The 2025 UK City of Culture could be a town, a region or a 'virtual' county

·6-min read
Could Wakefield be the UK's next City of Culture? - Getty
Could Wakefield be the UK's next City of Culture? - Getty

What did the EU ever do for us? Well, it gave us the “city of culture” concept, which inspired mini-renaissances in Glasgow in 1990 and Liverpool in 2008. I went to the latter and, as well as the stimulating spectacles and effervescent entertainments, there was a genuine buzz in the street and an optimism among locals that lasted beyond the year. Brexit in 2016 ended pan-European showcases, scuppering the 2023 UK slot, and laying waste bids from Dundee, Leeds, Milton Keynes, Nottingham and Northern Irish cities.

The UK’s copycat festival has given Derry, Hull and, this year, Coventry a chance to shine, and while the bill for staging a year-long schedule of theatre, music, walks, parties and other events has been a subject of keen debate among council taxpayers, it’s fair to say that local arts and tourism sectors have always risen to the occasion. The government claims Coventry’s City of Culture will add £211 million of additional investment and attract 2.5 million visitors, notwithstanding the pandemic.

Yesterday sees the bidding deadline for the UK 2025 Capital of Culture. The judges – chaired by Phil Redmond – have till September to decide on a longlist of six, which will be whittled down to three. The winner will be announced next May.

The road so far has been not a little rocky. Several places (and I use that word advisedly) have already fallen by the way. The first to go was Northampton, which exited the process in June 2020 stating time constraints and budget issues. In early January, Luton dropped out following poor attendance at a consultation meeting. Later in the same month, a councillor for Tees Valley – which had been talking about the City of Culture for a decade – told a scrutiny committee there was “a lot of apprehension” about the bidding process and likely costs. In June, the bid was finally dropped, the same councillor citing Covid as a factor for changed priorities.

Local governments are faced with a choice of whether to second staff from other departments or create a special bid team. Either way it can be costly, with some larger cities committing in excess of £200,000 at the bid stage alone.

Lancashire abandoned its bid in June, when Lancashire County Council (LCC) withdrew its support, claiming that to underwrite the festival to the tune of £22million was “too great a financial risk”. Lancaster City Council followed suit. But yesterday, at the eleventh hour, the bid was revived by Blackpool, Preston and Blackburn with Darwen councils.

On June 17, Alexander Stafford, the Conservative MP for Rother Valley, began a campaign for the Coalfields of South Yorkshire to make a bid. This would, presumably, have been something like the regional approach of the Ruhr Valley for the European Capital of Culture in 2010. The journey “from coal to culture” – as the German organisers put it – would have fit neatly into Stafford’s party’s so-called “levelling up” agenda. The bid got no support at all.

Which makes you wonder whether good people of Rother Valley thought the competition – from Bradford, Southampton and Durham, among others – was too strong, or perhaps that shoehorning a county into a competition designed for cities, was doomed. It could be argued that UK cities already benefit from arts funding and cultural tourism to the detriment of more rural areas. Do we need a County of Culture festival?

Cynics could argue that the festival fuss has gone too far. Leeds is having its own Letting Culture Loose festival in 2023. Kirklees has announced that it will stage a year of music during 2023 to tie in with this. A few miles away, Calderdale is aiming to stage its own year of culture in 2024.

Festivals have become like all-year sales. But more is usually less, and the crowded field will inevitably lead to apathy among the intended audiences.

Still, the bids are now in and some of our overlooked cities, towns and made-up regions will be hoping for a year in the limelight, with lots of jobs, a few great shows and thousands of visitors.

Which do you think will make the final cut?

Lancashire

This bid cleverly subverts the “city of culture” concept. Lancashire, which is around 80% rural, is not putting forward the newly christened city of Preston nor the ancient city of Lancaster, but proposing a “virtual city” in which the whole of Lancashire is a conceptual metropolis with four main urban hubs. No fewer than 96 locations, from hamlets to townships, will be included if the bid succeeds. Lancashire lost its two cities, Liverpool and Manchester, in the 1974 re-drawing of administrative borders; Lancashire 2025 will remind people that this county was the forge and crucible of modern Western civilization.

Bradford

Leeds’ poor sister, home of the National Science and Media Museum, Bradford Industrial Museum, Alhambra, and a large Asian community that has helped cement its status as the UK’s “curry capital”, must be a vindaloo-hot favourite. Its bid has broad support from local businesses, including Morrisons supermarket.

Wakefield

Leeds’ poor brother has the Hepworth gallery and excellent libraries. Often thought of as a declining post-industrial sort of place, its bid hopes to remind non-locals that it’s actually an ancient cathedral city with a strong digital industries sector – and already has successful festivals dedicated to liquorice and rhubarb. Both the Yorkshire Sculpture Park and National Coal Mining Museum for England at Overton lie around six miles from the city centre.

Southampton

Southern England’s premier provincial cargo port and chief commercial hub of one of the UK’s richest counties, Southampton may struggle to convince objective judges that it desperately needs an injection of cultural-tourism cash. Confirmation yesterday that the Isle of Wight will be a regional partner could dilute the bid – and, doesn’t the IOW already have its own very famous festival? It could, though, be argued that less “sexy” metropolises are the ones that need rebranding the most.

Southampton may decide to do a joint bid with the Isle of Wight - Getty
Southampton may decide to do a joint bid with the Isle of Wight - Getty

South of Scotland

There’s no proper website yet and only apparatchiks employed by quangos such as the recently created South of Scotland Enterprise agency would use the term “South of Scotland” for the Borders. Whether the recently announced bid will include Dumfries & Galloway or not, the organisers would need to create “go to” arts and culture events across a large, and largely rural, area known to outsiders for dark skies, belted cows and bloody skirmishes. Scotland could claim that it’s about time the “national” festival’s focus moved north, and it could be maintained that the arts are not about conurbations but about subjects such as the environment and nature. From any angle, though, this would not be a “city of culture” programme.

Also in the running are Armagh, Conwy, Cornwall, Durham, Gloucester, Medway, Wrexham, Torbay and Exeter, Newport in Gwent, and a joint bid from the East Anglian towns of Great Yarmouth, Gorleston and Lowestoft.

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