, I am interested in the Minister's view on whether there should be a strict limit on the number of towns that can become cities. We in Swindon were pleased that others were granted city status, but we believe that all those towns that have proved their success, and are cities in all but name, should not have to wait for too long in the queue for recognition. I hope that the Minister will do what she can in the Home Office to ensure that there is not too strict a limit on the number of towns that can become cities.

Mrs. Roche : I can probably best answer that intervention by talking about how we aim to proceed. The cases put forward on behalf of Brighton and Hove, Inverness and Wolverhampton were particularly outstanding, and the three new cities all deserve congratulations on their success.

Mr. Burns : Will the Minister be kind enough to correct the record in one instance? The civil servants' advice to Ministers on the assessment said that Hove was not particularly significant.

Mrs. Roche : The hon. Gentleman is pushing his luck. It is important for me to talk about the process for the granting of city status this time around, and the process for the future.

Mr. Ivor Caplin (Hove): If one follows the logic that the hon. Member for West Chelmsford has tried to profess, then without Hove, Brighton and Hove would not be a city.

Mrs. Roche : I note my hon. Friend's point and the strong interest that he and his colleagues in Brighton and Hove have taken in the matter.

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All the unsuccessful applicants have been told that there will be another opportunity for their applications to be considered for a grant of city status to mark the Queen's golden jubilee in 2002. Exceptionally, city status is to be conferred on a suitably qualified town in each of the four countries of the United Kingdom to mark that significant occasion. Further details of the procedure for the granting of city status for Her Majesty's golden jubilee will be announced in the coming months.

My hon. Friend the Under-Secretary announced on 18 December that the procedures used in the millennium competition will be reviewed before any announcement is made about the procedures for the granting of city status for the golden jubilee. That review is being undertaken.

The procedures used in the millennium competition have been criticised. However, with great respect to the hon. Member for West Chelmsford, the same procedures have been followed for decades under both Conservative and Labour Administrations. They have come under renewed scrutiny and a number of suggestions have been made, which we want to consider. That is why my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary announced on 18 December that there would be a review of the procedures. Clear criteria have never been applied to determine city status.

I have known the hon. Member for West Chelmsford for some years--not since he was at school, but since we were at university together a mere couple of years ago. The idea that city status is linked to whether a town has a cathedral is erroneous. I researched that and, until Queen Victoria's reign, cities and bishoprics were almost identical in England. For a time, it was the practice to grant city status to towns in England that applied after being granted bishoprics. However, the practice had changed by the end of the 19th century and, in 1888, Birmingham was the first instance of a grant on purely secular grounds. That is an interesting part of our history.

In reply to my hon. Friend the Member for South Swindon (Ms Drown), city status is not and never has been a right that can be claimed by towns meeting specific criteria. It is an honour granted sparingly by Her Majesty the Queen on the advice of Ministers. An element of discretion is likely to continue.

In the case of the millennium competition, the factors considered included regional distinctiveness and significance, population, size and the existence of royal and historic links. The appropriateness of those and other factors will be considered in the review of procedures.

The hon. Member for West Chelmsford made much of marginal seats; I must tell him in the kindest way that such comments detract from his argument. I assure hon. Members that, far from being decisive, as some have alleged, such considerations were not taken into account in the competition. The successful towns were all chosen on their own merits.

The results of the millennium competition were announced during the millennium year. That was the only commitment ever made on timing, and it was fulfilled. It might have been possible to determine and announce the results earlier in the year, had it not been for the need to allow time for additional material to be

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considered. That was the material that some hon. Members submitted in response to the invitation from my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary.

It is important to modernise procedures so that they are not only fair, but seen to be fair. The current review of procedures will take account of all the arguments of hon. Members, as well as those made during the

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millennium competition and subsequently by the towns involved. The fruits of that review will be made known when the process leading to conferment of city status to mark Her Majesty's golden jubilee is launched in a few months.

I hope that my comments have been helpful. I commend the review to the House.

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