When does a town become a city? On Croydon, and the mysteries of official British city status

Croydon, city of dreams. Image: author provided.

When you think of the great cities of history what springs to mind? Alexandria? Benin? Rome? Croydon?

For over half a century now, Greater London’s ugly duckling, has been trying in vain to secure city status in an attempt to improve its decidedly negative reputation. Since 1951, Croydon’s applications for city status has been repeatedly overlooked by the Home Office. Most recently, the south London borough was knocked back in favour of St Asaph, a small Welsh community home to 3,355 residents – a figure that pales in comparison to Croydon’s 379, 759. All this raises the question, what makes a town a city?

This is a question the British government has grappled with for centuries. It has always been the prerogative of the monarch to bestow city status; in more recent times, this decision has been informed by reports from the Home Office. But, much to the distress of town councils across the country, the process has always seemed arcane and secretive.

For example: a rumour persisted well into the 20th century that the presence of a cathedral was required in order for a town to be considered for elevation. This association was established when Bristol, Chester, Gloucester, Oxford and Peterborough were all elevated to the status of a city, at the same time as they were chosen as the seats of new dioceses by Henry VIII.

But this practice came to an end in 1889 when Birmingham was a successful applicant for city status on account of its large population and history of good government.

With this precedent broken it was decided that a new criteria would have to be adopted and rigorously enforced and, in 1907, the Home Office and Edward VII came to a secret agreement on a policy which remains in place today. The policy dictated that for a town’s application for city status to be accepted it must fulfil three criteria:

  • A minimum population of 300,000;
  • A record of good local government;
  • A “local metropolitan character”.

So a town becomes a city when it fulfils these three criteria. Simple, right?

Except incredibly, not a single one of the 24 towns in the UK granted city status since the establishment of these criteria actually fulfill them. At the time of their elevation none of these cities claimed a minimum population of 300,000; the latest census figures show that, even now, only Leicester can boast such a claim. When a government department creates policy, only to never actually enforce it, it poses the question of quite what purpose it served in the first place.

To add insult to injury, it is these criteria that have been used to bat away the applications of towns such as Croydon time and time again – making these decisions seem at best arbitrary, at worst vindictive.


Croydon is the thirteenth largest district in England by population, ahead of the likes of Coventry, Leicester, and Newcastle. The sticking point has therefore always been those other two criteria. In 1951, its application was denied due to reports of poor government. More recently it has been down to Home Office officials considering Croydon “to have no particular identity of its own”, which seems a particularly aggressive tone for government employees to take when rejecting an application.

Admittedly, it is already somewhat confusing that metropolitan Greater London, not officially a city, should contain two such official cities within it (London and Westminster). Yet to claim that areas such as Croydon and Southwark – which has also previously applied for city status – lack an identity shows a lack of appreciation for local cultures and communities. Croydon has, after all, long languished in the shadow of London, too distant from the centre to truly reap the benefits of a connection to the capital but too far to claim independence.

Despite this Croydon shows all the hallmarks of a modern city. It is home to the only tram network in London, with passengers making 29.5m journeys in a year. Its cultural output makes it look like Renaissance Florence, in comparison to most of the country: Croydon is the home of Stormzy, Nadia Rose, the BRIT school, and the birthplace of Dubstep.

The arrival of Westfield and Boxpark even shows the town can gentrify with the best of them. If the rules can be broken for twenty-four other towns, why not Croydon?

To many this town’s seemingly futile attempts to be something more than it is may seem unimportant. But for Croydon it is a decades-long quest to be something other than the butt of a joke.

Benjamin Cook tweets as @bd_cook.

 
 
 
 

Here’s how we plant 2 billion more trees in the UK

A tree in Northallerton, North Yorkshire. Image: Getty.

The UK’s official climate advisor, the Committee on Climate Change (CCC), recently published a report outlining how to reduce the 12 per cent of greenhouse gas emissions that come from land use by two thirds by 2050. Alongside recommending cutting meat and dairy consumption by 20 per cent, the report calls for the annual creation of up to 50,000 hectares of broadleaf and conifer woodland for the next three decades. This would increase forest cover from 13 per cent to at least 17 per cent – a level not seen in Britain since before the Norman invasion.

