Merthyr Tydfil: City Status

– in Westminster Hall at 4:00 pm on 15th September 2021.

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Photo of Laurence Robertson Laurence Robertson Conservative, Tewkesbury 4:00 pm, 15th September 2021

May I remind hon. Members to wear masks when not speaking, in line with current Government guidance and that of the House of Commons Commission, and to give one another and members of staff space when seated and when entering the room?

Photo of Gerald Jones Gerald Jones Shadow Minister (Wales)

I beg to move,

That this House
has considered Merthyr Tydfil city status.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Robertson. I have agreed to take interventions from my hon. Friends the Members for Swansea East (Carolyn Harris) and for Newport West (Ruth Jones).

Photo of Laurence Robertson Laurence Robertson Conservative, Tewkesbury

Order. Could you confirm that the Minister has agreed to that?

Photo of Gerald Jones Gerald Jones Shadow Minister (Wales)

Yes, and they will be brief.

As part of the Queen’s platinum jubilee celebrations, towns across the UK will have the opportunity to apply for city status. It is my contention that none has contributed as much to the modern world as Merthyr Tydfil. When people ask me, “Why should Merthyr Tydfil be made a city?”, my answer to them is, “Why on earth not?” Why should Merthyr Tydfil be less deserving than Preston, Newport, Stirling, Lisburn or Newry? What secret formula do they and other cities have that Merthyr Tydfil lacks? The answer, of course, is that Merthyr Tydfil is as industrious, as ambitious and—I might be biased—even more beautiful. It is thoroughly deserving of city status.

This bid, this collective endeavour, for city status is as much about reminding us, as representatives and residents, why Merthyr Tydfil is as worthy of becoming a city as any other town in the UK. I am pleased that the campaign has already won the support of our Member of the Senedd, Dawn Bowden, the lord lieutenant for Mid Glamorgan, Peter Vaughan, the high sheriff of Mid Glamorgan, Jeff Edwards, and Merthyr Tydfil County Borough Council, along with residents, businesses and well-wishers from beyond Merthyr Tydfil’s borders. I am pleased, too, that the mayor of Merthyr Tydfil, Councillor Malcolm Colbran, has made the journey to be with us here today.

Merthyr Tydfil was the cradle of the industrial revolution. It went from a small farming village in the mid-1700s to the largest town in Wales by 1851 as a result of the rapid expansion of the ironworks. By the 1820s, Merthyr Tydfil was the source of 40% of Britain’s iron exports, and it became the largest iron-producing town in the world. Iron forged in Merthyr Tydfil supplied the Royal Navy and helped to shape the modern world. Iron from Merthyr Tydfil helped not only to power the industrial revolution, but to build the railroads of the American frontiers. Coal from Merthyr Tydfil was shipped all over the globe and helped to create cities such as Cardiff. On 21 February 1804, the world’s first ever steam railway journey ran for 9 miles from the ironworks at Penydarren to the Merthyr-Cardiff canal in south Wales.

I am personally proud that the first ever Labour MP and first leader of the Labour party, James Keir Hardie, represented Merthyr Tydfil in this House. The year 1831 saw the Merthyr rising. During that week-long revolt, people marched under the red flag, using it for the first time as a symbol of working people. The red flag was later adopted internationally as the symbol of the working class. More recently, Merthyr Tydfil and particularly the village of Aberfan have developed a very deep and personal connection with Her Majesty the Queen, along with other members of the royal family.

But history alone does not a city make, no matter how world-changing that history is. Merthyr Tydfil has seen considerable change, certainly over the past 20 years. Investment in the area has brought a brand-new college offering university courses to the town; a new hub of civil service jobs at the Welsh Government offices; and improved transport links, including the 21st-century bus interchange that recently opened, thanks to £10 million of Welsh Government investment.

Merthyr Tydfil has always been the “capital of the valleys”, with people travelling from far and wide to visit for retail and leisure. Our proximity to the world-famous Brecon Beacons national park and attractions such as BikePark Wales and Rock UK’s climbing centre have seen tourist numbers increase dramatically.

The town also has a thriving cultural offering. Local pubs are well known for their live music, with the New Crown recently awarded as the “best live music entertainment restaurant” at the Welsh Enterprise Awards. Merthyr Tydfil has two theatres providing a mix of English and Welsh-language productions and events, in partnership with students and staff at the College Merthyr Tydfil. The annual Merthyr Rising festival provides a mix of culture, music, arts and political discussion, and it has grown year on year.

The town’s links to Roman Britain are remembered with events such as the Tydfilians Roman Run, which started in 1980 to commemorate the martyrdom of Tydfil, the saint from which the town derives its name, 1,600 years ago. The race follows the route between the forts of the Roman legions stationed in Wales from Brecon to Merthyr Tydfil, across the Brecon Beacons. The council’s ambitious Cyfarthfa plan is a 20-year vision made up of 70 short-term and long-term projects. The plan will also turn the former home of the Crawshay ironmasters—the famous Cyfarthfa castle—into an international museum, with hopes of doubling the size of the surrounding ground as well as conducting urgent repairs to both the furnaces and the castle.

