The answer is more complicated than you might think

Sheffield at night, with floodlit buildings

How is a city different from a town? And how many cities are there in the UK? This might seem like an easy question, but it’s actually quite complicated.

Most people use the word ‘city’ when they describe a large town of over 125,000 people. For example, Northampton (population 230,000) and Reading (population 258,000) often called cities, even in government documents. However, they are not a real cities. Meanwhile, St David’s in Pembrokeshire has less than 2,000 people, yet it is a city.

There are 69 ‘official’ cities in the UK. Each one has been given that status by Royal Charter. New cities are chosen in competitions, judged by the Queen. In 2002, a competition to mark the Queen’s Golden Jubilee had 37 entries, even though city status guarantees no special benefits, money or type of local government – but it is prestigious.

Winning the competition is only partly to do with size – character and identity are also important. For example, Preston (population: 135,000) is one of the most recent cities, but so is Stirling (population 48,000) and St Asaph (population: 3,000).

Some places are cities for historical reasons. In the past, a city had a cathedral with a bishop or archbishop. Some old cathedral cities haven’t grown much. This is why St Davids is so small. Another example is Wells in Somerset. It has a magnificent cathedral dating from 1175CE, but only 12,000 people.

[pictured above: Sheffield in South Yorkshire, known as the ‘Steel City’. It was granted city status in 1893.]

Image: Spectrumoflight/Dreamstime

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