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What criteria are used to grant city status within the UK?

Officially and contrary to popular belief, there are no specific criteria which automatically grant city status in the United Kingdom, although in the past the status was awarded to towns with a diocesan cathedral.

As far back as history has been recorded, city status has been conferred by a royal charter, but there are a number of cities whose city status predates historic records. In present times, city status is granted by the British monarch, currently Queen Elizabeth II.

To most people, the word 'city' confers a large and densely populated urban area. However there are a number of UK cities which are no bigger than average towns or even villages. Most notably, St David's in Pembrokeshire, Wales is the smallest city in the United Kingdom with a population of just 2000. The city is so small that it lies entirely within a national park. Other small cities include Wells in Somerset with a population of 10000 and Ely in Cambridgeshire with a population of around 14000.

By contrast there are several large and densely populated urban areas in the United Kingdom which are not officially designated as cities, that is which have no city charter. These fall into two groups:

  • Conurbations

    Conurbations are large urban areas which can include cities, but which are not officially designated a city as a composite.

    The most notable example of the former group is London (Greater London) which contrary to popular belief is not officially classed as a city as it has no city charter. It is a conurbation which includes two cities, the City of London and the City of Westminster, as well as a large number of towns and villages. Nevertheless the overwhelming majority of people in the UK and internationally consider London to be a city.

    (Note that the City of London is not the same as London or Greater London. The City of London also known as The City or the Square Mile spans an area of just over one square mile (just under 3 square kilometers) and forms the financial centre of Greater London. Its resident population is just 8000 but due to the high density of offices, its daily working population is around 300,000.

  • Large Towns Without City Status

    There are many examples of large towns within the United Kingdom which are large enough to be considered 'cities', if 'cities' are defined as large and densely populated urban areas. Here are the largest of the non-city towns, with approximate population figures. As these towns are not officially considered cities, there is no section on for them, hence links have been provided to local websites where you can find further information about each town. As can be appreciated from these websites, some of the towns have a notable metropolitan quality to them.

Official Definition or Common Usage?

Hence there is an inconsistency between the common usage or meaning of the word 'city' and the very different "official" definition of the word 'city' as an exclusive status which can only be granted by the British Monarch.

For some people the distinction between 'city' and 'large town' is not important and in the course of their daily affairs either could be used interchangeably as synonyms.

For other people, there is a principle at stake and they would sooner refute the official definition on the grounds that it has nothing in common with the meaning conveyed in common usage and even ought to be officially superceded by the meaning in common usage. There is also dispute over whether it is the Crown's place to define a word.

Criticisms of the Official Definition of 'City'

There are three main criticisms of the official definition of 'city':

  • a. city status granted since time immemorial

    There is no record of how, why or when some cities were granted their city status. Had some of the smaller cities not been granted city status in the distant past, it is very unlikely that they would receive city status today, in view of their very small size. Many people therefore consider their status unjustified by today's standards of common usage.

  • b. cities whose status was granted in the past due to having a diocesan cathedral

    Although cathedrals may have been considered of prime importance at the time of their construction and are still important to their local clergy and members, cathedrals do not play an important role in the lives of the majority of Britain's modern city dwellers.

    In the past the Church was at the very centre of each community and assumed a local governmental and administrative role. However today local councils, departments and endless layers of government administration have acquired this power. Today therefore in the interests of aspiring to democracatic values, cathedrals cannot be considered sufficient or appropriate grounds for granting city status.

    In modern multicultural Britain, it would not be deemed appropriate for city status to be granted due to the existence of a Christian cathedral, as this would be prejudice against the significant number of members of other faiths.

    Furthermore it is likely that most people would not consider religious grounds as an appropriate measure to determine city status. Level of economic activity, population size or other socio-economic indicators would be better suited.

  • c. cities as designated by the British Monarch

    According to the Department for Constitutional Affairs website: "City status is a rare mark of distinction granted by the Sovereign and conferred by Letters Patent. It is granted by personal Command of The Queen, on the advice of Her Ministers. It is for Her Majesty The Queen to decide when a competition for city status should be held. Competitions are usually held on occasions such as important Royal anniversaries."

    So, no matter which political party the British public elect, it is still up to the Queen, non-elected though she is, to determine which town has city status and which has not. Whether this is her decision or on the advice of her ministers, it is still a decision removed from the public. The following account of how the city of Rochester lost its city status much to its dismay in 2002, illustrates the undemocratic nature of city status as designated by a monarch.

    An administrative oversight meant that Rochester, which had held city status since 1211, ceased to officially be a city. The former Rochester-upon-Medway City Council neglected to appoint ceremonial Charter Trustees when Medway became a unitary authority in 1998. Unfamiliar with the archaic rules governing city status, they did not realize that Charter Trustees would be needed to protect the city's status. Consequently Rochester was removed from the Lord Chancellor's official list of UK cities and since then has not been a city. Furthermore, much to the alarm of the people of Rochester, the decision is irrevocable, because the former City Council no longer exists as an entity and so cannot appoint Charter Trustees now. The people of Rochester have since been writing to the queen pleading with her to restore its former city status, but it is far from certain whether this will occur anytime soon.

    From a linguistic perspective, there is also a question of whose place it is to determine the definition of words in the English language. Normally lexicographers, who study the lexicon of a language and author dictionaries, define words as for publication in their dictionaries, as closely as possible to the word's common usage. Why then should the so-called "official" definition of a word such as 'city' and which towns qualify for city status be based on the whims of a single person (or indeed a group of ministers) who are uneducated in the field of lexicography?