There’s one English county whose county town is in a different county

Kingston Bridge. Image: KTO288/Wikimedia Commons.

It’s not unusual, when you have an area with two big towns that dominate it, to stick the capital in a more neutral place. Australia has Canberra because of Melbourne and Sydney’s rivalry; Brazil has Brasilia because Rio de Janeiro and Sao Paulo are in much the same boat.

This is less common in the UK. London, Cardiff and Belfast are by far the biggest towns of their constituent countries, and Edinburgh gets to be the capital despite being rather smaller than Glasgow because the ‘thousands of years of history’ card is a strong one.

What is very unusual anywhere – outside of actual colonies – is to have your capital in a completely different place from the territory it governs. Even the people of West Germany recognised this, with West Berlin being an odd semi-occupied zone rather than the capital of their country. This was instead in Bonn, a lovely but boring country town that you should absolutely visit, and which filled the kind of role as capital that John Major did as Prime Minister.

And yet, if you’re a Londoner, you’re within an Oyster ride of precisely this arrangement. And you don’t even have to leave the city’s boundaries.

The county of Surrey, as it’s defined these days, is a pipe-shaped lump of land that roughly tracks the south-western quadrant of the M25, stretching from the M3 to the M23, and running until you run out of suburbia and hit real countryside. Or, if you prefer public transport, South Western Railway’s outer-suburban trains. It’s slightly further out of London than Reginald Perrin or The Good Life, but closer in than Butterflies or the Vicar of Dibley.

But it used to be grand. Almost all of what is now South London was in the mediaeval county of Surrey. The Canterbury Tales were written there, Shakespeare’s plays were debuted there; the things that the guilds who controlled the City of London didn’t like took place there. And the county town of Surrey was in what is now Walworth, one of the bits of inner south London that the Tube map still doesn’t quite feature, but within half an hour’s walk of Bank.

By the 1880s, it was clear that London had spread beyond the borders that ancient English rules had laid down, and so the London County Council was created, encompassing pretty much everywhere we’d now think of as Inner London. This very much included Walworth.

Surrey lost some of its most shady and interesting inner London parts (not, necessarily, to the shame of the people involved in the rest of it) and quite sensibly built a new County Hall in a town that was part of Surrey.


Kingston-upon-Thames, when County Hall was constructed in 1893, was a river resort and retreat, and the kind of town that the wealthiest of railway commuters might be willing to head to London from, whilst living a relatively disease-free rustic life. As such, it symbolised Surrey’s aspirations perfectly.

But then more development happened.

The county of Greater London was created in 1965, reflecting the suburbanisation that the mainstreaming of railways and the Underground had brought to the city, turning former commuter-belt towns into outright suburbs and villages into new towns. In the interim, Kingston had been linked into London with further rail and road-building. So, to nobody’s great surprise, Kingston-upon-Thames became part of Greater London in the 1965 review.

If you were sensible, you might think that Surrey would run another 1893 attempt, and shift its County Hall to somewhere that was, well, in it. But you’d be wrong.

Surrey has ancient rivalries, of the sort that normally only manifest themselves in football teams. Its two most prominent settlements are Guildford and Woking. The former is ancient and fancy; the latter is wealthy and diverse and more directly integrated into London. They hate each other at least as much as Melbourne and Sydney. Meanwhile, the people in the country towns that make up the south of the county hate Guildford and Woking.

For the last 60 years, politicians have been making half-arsed attempts to solve this problem. In 2003, the council managed to agree on an attempt to build a new County Hall in Woking, but the money ran out. As of 2017, MPs for small towns still try to play on regional patriotism to sort out enormous absurd pork barrels, and get shot right down again.

And the strangest thing is, nobody particularly cares. It’s become completely normal for the people of Surrey over the last 50 years to accept the fact that their capital is in a different place from their actual county, to the point where they aren’t even interested.

I can’t help but think of another question here: if habituation is that easy, how on earth did we fail to make the case for the EU?

 
 
 
 

So why is Peterborough growing so quickly?

Peterborough Cathedral. Image: Jules & Jenny/Flickr/creative commons.

The latest instalment of our series, in which we use the Centre for Cities’ data tools to crunch some of the numbers on Britain’s cities.  

The 2001 census put the population of Peterborough at 156,000. Some time before next spring, it’s projected to pass 200,000. That, for those keeping score, is an increase of about 28 per cent. Whether this makes it the fastest growing city in Britain or merely the second or the fourth – the vagueness of Britain’s boundaries means that different reports reach different conclusions – doesn’t really matter. This is a staggering rate of growth.

Oh, and since austerity kicked in, the city council has had its grant from central government cut by 80 percent.

Expansion on this scale and at this rate is the sort of thing that’d have a lot of councils in our NIMBY-ish political culture breaking out in hives; that seems to go double for Tory-run ones in Leave-voting areas. This lot, though, seem to be thriving on it. “I think the opportunity in Peterborough is fantastic,” says Dave Anderson, the city’s interim planning director. “We’re looking at growing to 235,000 by the mid-2030s.”

More striking still is that the Conservative council leader John Holdich agrees. “I’m a believer in ‘WIMBY’: what in my back yard?” he says. He’s responsible, he says, not just to his electorate, but “to our future kids, and grandkids” too – plus, at that rate of growth, a lot of incomers, too.

All this raises two questions. Why is Peterborough growing so quickly? And what can it do to prepare itself?

