This is why we ignore official UK city status: because it's really, really stupid

Doesn't look much like a city to me. St David's Cathedral. Image: Chris Rivers/Wikimedia Commons.

 This is St David's.

Click to expand, should that be something you wish to do. Image: Google.

St David's lies on the River Alun, on the aptly named St David's Peninsula in Pembrokeshire, the western extremity of Wales. It has a cathedral. It has a city hall.

But that's about all it has, if we're honest, because St David's is tiny: its population at the time of the 2011 census was just 1,841, which is a fraction of the population of a fair sized housing estate.

For this reason, it's not the sort of place that CityMetric would normally have much to say about. It’s not a major regional economic centre; there is no plan for a St David’s city devolution settlement. And there’s definitely no St David's Metro network because, well, look:

Click to expand. Image: Google.

I mean, what would be the point?

So why are we banging on about it today? Because, for 22 years, St David's has been Britain's smallest city. It was considered a city in archaic times, but lost the title in the 19th century when somebody pointed out it was silly. But we live in a very silly age, so in 1994, despite the fact it hadn’t really grown since then, it got its title back again.

This country is ludicrous sometimes.

St David’s is the most extreme example – but it's not the only UK "city" that is frankly not really worthy of the name. Here's St Asaph, at the other end of Wales, in Denbighshire:

Click to expand. Image: Google.

St Asaph is a bustling place compared to St David's: an incredible 3,355 people live there, and it even has a main road (the A55!). But it's still pretty small, as you can tell from the fact that, if you switch to Google Earth, you can just about make out individual houses.

Click to expand. Image: Google.

Then there's Wells, in Somerset, which with 10,500 people is a veritable metropolis:

Click to expand. Image: Google.

Truro, the capital of Cornwall, has nearly 19,000 people, making it almost twice as big again. And is so big that different districts of it actually have their own names:

Click to expand. Image: Google.

But it’s still only about an eighth the size of even the smallest London borough.

All these places have two things in common. One is that they have been recognised as cities by the British government, by either Royal Charter (a form of legal instrument in which the Crown bestows some ancient right), or letters patent (same).

Such status used to be pretty ad hoc and informal: some cities have had it for "time immemorial" (a posh way of saying "since no one knows when"); others were granted it by Henry VIII, when his campaign to reform the church required the setting up of a bunch of new cathedrals in a 16th century attempt to break up a sort of religious monopoly.

Then, three hundred years later, Queen Victoria started visiting places scattering city status in her wake. And these days roughly once a decade assorted local authorities spend a lot of public money trying to win ceremonial city status, which is definitely not a waste of anyone's time or money or anything.

The other thing these cities have in common is that today, with varying degrees of irony, people have mentioned their names to us on social media, and demanded to know why CityMetric doesn't recognise them as British cities.  Especially when we do recognise places that very definitely aren’t cities.

All this came up because, earlier, we ran an article under the following headline:

Southend is Britain's only high-wage, high-welfare city. What gives?

That article, by the Centre for Cities' Paul Swinney, is a fascinatingly wonkish piece of work about the unusual demographic and financial problems faced by the Essex commuter-town-cum-seaside-resort. But a lot of people seemed to reject the premise of the question, because they were too busy responding with things like this:

Now, officially, that much is true. Southend put in a bid for city status in 2012, but was rejected in favour of Essex’s county town, Chelmsford.

And yet, Southend is still comfortably the largest settlement in the county – indeed, in the whole of the East of England. The borough proper has a population of around 175,000; its wider urban area nearly 300,000. You could comfortably fit the whole of St David's into its central shopping area:

Click to expand. Image: Google.

Zoom the map out to the point where you can see most of the Southend area and, at the same scale, St David's all but disappears:

Click to expand. Image: Google.

So, in official legal terms, no, Southend is not a city, and yes, St David's is.

But in any sense that should matter to anyone who isn't a direct descendent of Edward III – population, economy, effect on the environment – it seems to us that Southend, a place substantially bigger than Reykjavík, has a far greater claim to coverage on a cities-focused news website than St David's.

