Wolverhampton’s Road to City status
by Suhail Rana
In 2000 Wolverhampton became one of the three millennium cities, the others being Brighton and Inverness. So why and how did our famous town achieve this royal honour only awarded on special occasions, such as the Queen’s Jubilee and on the advice of the Government. In the past only towns with cathedrals were called cities, but this changed in 1889 when Birmingham was awarded the honour without a cathedral. No set criteria have ever been defined for winning the honour, but it was generally considered a town had to have a population of over 200,000 and have historical and Royal links as well as regional importance. The application from a town normally comes through the local council and Wolverhampton made its first official bid in 1953. It was considered along with Preston and Southampton but in the end the honour wasn’t awarded to any town that year. In any case Wolverhampton’s coronation bid may not have succeeded as it was considered not to have “individual character”.
In 1966 Wolverhampton’s County Borough was extended to include Wednesfield, Bilston and Tettenhall increasing the population to over 250,000. In May of that year the town clerk enquired about Wolverhampton’s prospects of being successful if a bid was made. The government treated the query as an application and it was rejected in November. The main reasons for the failure was the overspend on the new ring road, which was widely reported in the Daily Telegraph that summer, and the fact it was also considered not to have “individual character”.
The next major campaign for city status was launched in 1973 and a Council delegation was approved to go to the Home Office. This was delayed as a result of local government reorganisation in 1974 and the Council were told to apply in 1975. The council decided to delay the bid but they didn’t have long to wait as it was announced towns could apply for city status to celebrate the Queen’s Silver Jubilee in 1977. This time Wolverhampton was on the final short-list of three towns along with Sunderland and Derby but lost out to the latter. Again the main reason for the failure was said to be because we had no “individual character”.
Wolverhampton council’s next attempt was made in 1985, the year we marked our millennium. I got involved in the bid myself at this point and contacted local MP’s who hadn’t been consulted by the Council but were happy to support them. Sadly, the Council were informed in August that the bid had failed due to the lack of exceptional circumstances. I heard about the failure through my MP Nick Budgen who himself was informed of the failure by David Mellor at the Home Office. At this point I contacted the Express and Star editor Keith Parker who hadn’t heard the news. Apparently the Council had kept the news quiet in the hope the decision would be re-considered. Council leader John Bird wasn’t upset about the fact that I had leaked the news to the press as it meant the local media and MP Budgen had become more involved and bolstered the bid. Unfortunately, he subsequently received a phone call in October from the Home Office that we would not be getting city status that year.
In 1986 after analysing the 1981 census I discovered that we were the largest town in the UK without city status and suggested the Council should re-apply immediately but without success. Undeterred I organised the “People’s Bid” for city status in 1987 and sent a petition to the Home Office. The bid had the backing of the Council Leader John Bird, who praised my efforts and received good coverage from local radio and the Express and Star. It was carefully considered by the Home Office but was unsuccessful and proved to be a bitter personal blow. The next opportunity came in 1992 on the occasion of the Queen’s 40th anniversary, my research was submitted to the Home Office in support of the Council petition by MP Maureen Hicks. Agonisingly we finished second to Sunderland but the consolation was that we were finally considered to have some “individual character”. In 1994 rumours abounded that the Council had asked the Home Secretary to consider us for city status in time for the Queen’s visit in June. The rumours were unfounded but then shockingly in July that year the Queen awarded city status to the cathedral towns of St. David’s and Armagh.
In 1999 the government announced the Millennium City Status competition and 39 UK towns applied for the honour, including Wolverhampton. I was keen to keep up-to-date with any news about how the bids were going and was in contact with the editors of the Brighton Argus and the Express and Star. In March a leak from inside the Home Office made Wolverhampton and Brighton front-runners and caused uproar amongst the other applicants. It soon became apparent there were a lot of politics playing out in the background which could still see Wolverhampton fall at the final hurdle. As a result, the Home Office were forced to ask all the applicants to provide more evidence for their individual cases. I quickly produced graphs, using data from the latest census, which still showed Wolverhampton as the largest town in the UK without city status, both in terms of population and area and sent copies to all three of Wolverhampton’s MP’s. They found them very persuasive and sent them on to the Home Secretary Jack Straw who replied by thanking them for the information provided. MP Dennis Turner, later Lord Bilston, was quoted in the Express and Star as saying it was compelling evidence, potent stuff and reinforced what he believed was the strongest case.
If you’d met me on 18 December 2000 you would probably have seen me crying tears of joy as the news came through we had finally achieved city status along with Brighton and Inverness. The news was officially announced in the London Gazette the following month as the new cities celebrated the raised status. So how had we succeeded on this occasion but not the other previous times? A good friend, Professor John Beckett, an expert on city status and director of the Victoria History of the Counties of England said that it was because we had finally been accepted as having a “proud individual character”.
So what difference has city status made to Wolverhampton is a question I was asked in a BBC interview on the occasion of our 10th anniversary as a city. My answer then was the same as it is today. We have more confidence as a city, a higher profile nationally and internationally and are taken more seriously. Then again why should we expect any advantages of becoming a city? All the honour really did was to remove the insult that our town with such a large population, regional importance and long history had not been recognised with the same status given to every other town of similar and even inferior credentials. We are a proud city and it was pride that ultimately led to our success. It’s no coincidence that a national survey published in March this year made us the best place to live in the entire UK.