Sadly, not everyone is as passionate and optimistic about Merthyr Tydfil’s future as I am. The proposal to make Merthyr Tydfil a city has drawn the predictable snark and cynicism from social media that we have come to expect. Online commentary has focused on Merthyr Tydfil’s lack of a cathedral. Sadly, this is true, but having a cathedral has not been a requirement for city status since 1889. The social media brigade, largely from outside Merthyr Tydfil, has also deemed the town too small to become a city, despite the fact that 12 cities in the UK have a lower population than Merthyr Tydfil.

Thankfully, I have received a great many positive comments from residents and businesses who are optimistic about the opportunity that city status presents for Merthyr Tydfil. I believe that city status would build on the progress that we have already made and allow us to realise myriad advantages for the town. There are the obvious economic advantages of city status, which would help the local authority to attract inward investments, promote wider interest in the town from across Wales and other parts of the UK, and encourage greater tourism to our remarkable scenery.

Merthyr Tydfil is not just the metaphorical heart of the valleys; it is the geographical centre, too. Merthyr Tydfil is literally at the crossroads of the A470 and the A465, with links to Cardiff to the south, to mid and north Wales, and to the midlands, Swansea and west Wales.

Photo of Carolyn Harris Carolyn Harris Labour, Swansea East

I know my hon. Friend will agree that Merthyr Tydfil has been at the very heart of Wales’s political, industrial and social history. It has quite simply shaped the world that we live in. I am privileged to have visited my hon. Friend’s constituency many times, and I consider him to be a very dear friend. I know that his campaign to add Merthyr Tydfil to the growing list of Welsh cities should be successful. As he has already said, Merthyr Tydfil is a city of the valleys. My home town of Swansea was bestowed city status, and I sincerely hope that Merthyr Tydfil gets the opportunity to achieve the same.

Photo of Gerald Jones Gerald Jones Shadow Minister (Wales)

I thank my hon. Friend for her intervention, and for her support. Indeed, Merthyr Tydfil is well placed to be a city of the valleys, attracting businesses and jobs.

By supporting the bid, the local authority and residents are showing their pride in Merthyr Tydfil and our collective ambitions for the future. I believe that Merthyr Tydfil’s bid for city status speaks for itself. We are a town that has shaped the world for generations. If the bid is successful, Merthyr Tydfil will take its place among the great cities of our country and face its future with pride and determination.

Photo of Ruth Jones Ruth Jones Shadow Minister (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs)

My hon. Friend is making a powerful speech about a very important subject. As a member of a town that became a city in 2002 during the Queen’s golden jubilee, I am really pleased to be able to stand here and support him today. My predecessor—the late, great Paul Flynn—made a powerful speech that I am sure contributed to Newport becoming a city, so I am sure my hon. Friend’s speech today will help engage everybody in the importance of Merthyr becoming a city.

Photo of Gerald Jones Gerald Jones Shadow Minister (Wales)

I thank my hon. Friend for that intervention, and for her support. Hopefully, Merthyr Tydfil will have the same success in its bid for city status that Newport had in 2002. Pride and determination have been shown in Merthyr Tydfil over the centuries; I am sure this bid will harness that, and bring people together to support the town in its efforts.

In conclusion, Merthyr Tydfil has a rich and proud history, as I hope I have outlined. We also have a bright and exciting future. I hope today’s debate will go a little way to help in raising awareness of the future that I know Merthyr Tydfil can—and will—achieve.

Photo of Julia Lopez Julia Lopez Parliamentary Secretary (Cabinet Office), The Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office 4:10 pm, 15th September 2021

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Robertson. I congratulate Gerald Jones on securing this debate, and on making a beautiful and compelling speech about a place he clearly feels a very deep connection with and passion for. I also thank him for his work to promote the idea of a city for the valleys. He is a great champion for his constituency, and I know that communities in Merthyr Tydfil and Rhymney have long been supporters of royal events and occasions.

I am very pleased to hear that Merthyr Tydfil is considering putting in an application for the honour of city status. I know that the hon. Member launched the campaign earlier this month and that it has widespread support in his community—a key criterion in the competition. The Government look forward to receiving applications, not just from Merthyr but from all parts of the UK. I am delighted to say that, for the first time, the city status competition will also be open to applications from the Crown dependencies and overseas territories.

I found Merthyr Tydfil’s motto, often translated from Welsh as “Not Force but Fellowship”, a fitting description of the spirit of this competition. Yes, towns and cities will be competing for prestigious honours in this competition, but there is also an important opportunity for towns such as Merthyr to showcase their history, and for communities to rally their sense of civic pride—so ably described by the hon. Member in his compelling speech. It is a town that just keeps giving. Merthyr Tydfil’s achievements are not confined to forging the iron and digging the coal that powered the industrial revolution, or its role in the age of steam. They continue to this day, whether that is in the college that he talked about, or the town’s role in the Welsh tourism and cultural scene. Indeed, in this age of celebrity, Merthyr Tydfil’s achievements include the production of reality stars such as Liam Reardon, who, I understand, won this year’s “Love Island.” I wonder whether the hon. Member would consider as part of his application a twinning bid with my constituency borough of Havering, because Millie Court, the other winner of “Love Island”, is from there.