So do places like Middlesbrough, and Bournemouth, and Reading, none of which are officially cities, but all of which face city-style problems. There's no universally accepted way of defining what should count as a city and what doesn't – but it seems self evident to us that places with 200,000 people have a better claim than those with 10,000 people.  

And so, while the British government keeps granting city status to villages with delusions of grandeur, or cities that are actually bits of other cities, we intend to go on ignoring it.

So there.


(And incidentally: No, you don't need a cathedral to win city status because it's not 1534. They scrapped that rule in the 19th century. So now you know.)

Jonn Elledge is the editor of CityMetric, and tweets as @jonnelledge.

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Eritrea’s Modernist architecture: a striking reminder of years of oppression

Asmara’s futuristic Fiat Tagliero Building (1938) was built to resemble an aircraft. Image: David Stanley/Creative Commons.

Those with an eye for architecture will notice something peculiar when visiting Eritrea’s capital, Asmara. Dotted around the city are exceptional examples of Modernist architecture, a style that emerged in Europe during the interwar period. Rejecting gratuitous ornateness in favour of minimalism, function and rationalism, the style grew to dominate 20th century design. But it didn’t arrive in an east African country in a remotely benevolent way.

The huge continent was carved up in the span of just a few decades, in an era of history known as the “Scramble for Africa”. Described in German as torschlusspanik, meaning “panic of a closing gate”, European powers grabbed as much as they could to prevent their rivals gaining the upper hand.

Having consolidated his power in Italy, fascist dictator Mussoulini looked to Africa to expand what he saw as the new Roman Empire. It was in this context that the country seized this stretch of coast along the Red Sea that became Eritrea. And it was Asmara that was going to be the new African capital, La Piccola Roma – Little Rome.

Standing at 2,000m above sea level, the capital’s location was chosen in part because it was cooler than the brutally hot coastal regions. As was commonplace across European colonies, the colonisers wanted to avoid the extremes of the lands they conquered and find places more comparable to the climates they had left behind.

Where the colonial money arrived, the locals followed and Asmara became a city of contrasts. Intermingled with the Tukul’s, round huts of stone or mud topped with conical roofs that are indigenous to East Africa, are hundreds of buildings in the modernist style that were erected by the Italian colonisers from 1935. Many such buildings, including the Fiat Tagliero petrol station, the Town Hall and the Cinema Roma, came to represent East African Modernism. But why was there this push towards the style?


Peter Volgger, an academic who studied the impact of the modernist architecture in post-colonial Eritrea, has a theory. “Colonial cities were often projection screens for modernist fantasies and were built as futuristic visions for European cities.” So what couldn’t be done back home could be done in the colonial setting. Fantasies could be fulfilled.

The fall of fascism in Europe after WWII didn’t mark the end of colonialism in Africa, as the losers’ colonies were transferred over to the winners. Britain governed the colony for a while before power at a federal level was handed over Ethiopia. It was only in 1993 that Eritrea finally gained independence from its larger neighbour; a hundred years after the Italians first conquered the region.

Yet the Modernist buildings continued to be built long after the Italians had left. The IRGA garage, for instance, which is often held up as a key example of Eritrean modernism was built in 1961.

It’s in part due to such constructions that in 2017, Asmara was recognised as by Unesco as a site of particular cultural importance and included in their world heritage list. This not only brings in money from Unesco directly, but also induces international interest and tourism. The inclusion of Asmara in the organisation’s heritage list marked a shift towards inclusivity, having often been criticised for its lack of sites in Africa. Of the 845 cultural sites worldwide, Asmara is one of only 52 that are from Sub-Saharan Africa. In Germany alone there are 41 sites and Italy 49.

Long overdue, the significance of Asmara and its modernist buildings has been recognised. Despite their architectural interest they cannot and should not be divorced from the grim historical reality of their existence. For the millions who call the city home they stand monument to the arrogant dreams of empire that consumed the country for over a hundred years.