Michael Crick is Political Correspondent of Mail+
It’s just a thought. At a Policy Exchange fringe meeting at the conference on Monday, Sebastian Payne was discussing his new book on the Red Wall with Michael Gove, the new Levelling Up Secretary. Gove explained that when he was Education Secretary and trying to improve state schools, the whole atmosphere and impetus could be often improved by apparently superficial changes – such as a new name, a new school uniform, or introducing a house system.
Such changes can be quick and cheap, but also signal a new departure – a change of ethos. These are examples of what Payne called “hanging baskets” improvements. On the same day, Rachel Wolf cited hanging baskets as a good sign that a place is being looked after.
It got me thinking. What other “hanging baskets” could the Government introduce in the Levelling Up areas, pending more substantial structural and economic changes – investment and improvements which may take years to make a tangible impact?
I suddenly thought of creating a few more royal boroughs and towns.
Remarkably, there are only nine communities in England which have royal status that has been conferred by the monarch by royal charter or letters patent. (Scotland used to have 70 royal burghs, but these were officially abolished in the 1970s, while Wales just has Royal Caernarfon).
Not surprisingly, most of the English-designated royal locations are leafy, middle-class communities, far from areas likely to be targeted by the Levelling Up agenda. And they are very much southern phenomenon. None is further north than the Royal Borough of Sutton Coldfield, in north east Birmingham. It was conferred with royal status back in 1528 by Henry VIII, giving the town a real boost after a spell during which its economy had seriously deteriorated.
Windsor achieved royal status in the twelfth century under Henry I, and Leamington Spa became a royal borough in 1828. Yet the other six English royal areas have all been created since 1900: Kensington (now with Chelsea) (1901), Tunbridge Wells (1909), Kingston upon Thames (1927), the County of Berkshire (1957); and, more recently, Wootton Bassett in 2011, and Greenwich (in recognition of the Queen’s diamond jubilee).
Most of these are examples of the genteel, prosperous conservative England of tea-shops, old maids and Georgian buildings – not rough, grimy, working class communities which once housed the heavy industries which kept the empire going.
So let’s change all that. The Royal Borough of Barrow-in-Furness would be an excellent start. Its new royal handle could be given in recognition of the town’s important role in Britain’s defence over many decades. The Queen must have visited the Barrow shipyard during her reign to launch nuclear submarines and warships.
After that, perhaps we could recognise a few more towns associated with old heavy industries to which this country owes so much – Scunthorpe or Consett for steel; Doncaster (mining or railways); Sunderland (shipbuilding); Redcar (steel and chemicals); Grimsby (fishing); north east Lancashire (cotton); and Whitehaven (nuclear). The new royal charters would be granted not just as nostalgic thank yous to a bygone age, but as statements of respect and intent for the local communities.
Of course, you can’t just confer royal status on a single day in these places, have Her Maj up for a big jamboree and leave it at that. The new royal charters would have to be followed by genuine long-terms programmes to boost and reorientate the local economies with investment and special measures.
In many cases – Barrow, Grimsby and Doncaster, perhaps – the towns might be boosted by the creation of new universities, especially if they concentrate on STEM subjects – science, technology, engineering and maths. The role of higher education in generating business activity and giving a kick-start to local economies, has long been obvious, from Silicon Valley to the hi-tech communities around Cambridge and Oxford.
In the interim, ministers should get on with the royal boroughs idea – though they should seek approval from the Palace first, of course. And I’m told that a fringe event event on Tuesday, the new Party co-chairman, Oliver Dowden, endorsed the idea.