I will speak a little more broadly about the civic honours competition, and some of the Government’s other plans for next year’s very special platinum jubilee. However, let me begin by saying something about the history of city status. As the hon. Member is aware, it is a rare distinction. It is one of the civic honours granted by Her Majesty the Queen, under the royal prerogative, on the advice of her Ministers. Although the honour does not come with any additional funding, functions or powers, as Ruth Jones described, its rarity and prestige makes it something that continues to be much sought offer when the opportunity arises.

There are 69 cities in the UK: 51 in England, seven in Scotland, six in Wales and five in Northern Ireland. The process of how a town can become a city has evolved considerably over time, as the hon. Member for Merthyr Tydfil and Rhymney recognised when he talked about cathedrals. Historically, city status was directly linked to the presence of a cathedral, stemming from the reign of King Henry VIII who, following the Reformation, re-founded former monastic cathedrals as bishoprics, giving many of them city status. This led to the precedent of the right of the monarch to grant such a status. As the hon. Member has noted, the presence of a cathedral is no longer a requirement, nor is there a population threshold below which an application cannot succeed. I hope he can provide those facts to the detractors on social media.

By the middle of the 19th century it was established that awards of city status should be made by letters patent; these were issued with the consent of the monarch, on the advice of the Home Secretary. A further convention developed in the 20th century, whereby the award of city status and other civic honours was open to competition. Indeed, since the 1970s there have been five such competitions, with the platinum jubilee competition marking the sixth. With the exception of the competition held to mark the millennium, all competitions were held to mark the anniversary of Her Majesty the Queen’s accession to the throne. I am delighted that next year we have another opportunity to celebrate.

Let me turn to the civic honours competition that was launched by the Government earlier this year, in celebration of Her Majesty’s platinum jubilee. We have already heard about the opportunity to be awarded city status, but the competition is also open for local authorities to apply for a grant of the civic honours of a lord mayoralty or a lord provostship. The competition, which closes on 8 December 2021, provides local authorities with a once-in-a-decade opportunity to enter and make the case for why their area deserves to be granted one of these rare honours. I hope that this debate is just the start of the speeches that will come from hon. Members who grasp the opportunity presented for their town. As part of the applications process, the Government are asking to hear about a number of factors, including what gives a place a distinct identity—I think that the hon. Member can tick that box—details about its record of innovation, its civic pride and cultural infrastructure, and any associations with royalty. The full details are set out in the entry guidelines, along with the application form, on gov.uk.

This is a fantastic opportunity for local authorities to showcase and celebrate their area’s culture, heritage and identity, and I entirely understand the hon. Member’s endeavour to secure city status for Merthyr Tydfil. As well as the town and the broader area’s association with royalty over the years, which he set out so clearly in his speech, I know that Merthyr has a lot to celebrate in terms of its record of innovation, as the cradle of the industrial revolution. I pay tribute to its mayor for coming today, because that signals the commitment of the area to that history and to Merthyr’s future as an exciting place in the UK.

As the hon. Member noted so proudly in his maiden speech in Parliament, Merthyr Tydfil was home to the largest ironworks in the world in the mid-19th century and at one point was the source of 40% of Britain’s iron exports. I know that there is a lot more to say about the town, which he has fittingly described today, and I wish him and his town the very best of luck with their application.

I will conclude by saying a little about some of the wider plans that we have for the platinum jubilee, because I know that communities across the UK are already thinking about it and are very excited about the chance to honour our monarch. As everybody will be aware, Her Majesty the Queen will become the first British monarch to celebrate a platinum jubilee; it is something that I think we should all mark. I understand that work is also under way to mark the occasion in Parliament itself.

Earlier in the summer, the royal household announced its exciting programme for next year’s extended bank holiday to mark Her Majesty’s jubilee. The plans mix ceremonial splendour and pageantry with cutting-edge artistic displays, and include the traditional nationwide fanfare and celebrations. The plans for the weekend include a chance on the Sunday for communities across the UK to come together with street parties or the Big Jubilee Lunch.

The Department for Culture, Media and Sport is co-ordinating the production of a platinum jubilee medal, which will be given to frontline public servants in the armed forces, the emergency services and the Prison Service. The Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs is leading the Queen’s green canopy project, which is a unique tree-planting initiative, so that people from across the UK can plant a tree for the jubilee and play their part in creating a lasting legacy, in addition to the very exciting civic honours competition. That is just a flavour of the plans for the platinum jubilee, but more announcements will be made in the coming months as momentum grows.

I will finish by thanking the hon. Member again for securing the debate and other hon. Members for their contributions to it. As I say, I hope that this is the first of many speeches from hon. Members who grasp the opportunity that the competition provides for their local area. The Government look forward to receiving applications not just from Merthyr but from other eligible places and to announcing the winners, hopefully early next year.

Question put and agreed to.

Sitting suspended.