I’ve followed the topic of city status for a while. So long, in fact, that I remember first learning that we’d lost out to Wolverhampton in 2000 by seeing the headline on an Evening Post seller’s newsstand on Broad Street. I duly placed my 20 pence into an aged ink-stained hand and read all about it. More memorable was 2012 when BBC Berkshire announced we’d won and played Starship’s We Built This City, before having to rapidly clarify that we’d actually lost to Chelmsford in a comedic episode of local radio. If anyone has the clip do share it! I was obviously disappointed enough to remember these moments, but am I in a minority favouring the accolade? Well, that depends how you count. Every social media post I’ve seen on the topic, such as the one below, yields the same outcome – a large flurry of casual positivity in the form of likes and up votes, coupled with a handful of almost entirely negative written comments. Surveys have been favourable, with the exception of one local commentator who asked only whether the bid had “strong support” and narrowly flipped the outcome. It seems Reading overwhelmingly supports City Status to a weak extent. Most of the people minded to speak out are those minority naysayers, and they have a collection of arguments. So let’s take a look at them and see if we can convince the doubters to come onboard…
Argument 1: It’s Pointless
Well this is slightly ironic from people posting frequent and universally negative comments on Berkshire Live articles. Correct, there’s no monetary prize, but that doesn’t mean no good could come from it. Let’s leave aside potentially tenuous arguments around increased prominence from the US for the moment; an inaugural Reading city year, and subsequent anniversaries could provide the spur, the good excuse, for local people to arrange that carnival, establish that sports club, organise that community event… Yes, city status – like much in life – would be entirely what we’d make of it. No cash bonanza, but it’ll only be as pointless as you want it to be.
Argument 2: It’ll cost too much
Every year, the local business-funded inward investment agency produces wonderful glossy brochures as to why Reading is so wonderful and your company should relocate here. All towns/cities do the same in a giant zero-sum game of provincial propaganda. But all we need do is change the title of this year’s edition to “City Status Bid” and the content is all the same – just post a copy to the government. Job done – no extra cost. An interview with the council leader broadly confirms this approach.
People say we need to change all the signs. Well, the fixed ones can just be replaced once they wear out – none of them say “Welcome to Reading Town” anyway. And besides, many signs around town are digital – “City Centre” is five seconds on a keyboard. What’s more, due to the typographical exuberance of the displaced proportionally spaced Ws from “Town”, we’d accrue at least 73p per year in electricity savings. Winner.
In short, there’s absolutely nothing in applying for city status that will distract the council from its core responsibilities of educating our children, emptying the bins, and closing local swimming pools. (Councillor retweets all lost in one joke there!)
Argument 3: It will lead to extra unwanted development
This conjecture, contrary to the ‘pointless’ argument, is that an unwanted surge of development will result directly from city elevation. Well, recently the government came in for a lot of flak for a regional housing allocation formula, dubbed the mutant algorithm, that would have led to more fields being developed. They rapidly issued an adjustment that instead foisted an extra 35% on the biggest 20 cities in England and Wales. Of course, this list actually includes one town: Reading – the 18th largest “city” in England. Even official government literature, policy, and the ONS all treat Reading as a city. The extra development is either going to come or not, but city status is evidently immaterial.
And private development is already occurring at breakneck speed. You can’t take a photo in Reading town centre without a tower crane poking out above a building, or reflected in a window. They’re like the Usborne yellow ducks of Reading – always hiding there somewhere. I’m grateful to Berkeley Homes for updating my literary references with their Where’s Wally construction apparatus in the development below. There are, in my view, compelling positives to these regenerations – but that’s another topic, my point is that city status is not the major driver. It will, however, reflect the obvious truth of the nature of modern Reading, which indeed is already reflected in the government’s own planning policies. It’s also conceivable that city status could help diversify the commercial interest beyond the current domination of high-rise flats, such as for leisure and cultural facilities.
Argument 4: We’d rather stay a town
I believe the three recent failed bids might have taken a bit of a toll here. Anyone who’s had kids will recognise the gradual evolution of their coping strategies for life’s disappointments. All of sudden tears and tantrums give way to an altogether more sophisticated response to a rejection: the tilt of the head, the shrug of the shoulder, and with a defiant huff “I didn’t want one anyway”. Has Reading harnessed its inner 7-year-old? How else to explain a desire to remain a town whilst being simultaneously adamant that being a city would make no difference whatsoever?
Or maybe some people just revel in the nearly-man sob story? The failed bids, the football team’s litany of Wembley woes… But even if that’s the case, surely you’d at least support the bid? After all, if you don’t enter you can’t lose. Why deprive us of another defining moment of embarrassment at missing out to some ruined castle in Wales that nobody’s ever heard of?
Argument 5: Something about cathedrals
Towns with cathedrals: Guildford, Rochester, Southwell.
Cities without cathedrals: Brighton, Bath, Cambridge… and 15 more.
There is no religious impediment to our ascension. Besides, we have a Minster, which is a decent hand in ecclesiastic top trumps.
Argument 6: We’ll never win it anyway
Elaborations on this argument major on cynicism that political factors determine the outcome. They’ll give it the North somewhere or Scotland, etc. Well, that may be the case. But remember, we have two marginal constituencies. Even if you believe the quality of bids will be entirely immaterial, there’s still a case for Reading.
Argument 7: [The missing argument]
Google has somehow learnt of my interest in this topic, and now shoves endless articles at my feed from local news around the country featuring their discourse on city status. I’ve read about Barnsley, Doncaster, Warwick, Swindon, Slough, Basingstoke…
They all attract the exact same half-a-dozen protestations that I’ve listed above. But they also include a seventh. Residents in all of those places make negative comparisons between their towns and places they do consider to be cities. And most tellingly, the feedback in those southern towns at the end of my list is all dominated by one argument: “…but we’re not a patch on Reading”.
Entirely absent from our local naysayer narrative is any suggestion that a single other location would be more deserving. Now maybe that’s not a strong argument to support city status. But the argument in favour surely needn’t be strong when the argument against is so weak. Maybe life would be simpler if we didn’t have as many words for ‘settlement’ as Inuits have for snow. But since we have them, why not use them vaguely consistently?
2022 – high time for the City of Reading.
…Or at least in the meantime, a few more cameraphone snaps from a Saturday late afternoon stroll the other week. As always, feel free to leave your comments, unless you think it’s pointless…Follow @readingonthames