It is a topic which rises to the surface periodically and can be guaranteed to spark off a good argument. It also helps show the dividing lines on the issues, so in order to complement the topic on my local newsblog it's worth investigating the issue a bit further.
According to UK Cities there are currently 50 cities in England. They also highlight the discrepancy between common usage and the official distinction which is conferred by the monarch.
The dictionary definition harks back to ecclesiatical power structures, citing the requirement for a cathedral, while more modern statisticians look at human communications identifying the connurbation and metropolis as more obvious units of settlement.
Wiki has more on the different ways a city can be understood.
The Reading/Wokingham Urban Area is the 17th largest in the country by population (369,804, 2001, up 10.1% since 1991), but this includes most of central Berkshire. According to the Office of National Statistics the Reading Urban area has a population of 232,662, while the borough itself has a population of 144,000.
Reading has played a significant role at pivotal points in our national history, from Alfred the Great, to the Magna Carta, the Civil War and the Industrial Revolution during the Victorian age.
The first spur to the prominence of Reading came after the Norman conquest when the site was chosen for the strategic importance. The charter of incorporation was received in 1253 after the local merchant guild successfully petitioned for a division of responsibility with the Abbey authorities - typically this came down to questions of taxes, as the local economy was suffering due to a lack of financial transparency and accountability.
Reading has always been a major transport hub to the west of London and traditionally boasts some of the best communication links in the country. However Reading partly grew up because it was located at the confluence of bottlenecks from the east-to-west and north-to-south so continues to suffer from major congestion as a result. The railway station remains the second busiest interchange outside of London (though this is largely driven by the large numbers of commuters).
Once upon a time when greater devolution for english regions was on the cards Reading considered development would help make it a candidate for a regional capital. Consequently the town managed to turn itself into a major regional retail location and has developed into an increasingly important location for technology and financial services companies, supported by the excellent University (which has several world-class research departments).
The area has a rich cultural life and many figures in the international arts world either hail from or have close connections with Reading. It is also widely recognised as the home of the traditional August Bank Holiday climax to the summer music festival circuit and for the sports teams located at the neat Madejski Stadium complex.
But is this enough to deserve 'city' status?
In 2000 Wolverhampton and Brighton were given charters as English cities, while Preston followed up in 2002. This time round Reading is competing with the likes of Milton Keynes.
From my perspective I think it comes down to a matter of character.
Because the town has always been at the crossroads of political debates it has often been more convenient to demolish and build anew than to learn to integrate.
The loss of the Abbey and Castle during the civil war left a gaping scar at the heart of the civic life of the place which took centuries to recover from.
The victorians introduced and adapted the local vernacular of brick design into common buildings and encouraged an imperial triumphalism into civic institutions such as the Royal Berkshire Hospital and the Old Town Hall (see above). The twentieth century has seen half-hearted transport solutions strangle development while the expression of personality has been suffocated with overreliance on intensive bulding to cheap design in the ensuing move to a mass consumer society.
Brutalist architects cut swathes through the ancient streets when the IDR and new civic centre were constructed, while virtually every available green space has been turned into housing without consideration for an overall vision of how each development has a cumulative effect on the quality of life in the town.
Between every generation a philosophical swing from economic functionalism to a human idealism (or vice versa) takes place that is more expedient than designed to enhance the active community - political necessity always overrules far-sighted planning.
And so, because the state of our shared built environment represents both what we stand for and controls how we live in it we need to understand how the visions of place do have a determining impact on the recognition of our civic status.
In summation there are really only two political questions which must be answered before I can decide whether to support Reading's bid to become a city.
- Which vision for the future is on offer?
- In whose interest is it?
In the end it comes down to a matter of balancing finance and control... as always. My fear is that the balance will be tipped so far in one direction that we may once again lose more than we win.