By Luka Lacey
Southend-on-Sea (often shortened to just Southend) is now finally a fully-fledged city and not just a town. The issue is no one seems to have any clue what this means nor what has been gained. The upgrade occurred due to tragic circumstances – the assassination of our Honourable MP Sir David Amess. As a dedicated Southendian he was committed to Southend’s city status and often brought up the issue at Prime Minister’s Questions. After his passing, it was seen as a way to memorialise him and all the good he did for the area in a genuinely symbolic way. This still remains a very touching gesture, but questions still remain around the future of the city given the circumstances.
Previously to be a city an area needed a cathedral. This was the issue that had prevented Southend from attaining city status earlier, given Southend has none. However, modern guidance recognises the value of other forms of infrastructure, and so having a university was added to the requirements. Luckily, Southend houses a University of Essex campus and so passed this new requirement. Unfortunately, other requirements remained that could be cited as reasons for Southend to remain a town.
Principal among these is the population requirement. Southend houses at best around 180,000 people. The minimum population required to be a city is 300,000. This is not actually a major roadblock as other cities have bypassed it before, but it still remains another thorn in the side of Southend’s city status.
Despite all of these possible issues in an application, Southend remains a city after receiving approval from the Monarch. This is unlikely to change, and so the question now is what next? Cities receive no more tangible benefits, i.e., more funding, than towns. The argument often cited is cities can apply for grants, e.g., city of culture, from the government in order to show off local culture (and receive funds from the government and tourism for doing so). However, Southend would be on a competitive ballot for these honours and, given its already weak claim to city status, could be seen to be punching above its weight.
Another commonly made point is that cities carry more prestige than towns. As Sir Jacob Rees-Mogg described, “By being a city [a place] has a greater position on the world stage.” This brings in more tourism and investment from domestic and foreign sources as everyone suddenly realises how fantastic a place really is. The issue with this point, however, is that there is no evidence to support this claim. As Dr Steve Musson (economic geographer with the University of Reading) points out, the upgrade in civil status has uplifted some cities through investment and tourism, and in other cities it has done nothing. Investors and tourists look at a wide range of parameters when deciding to spend their money, with city status simply ranking lower than questions of infrastructure, attractions, and employment rates. Whilst there may be a slight trend of cities improving economically after the change, this is likely because of the reason they received city status in the first place and not the
other way round.
This latter point may explain Southend’s current economic downturn. Usually, cities that receive city status are growing urban communities with high employment, good infrastructure, and many investors. There is little evidence Southend matches this description, and so a possible reason we haven’t received the benefits of the change is the sudden circumstance through which we were bestowed the honour.
However, there is actually a strong argument for city status being beneficial, and that comes down to local politics. Southend is a unitary council, meaning it runs itself as a unit with no outside interference, which also means it is not controlled by Essex County Council. This is unusual, with other cities in Essex remaining within the Essex system, but means Southend can claim a distinct political identity, for better or worse. Therefore, the change in city status has been beneficial, as it has strengthened the argument for Southend remaining a unitary council and thus retaining its unique identity within Essex.
To conclude, Southend’s city status is tenuous both in how much it is deserved based on the city’s merit and the material benefits from this. The origin of the upgrade is tragic and uplifting all in one, but many questions still remain over the future of Southend. The change is likely safe given the current primacy of the economic crises plaguing Britain, but that doesn’t mean people won’t question whether it is deserved, what we have gained, and what happens next for Southend.