Reforestation at that rate would mean creating roughly the area of the city of Leeds every year for the next three decades. At typical stocking densities of 1,500 stems per hectare, the ambition is to establish some 2.25 billion additional trees. Given that the UK, as with most of Europe, is in the grip of ash dieback, a disease likely to prove fatal for many millions of native ash trees, the scale of the challenge is massive.

On a crowded and intensively farmed island like Britain, unlocking a million and a half hectares of land will be no mean feat. But it’s not impossible – and is an unprecedented opportunity not only to tackle the climate crisis but also the biodiversity crisis that is every bit as detrimental to our wellbeing.

Trees and farms

One million and a half hectares is just 6 per cent of the mainland UK’s land area. To give some sense of perspective on this, 696,000 hectares of “temporary grassland” were registered in 2019. So if land supply is not the problem, what is? Often it’s cultural inertia. Farmers are firmly rooted to the land and perhaps understandably reluctant to stop producing food and instead become foresters. But the choice need not be so binary.

The intensification of agriculture has caused catastrophic declines in many species throughout the UK by reducing vast wooded areas and thousands of miles of hedgerows to small pockets of vegetation, isolating populations and making them more vulnerable to extinction.

Integrating trees with the farmed landscape delivers multiple benefits for farms and the environment. Reforestation doesn’t have to mean a return to the ecologically and culturally inappropriate single-species blocks of non-native conifers, which were planted en masse in the 1970s and 1980s. Incentivised under tax breaks to secure a domestic timber supply, many of the resulting plantations were located in places difficult or in some cases impossible to actually harvest.

Productive farmland needn’t be converted to woodland. Instead, that 4 per cent of land could be found by scattering trees more widely. After all, more trees on farmland is good for business. They prevent soil erosion and the run-off of pollutants, provide shade and shelter for livestock, a useful source of renewable fuel and year-round forage for pollinating insects.

The first tranche of tree planting could involve new hedgerows full of large trees, preferably with wide headlands of permanently untilled soils, providing further wildlife refuge.


Natural regeneration

Where appropriate, new woody habitats can be created simply by stopping how the land is currently used, such as by removing livestock. This process can be helped by scattering seeds in areas where seed sources are low. But patience is a virtue. If people can learn to tolerate less clipped and manicured landscapes, nature can run its own course.

A focus on deliberate tree planting also raises uncomfortable truths. Most trees are planted with an accompanying stake to keep them upright and a plastic shelter that protects the sapling from grazing damage. All too often, these shelters aren’t retrieved. Left to the elements, they break down into ever smaller pieces, and can be swept into rivers and eventually the ocean, where they threaten marine wildlife. Two billion tree shelters is a lot of plastic.

The main reason for using tree shelters at all is because the deer population in the UK is so high that in many places, it is all but impossible to establish new trees. This also has serious implications for existing woodland, which is prevented from naturally regenerating. In time, these trees will age and die, threatening the loss of the woodland itself. Climate change, pests and pathogens and the lack of a coordinated, centrally supported approach to deer management means the outlook for the UK’s existing treescape is uncertain at best.

An ecologically joined-up solution would be to reintroduce the natural predators of deer, such as lynx, wolves, and bears. Whether rewilding should get that far in the UK is still the subject of debate. Before that, perhaps the focus should be on providing the necessary habitat, rich in native trees.

A positive response would be to implement the balanced recommendations, made almost a decade ago in a government review, of creating more new habitat, improving what’s already there, and finding ways to link it together. Bigger, better, and more connected habitats.

But the UK is losing trees at increasing rates and not just through diseases. The recent removal of Victorian-era street trees in Sheffield and many other towns and cities is another issue to contend with. As the climate warms, increasing urban temperatures will mean cities need shade from street trees more than ever.

Trees aren’t the environmental panacea that the politicians might have people believe – even if they do make for great photo opportunities – but we do need more of them. Efforts to expand tree cover are underway across the world and the UK will benefit from contributing its share. Hitting the right balance – some commercial forestry, lots of new native woodland and millions of scattered trees – will be key to maximising the benefits they bring.

Nick Atkinson, Senior Lecturer in Ecology & Conservation, Nottingham Trent University.

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.