Another test for a city is a thriving voluntary sector. There are several thousand voluntary groups in Croydon and some 50,000 people give time as volunteers each year. I want to take a moment to name a few of the groups that are active in my part of the town and that

9 Sep 2011 : Column 731

do a wonderful job. We have a huge range of local residents’ associations but I want to single out in particular the work done by “People for Portland Road” for the community in south London and the new pathfinders group that has been set up to take forward the regeneration of New Addington.

There are also all sorts of service-based local voluntary groups. Like many towns, we have a thriving Crossroads group and a week on Sunday I will be doing a walk around my constituency boundaries to try to raise some money for that excellent charity, which provided outstanding help to my family when my father was sick with Alzheimer’s disease. There are also many voluntary groups that support the diverse communities we have in our town. I recently had the pleasure of going to the annual celebrations of the Kerala cultural and welfare association, which provides support to the strong Keralese community in our borough.

One clue that the Government’s guidelines give is that the successful applicant should have a “vibrant, welcoming community”. Croydon clearly passes that test. People from all over the world have chosen to make it their home, nearly 40% of the population is from a black or minority ethnic community and more than 100 languages are spoken in the borough. All of the world’s major faiths are practised in the town. What was until recently Croydon parish church, which was rebuilt in 1870 by the great Victorian architect Sir George Gilbert Scott, was recently dedicated as Greater London’s only minster in recognition of the wider role the church plays not just in Croydon parish but across south London. There is also Croydon masjid and Islamic centre and several other mosques, several Hindu temples, a synagogue and Croydon gurdwara.

Croydon has more young people than any other London borough and it is home to people of all backgrounds, with some of London’s most deprived neighbourhoods and also, in the Webb estate and Shirley Hills, some of its most expensive housing. There is a sharp contrast among the northern districts of Norbury, South Norwood and Thornton Heath, with their densely packed Victorian and Edwardian residential streets, the southern areas of Shirley, Selsdon, Sanderstead, Purley, Kenley and Coulsdon with their commuter-belt semi-detached and detached homes, and the town of New Addington, which I am hugely proud to represent, built on top of the north downs after the second world war as homes for returning heroes.

Taken together, these four factors make Croydon a diverse, vibrant place to live which is, or has been, home to people such as business man Sir Philip Green, model Kate Moss, artist Tracey Emin, film director Sir David Lean, composer Samuel Coleridge Taylor, footballer Ian Wright, Wilfred Wood, Britain’s first black bishop, and a former Speaker of this House, Lord Weatherill, who represented Croydon for 28 years with great distinction. People often talk about the country, or parts of it, being tolerant, but toleration is not the right word in this context. I do not tolerate the fact that people have come from all over the world to make it their home—I celebrate it and think it is one of the great strengths of our town.

As well as having a lot going for them, cities often also have problems—urban living is not perfect. Most cities around the world have issues that need to be

9 Sep 2011 : Column 732

addressed and the same is true of our town. We suffer from congestion, and recent events a month ago demonstrated the problems of gang culture that we need to tackle as a community. Also, much of our 1950s and 1960s architecture and urban planning is now in need of renewal. The council has great plans in place to address all those problems, but it is important to put them on the record.

I hope it is clear from what I have said thus far that Croydon is a city in all but name and that if it were not a part of London it would formally have been made one years ago. It is on this rock that past bids for city status have failed. We are part of London so how can we apply to be a city ourselves? Let me make it clear to my hon. Friend that this bid is not a declaration of independence from London. We are proud to be part of our great capital city, but we also believe that we are more than just a suburb of London: we are a city in our right within the world’s greatest city. London already has two cities—the City of London and the City of Westminster—and it seems to me that there is no reason why it cannot have a third. The Mayor of London agrees. He says:

“My ambition for London to continue to dominate world enterprise would certainly be furthered by the addition of a third city, and having this at the heart of south London would bring much needed investment south of the river Thames”.

We believe that we meet the key test in the Government guidelines of having a “distinct identity”. Look out on south London from the top of the Crystal Palace escarpment and Croydon literally stands out. It is a hub for south London and the near south-east—a city in its own right on the edge of a larger city, similar to Jersey city’s relationship with New York.

That then is our case. Croydon is rich in history, is larger than most existing cities and is a centre for employment, shopping, public services and leisure facilities. It is one of the best connected places in the country and is a vibrant place that is home to people from all over the world with a strong sense of community. It is not without problems but is brimming with potential; it is part of the world’s greatest city but is clearly a city in its own right. On 17 August, His Royal Highness Prince Charles and the Duchess of Cornwall visited the town to see the damage done by rioters, and their visit was deeply appreciated. Early next year, Her Majesty will have the chance to help us in our recovery by recognising my home town for what it is—London’s third city.

2.52 pm

The Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office (Mr Mark Harper): I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Croydon Central (Gavin Barwell) on securing the debate and I thank him for his kind words at the beginning. Rather than being a chore to be here, it is a great pleasure to listen to him set out the case for his home town. As he said, he follows our hon. Friends the Members for Reading West (Alok Sharma), for Southend West (Mr Amess) and for Gillingham and Rainham (Rehman Chishti) in securing an opportunity to set out the case for their areas’ hopes of winning city status in the diamond jubilee competition for civic honours. I learned many things in those debates and I have learned many things about his area today. I know that you, Madam Deputy Speaker, have chaired these debates before and I suspect that both you and I will be here

9 Sep 2011 : Column 733

again as other hon. Members seek to make the case for their areas. In that process, we learn about our United Kingdom.

I confirm that Croydon’s entry into the diamond jubilee competition for civic honours has been safely received. It is one of 25 entries seeking city status and there are also 12 entries seeking lord mayoralty status for existing cities. The level of interest and enthusiasm in the competition shows how much the country is looking forward to celebrating Her Majesty’s diamond jubilee in 2012 and how attractive these civic honours are to local communities. I know that my hon. Friend understands, as do other hon. Members, that I cannot possibly endorse Croydon’s aspirations, just as I had to remain neutral in those other debates. Ministers have to remain impartial to ensure that city status continues to be a real honour that is fairly bestowed and to ensure that the diamond jubilee competition continues to be a real competition. Fairness is crucial because, as my hon. Friend said, there are no hard and fast criteria for becoming a city. It is an honour granted by the sovereign, nowadays following a competition, as a rare mark of distinction for an area. Reasons for success or failure are never given, and city status is not, and never has been, something that towns can claim by just ticking off a list of hard and fast criteria. The reason for that is fairly obvious.

Any attempt to draw up a list of criteria to capture the nature of existing UK cities would run into difficulties.

9 Sep 2011 : Column 734

Some are large, some small. Some have conspicuously attractive and well laid out city centres; that applies less to others. Some have wonderful cathedrals, universities, airports, underground systems or trams; some do not, but boast a vibrant cultural life. We have described some of the criteria and qualities that we would expect a new city to have. My hon. Friend set out some of them: a vibrant, welcoming community, an interesting history and a distinct identity.

My hon. Friend set out his and Croydon’s case very well. He reminded us that Croydon Central—his constituency—and Croydon are not just his constituency, which he has represented since the general election, but also his home, which I believe he represented as a councillor for a considerable time. From his speech it was obvious that he knows his town very well, and will continue to represent it very well in the House. I can assure him and his constituents, and all those in the rest of the town, that Croydon’s entry will receive a thorough, impartial appraisal of its merits alongside the other entries. The assessment process in the competition is under way, and the plan is to announce the results early next year, at the start of Her Majesty’s diamond jubilee year.

Question put and agreed to.

2.56 pm

House adjourned.