A new government Town of the Year competition has backfired spectacularly after officials failed to realise that it was being launched in a place that has been a city for 19 years.
Civic leaders in Wolverhampton expressed incredulity after the communities secretary Robert Jenrick was described in a government press release as “kicking off his countrywide town tour in Wolverhampton”.
As if to compound the error, a spokesperson for the Ministry of Housing, Communities & Local Government reported Jenrick as having toured Wolverhampton’s “town centre”.
Wolverhampton was one of three towns named as a Millennium 2000 City after a decade-long campaign by local MPs and councillors, fighting off competition from 36 other places.
It will be seen as particularly embarrassing for Jenrick, who was born and educated in Wolverhampton – which became a city when he was 18 – although he lived in nearby leafy Shropshire.
Labour figures said it was proof that the Conservatives are playing lip service to the West Midlands and to the UK’s neglected towns as they seek to consolidate gains made in the general election.
Pat McFadden, the MP for Wolverhampton South East, said: “The Tories have made big promises to invest more in local communities but it’s not a great start if ministers don’t even know that Wolverhampton is a city not a town.”
Claire Darke, the mayor of Wolverhampton, said: “We have been a city for 19 years and they need to catch up. Are they that out of touch that they did not bother to look it up?
“My concern would be that this competition is politically motivated and that they are doing it because there is a tough fight next year to vote for regional mayor for the West Midlands and they are trying to attract support.”
The competition for English towns was announced on Wednesday with the aim to “celebrate towns’ achievements”, including in areas such as entrepreneurship, technology, community, enterprise and integration.
A press release said: “Kicking off his countrywide town tour in Wolverhampton, communities secretary Rt Hon Robert Jenrick MP said: ‘People have put their trust in this new government and we’re making an immediate start to serve local communities and deliver real change, through our £3.6bn Towns Fund.’”
When approached for further comments on Wednesday, a ministry spokesperson said: “Rt Hon Robert Jenrick MP was on an embargoed visit to Wolverhampton today where he made a tour of the town centre.”
On a visit to Wolverhampton last year, Jenrick appeared to grasp that it was now a city, saying: “I think Wolverhampton is an example of where government can work to improve the city centre to help it evolve as consumer habits are changing.
“There are a lot more opportunities to get more homes and workspaces into a city centre like this and give it new life and help the city centre to thrive in the future.”
But in a separate interview last year he again described Wolverhampton as a town, saying: “Wolverhampton is a town I’ve known for almost 40 years. It’s very close to my heart.”
Boris Johnson pledged the £3.6bn boost for deprived towns, called the Towns Fund, in July.
During the general election, he made a number of high-profile pledges to allocate funds to neglected towns in the north of England and the Midlands where the Tories were fighting to win marginal constituencies.
Ministers admitted that towns had been neglected in the past – as successive governments concentrated on pouring investment into big cities.