Ipswich needs passion to drive a fresh bid for city status

Christchurch Mansion

Ipswich may be historic - but until its residents show a real commitment to city status it is unlikely to be serious contender for the honour. - Credit: Sarah Lucy Brown

Last week's news about the new cities created to mark the Queen's platinum jubilee had several major surprises - the one that prompted most raised eyebrows in this part of the world was Colchester gaining city status.

I must admit I was surprised.

It's not that Colchester, with its history stretching back to the earliest days of the Roman occupation of Britain, didn't deserve it - it's just that I didn't think Essex would be chosen this time after Chelmsford and Southend were both granted the honour in the last decade.

With its Roman history, its Norman castle, and its centuries-old links to the British Army, Colchester is a worthy city.

Colchester Castle

Colchester's Norman castle is one element that will have helped it win city status this year. - Credit: CBC/Rodger Tamblyn

And the fact is that the city bid had widespread support from all sides. Former MP Sir Bob Russell often insisted to me that it had always been a city since the first century AD - it was just that British governments hadn't got around to recognising the fact! Well, they have now.

His advocacy of the City of Colchester was taken up by his successor Will Quince, who understood this was an issue that transcended political differences in the area.

Sir Bob Russell

Sir Bob Russell - Credit: Andrew Partridge

Colchester's victory showed what a bit of ambition and self-belief could do for a place and many people will regret that Ipswich did not have the same level of self-belief to make a similar commitment this time around.

To make it clear, I don't think that both Ipswich and Colchester would have won city status at the same time - and I certainly don't believe that Colchester only won because Ipswich didn't enter.

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There are many factors that are necessary for a town to achieve city status, but the wholehearted commitment of the local MP to that cause is absolutely crucial in this - and it is clear that on this occasion the town did not have that.

Sir David Amess MP, who represented Southend West, was killed at his constituency surgery in Leigh o

Sir David Amess - Credit: Richard Townshend Photography

A few months ago, shortly after the tragic death of Sir David Amess and the granting of city status to Southend I was talking to someone who had known south Essex well for decades.

He told me that when Sir David was first elected as MP for Southend in 1997 he straight away started talking about city status. Most local people thought it was an unnecessary, pointless, pipedream.

But as Sir David went on about it  - in the House of Commons, in every TV and radio interview he did, in speeches he made - local people started to come round to the idea. Eventually, the idea had almost universal backing in the community.

It is a tragedy that he is not still around to see the ultimate conclusion of that campaign - but Sir David's family know there could be no greater tribute to him that having the City of Southend.

Of course, Southend and Ipswich don't have the same character. And not everywhere can have the ambition to become a city. 

Before Sir David became MP for Southend, he was MP for Basildon for nine years. He was well-thought-of in that town too, but he never launched a "City of Basildon" campaign because he recognised that was pointless.

Tom Hunt wants the public to be in favour of a renewed Ipswich city bid

Ipswich MP Tom Hunt - Credit: House of Commons

From that point of view, I can understand Tom Hunt's position - but I'm not sure that asking for public views on an issue like this is ever going to really be helpful in any campaign.

To really achieve a goal like this you really need to have a clear vision, to lead from the front - not ask people what you should do. Sir David Amess didn't ask the people of Southend whether they wanted to live in a city in 1997. He saw the vision and led from the front.

Of course, on other issues, Mr Hunt has done just that. Is special needs education something everyone feels passionate about? Probably not - but his work on that has really helped to raise its profile.

He's also followed up the good work of his predecessor Sandy Martin in supporting those living in or owning properties in Ipswich tower blocks.

But you can't expect an MP to have the same level of commitment to every issue - and he does not appear to have such strong feelings about city status.

This year there were three new cities created in England but many large towns applied and failed: Bournemouth, Reading, Middlesbrough, Northampton and Guildford among them.

And while in Suffolk we bemoan the fact that we don't have a city, the same can be said of Dorset, Shropshire, Surrey,  Northamptonshire and Berkshire.

No one knows when the next new city will be created - but if that honour is ever to come to Ipswich we need to see much more passion from our civic leaders.