Is Canterbury City Council the right name for our local authority?

A view looking over the city of Canterbury

Where we live and where we are brought up form a central part of our identity. As the Catalans and many other people fighting for regional autonomy know, the land you come from makes a mark on you.

I may be British, English, Lancastrian or Canterburian depending on where I am and who I’m talking with, but I can’t conceive of not feeling like I belong somewhere.

So it matters to us all what the place we are from is called. And the reverse is true, too: for people to feel pride in the place they come from, they need to feel part of it.

Only if people are proud of their home town will they be minded to look after it, promote it, and work hard for it.

That, in essence, is why it is problematic that our local authority is called Canterbury City Council: it rather looks as if the whole focus of the local authority is only on one part of the district it serves, which doesn’t even contain the majority of the population.

Dave Wilson ponders our name

People who object to the current name have a good basis for arguing for change, especially now that we know that the possibility of having town councils established for Whitstable and Herne Bay has gone.

Change is possible. Shepway Council has just decided to change its name to Folkestone and Hythe. While that might be a bit of a slap in the face for the population of Romney Marsh, it is clearly an improvement since no-one outside the area knew where it was or could find it on a map. Should we then be changing the name of our own council?

The seaside town I grew up in, Morecambe, was consumed by the nearby city of Lancaster into a single council in 1974, at the same time as Herne Bay and Whitstable were amalgamated with Canterbury.

I say consumed because that’s how it felt: a takeover by a place which actually had little in common with my town, even though it was less than five miles away: a declining industrial town forcing itself on a then thriving seaside resort. Friends in these coastal towns say they feel much the same, even 44 years on.

The parallels with our district are obvious, and the passions aroused are as real now as they were in 1974.

While most people probably accept that small town councils cannot be as effective either operationally or economically as a larger district, and can’t coordinate planning and transport properly, the emotional ties are much less easy to dismiss.

That’s especially so when people have the sense that the council has an unbalanced set of priorities which don’t fairly represent the people of the district, implied in our case by the use of “city” in the title.

Canterbury City Council’s Military Road office

The council’s name isn’t set in stone. For example, when I lived in Aberdeen, which is very definitely a city, even though the council only covered the city area it was simply called Aberdeen District Council.

We already face some issues about the fairness of representation in our council, since the ward boundaries were changed in 2015 to create some seats which, frankly, defy both logic and any local sense of where boundaries lie.

But the major problem in terms of perceived fairness – which is essential in a democracy – is the name.

Of course there are good reasons to focus on Canterbury: it’s a world renowned place and a major tourist destination, as well as being the largest of the three urban areas, the home to two universities, and the focal point of the region.

Adding “city” to the name, though, was a decision which has had the effect of making people who don’t live in the city itself feel excluded rather than included, which is the opposite of what democratically elected and accountable bodies should be doing.

It would be easy to at least improve this simply by substituting the word “district” for “city”, although that may not be enough for some people.

Alternatives are difficult – “Canterbury, Whitstable and Herne Bay Council” would be too long, and would still exclude all our villages.

But if we accept that compromise is required, and that the council has a duty to represent everyone, perhaps some consultation would produce the consensus we need, or at least one we could all live with.

Unless, of course, our civic leaders are still hankering after an East Kent Council. Which may be a topic for another day.

Dave Wilson is a Labour Party member and community activist who has worked in and around local authorities for 35 years. He is a trustee of Kent Savers Credit Union and the Westgate Hall in Canterbury.


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