If you’re a little uncertain exactly where Peterborough is, don’t worry, you’re in good company. Until 1889, the “Soke of Peterborough” was an unlikely east-ward extrusion from Northamptonshire, far to its south west. Then it was a county in its own right; then part of the now-defunct Huntingdonshire. Today it’s in Cambridgeshire, with which it shares a metro mayor, the Conservative James Palmer. When I ask Holdich, who’s giving me a whistlestop tour of the city’s cathedral quarter, to explain all this, he just shrugs. “They keep moving us about.”

Sitting on the edge of the Fens, Peterborough is, officially, a part of the East of England region; but it’s just up the road from East Midlands cities including Leicester and Nottingham. I’d mentally pigeonholed it as a London-commuter town, albeit a far flung one; but when I actually looked it up, I was surprised to discover it was closer to Birmingham (70 miles) than London (75), and halfway up to Hull (81).


The more flattering interpretation of all this is that it’s on a bit of a crossroads: between capital and north, East Anglia and the Midlands. On the road network, that’s literally true – it’s where the A1 meets the A47, the main east-west road at this latitude – and railway lines extend in all directions, too.

All of which makes Peterborough a pretty nifty place to be if you’re, say, a large logistics firm.

This has clearly contributed to the city’s growth. “It has access to lots of land and cheaper labour than anywhere else in the Greater South East,” says Paul Swinney, director of policy at the Centre for Cities. “Those attributes appeal to land hungry, low-skilled business as opposed to higher-skilled more knowledge-based ones.”

That alone would point to a similar economy to a lot of northern cities – but there’s another thing driving Peterborough’s development. Despite being 70 miles from the capital, the East Coast Main Line means it’s well under an hour away by train.

In 1967, what’s more, the ancient cathedral city was designated a new town, to house London’s overspill population. The development corporation which owned the land and built the new town upon it, evolved into a development agency; today the same role is played by bodies like Opportunity Peterborough and the Peterborough Investment Partnership.

The city also offers relatively cheap housing: you can get a four-bed family home for not much over £200,000. That’s fuelled growth further as London-based workers scratch around for the increasingly tiny pool of places that are both commutable and affordable.

The housing affordability ratio shows average house prices as a multiple of average incomes. Peterborough is notably more affordable than Cambridge, London and the national average. Image: Centre for Cities data tool.

It’s made it attractive to service businesses, too. “London has probably played quite a big role in the city’s development,” says Swinney. “If you don’t want to move too far out, it’s probably one of the cheapest places to move to.”

The result of all this is that it has an unusually mixed economy. There’s light industry and logistics, in the office and warehouse parks that line the dual-carriageways (“parkways”) of the city. But there are also financial services and digital media companies moving in, bringing better paying jobs. In a country where most city economies are built on either high value services or land-hungry warehousing businesses, Peterborough has somehow managed to create a mixed economy.

Peterborough’s industrial profile: more services and less manufacturing, and more private and fewer public sector jobs, than the national average. Image: Centre for Cities.

At the moment, if people think of Peterborough at all, they’re likely to imagine a large town, rather than the fair-size regional city it’s on course to become. Its glorious 12th century cathedral – the hallmark of an ancient city, and at 44m still by far the highest spot on the horizon for miles around – is stunning. But it’s barely known to outsiders, and at least twice on my tour, the council’s communications officer proudly announces that the Telegraph named her patch as one of the best towns to live in within an hour of London, before adding, “even though we’re a city”. 

So part of the council’s current mission is to ensure that Peterborough has all the amenities people would expect from a settlement on this scale. “What the city needs to do is to adopt the mind-set of a slightly larger city,” says Anderson. Slightly smaller Swansea is developing a new music arena, of the sort Peterborough doesn’t have and needs. He frets, too, about retail spend “leaking” to Cambridge or Leicester. “Retail is now seen as a leisure activity: in the core of the city it’s important that offer is there.”

To that end, the early 1980s Queensgate shopping centre is being redeveloped, with John Lewis giving up a chunk of space to provide a new city centre cinema. (At present, the area only has road-side suburban multiplexes.) There’s major office, retail and housing development underway at North Westgate, as well as work to improve the walking route between the station and the commercial centre, in a similar manner to Coventry.

Fletton Quays. Image: Peterborough Investment Partnership.

Then there’s the city’s underused riverside. The council recently moved to new digs, in Fletton Quays, on the far bank of the River Nene from the centre. Across the river from the Embankment, the city centre’s largest green space, it’s a pretty lovely spot, of the sort where one might expect riverside pubs or restaurants with outdoor seating – but at the moment the space is largely empty. The Fletton Quays development will change all that, bringing more retail space and yes, new homes, too.

Jobs in Peterborough are unusually distributed around town: in many cities, most jobs are in the central business district. Image: Centre for Cities.

The big thing everyone agrees is missing, though, is a university. It already has the University Centre Peterborough, where degrees are provided by Anglia Ruskin University. The plan is for the site – a joint venture between ARU and Peterborough Regional College – to go its own way as an independent institution, the University of Peterborough, in autumn 2022. That should help provide the skills that the city needs to grow. A growing student population should also bring life and cash to the city centre. 

How big could Peterborough get? Could its enviable combination of good location and cheap housing and grand ambitions combine to make it the modern equivalent of Manchester or Liverpool – one of the great cities of the 21st century?

Well, probably not: “I think the optimum size for a city is probably about 250,000,” says Holdich. But that’s still a whole quarter bigger than now, and the council leader even discusses the possibility of refitting his dual-carriageway-based-city with some kind of light rail network to service that growing population. Peterborough’s not done growing yet.

Jonn Elledge is the editor of CityMetric. He is on Twitter as @jonnelledge and on Facebook as JonnElledgeWrites.

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