Three new cities on Britain's map


Might Inverness challenge Edinburgh as capital of Scotland, or Wolverhampton Wanderers FC change its name now that the Highland beauty spot and the once glorious industrial town have joined the city club?

These and other questions were posed yesterday after Queen Elizabeth, on the advice of the Prime Minister, Mr Tony Blair, conferred city status on British towns - Inverness, in Scotland; Wolverhampton in the English midlands; and Brighton and Hove in Sussex - to commemorate the millennium.

The announcement came after a two-year consultation process during which 39 towns from Scotland, Wales, England and Northern Ireland vied to prove their historical, cultural and economic strength. The process was tarnished by a Home Office memo that appeared to mock some of the applicants. But while the burghers of the new cities expressed their delight at winning the competition, Mr Simon Burns, one of two Conservative MPs for the Essex town of Chelmsford, which was unsuccessful, raised the question of Labour bias in the selection process. "I am quite surprised that of all the towns that sought city status, the Prime Minister should recommend three with Labour marginal seats in them," he said. "It does seem a strange coincidence that there should be so many Labour marginal seats concentrated in the successful bidders."

There is some doubt over whether granting city status makes any real difference in economic terms, but according to Mr Simon Cole-Hamilton, director of the Inverness Chamber of Commerce, city status would undoubtedly bring "a lot of kudos and further strengthen Inverness's profile as a place to do business with".

Unsuccessful applicants, including Ballymena and Lisburn in Northern Ireland, need not be too downhearted. In 2002, to mark the 50th anniversary of her accession to the British throne, Queen Elizabeth will confer city status on a "suitably qualified town" in Northern Ireland, Wales, England and Scotland.