The UK City of Culture competition was launched in July 2009. The then Culture Secretary Ben Bradshaw commented: ‘Culture is something that we are incredibly good at in the UK. But excellence and innovation in the arts does not begin and end inside the M25 and I believe we have been too London-centric for too long in our cultural life. So this competition aims to find a city or area outside London that has the wow factor, with exciting and credible plans to make a step change in its cultural life and engage the whole country’.
Why have a UK City of Culture in the first place?
Phil Redmond CBE, Chair of the Independent Advisory Panel for the UK City of Culture programme (and former Creative Director of Liverpool’s term as European Capital of Culture 2008) reflects on its origins, purpose and value during an interview with Kerry Wilson.
When asked about personal motivations for initiating the UK City of Culture (UKCoC) programme, the response below indicates how the impact of Liverpool’s year as European Capital of Culture (ECoC) in 2008 played a formative role. The impact described extends beyond the city-based socio-economic impacts expected of culture-led regeneration (although these were discussed and are described throughout the article), and refer to the extent of national exposure and relevance achieved by Liverpool as a designated cultural city:
“…around about a third of the way through , I realised exactly what we had really… exactly what was happening in Liverpool… and that period was when I finally won over I think the media on the basis that this was a national programme, this wasn’t just something Liverpool was doing… it took a long time, especially for people in the media to get hold of this, that actually we were, or Liverpool was representational of the United Kingdom in this rotational award around the European Union… the media were beginning to take more interest, we were beginning to get a lot more media exposure, the analysis was starting to come back about positive stories, and I could sense the excitement and buzz around the city, and all the different conversations that were going on, whether it was in regeneration, whether it was in tourism, or in health or in art… and I suddenly realised that this was a very powerful thing, and that actually, all that it was coming from was a title… the ‘badge of authority’ to do something with it.”
The ECoC experience in Liverpool therefore encouraged and informed the development of the UKCoC programme, as a cultural intervention or ‘prize’ of this nature was seen to be a positive incentive for cities to work towards a shared goal, to raise their cultural profile, for different communities within cities to establish a common ground, and to work together and engage in meaningful conversation. The development of a UK-wide competition would furthermore enable an enhanced sense of national ownership:
“So really it was an excuse, to allow people to have conversations, and to suspend their own partisan agendas for a time and to come together with a common purpose. Now I’d started to see the impact in Liverpool, and then the first figures started to come through, about the £1 spend bringing a £12 return, and it dawned on me that as this was just an excuse… as we’d seen in Glasgow, as we’d seen in Manchester with the Commonwealth games, as we’d seen with even the garden festival… what we really needed to do was just give people another badge, you know. Create another badge, another trophy, another award to go for, to see how we might, in a national sense, how we might create something that was actually in the UK’s control.”
The UKCoC competition does not include a fixed financial prize or award, but it is expected that the title will generate commercial benefits and economic impact for the winning city. This again is based on the Liverpool 08 experience, whereby the monetary value of media profile alone was judged to be significantly beyond what would be ordinarily achievable without a cultural title. Estimated economic return for any winning UKCoC city is based on a ‘scaled down’ version of Liverpool 08, including anticipated levels of media attention, local government and regional agency support, and corporate sponsorship:
“Our announcements were coming through, saying that our media profile was worth £200m at the end of 08, so we scaled it down and said a city coming along afterwards, with that level of BBC support behind it, which would then drag Channel 4, which would then drag the rest of the media with it, it was going to be worth at least £100m in media exposure. If you then think about all those years in which everyone had been arguing about cities, regeneration schemes promoting themselves etc, they never had sufficient marketing resources. Well if you can go along to someone and say ‘here’s £100m in marketing’… that’s a prize really worth going for. That would be the headline that would probably get people like regional government offices, like the RDAs, like the local authorities, really recognise that this was a prize worth fighting for, it’s not just a question of having a couple of concerts, or a couple of artistic festivals, but actually there’s a real economic regeneration opportunity to be had.”
Development of the UKCoC programme rapidly received national support and backing based on the perceived success of Liverpool 08. In terms of support from Westminster, a close connection between the individual minister involved and the city of Liverpool was particularly advantageous. High level advocacy from Government and the BBC has provided the credibility needed to attract additional support from other agencies and organisations:
“So I put it to Andy Burnham, who was then Secretary of State [for Culture, Media and Sport], and coming from Liverpool, he had also sensed that same sort of [idea] of what could be happening, so we set up a working group and just went round, and the key really was to get the BBC to say ‘yes’, that they would get behind it and give it the same sort of media coverage that was given to Liverpool, because once you’ve got that commitment from the BBC, then you’ve got profile, and once you’ve got profile, it’s easier to throw it to sponsors, you know?”
The UKCoC title will be awarded on a four-yearly basis, with Derry-Londonderry as the first title-holder in 2013. The four year interval will enable sufficient time and space for major arts and cultural organisations to support and contribute to the programme with respect to artistic programming and major events, sponsorship and financial support where relevant:
“…what we had to do then was [bring] all the other arts organisations along and convince them to support it, and the way I did that was to suggest that actually it would be a four-yearly programme, so every four years the Arts Council, English Heritage, RIBA, BAFTA, every arts organisation you can think of, would ring fence a certain amount to support what they had done in Liverpool, so for example Tate and Channel 4 would say they would take the Turner prize every four years to whoever had the title.”
The four year interval also offered an appeasement strategy for central offices and ‘concerns’ voiced from within London. Despite central support for UKCoC, it would appear that some tensions arose regarding regionalism and detracting investment and attention away from the capital city and its cultural offer. On a pragmatic level, the four-yearly programme also provides a realistic time frame for bidding cities to participate and plan accordingly:
“The four yearly programme was partly a way of appeasing people like the London Mayor’s office, you know, who thought that an annual UK City of Culture might detract from the capital… Those not living in the capital thought it was a fantastic idea… but those in there where the policy makers all sit… we had to be pragmatic about it and say every four years is probably a reasonable amount of time. Also four years would give any bidding city an opportunity to really plan for it.”
How important is the ‘badge of authority’ that a title such as UK City of Culture implies?
With so many positive stories emerging from Liverpool 08, and the potential for other cities to emulate Liverpool’s success and that of other award-holders or hosts of major cultural events, the question emerges as to why cities do not capitalise to greater effect on their cultural offer without a ‘cultural city’ title? Phil Redmond offered a number of explanations as to why the ‘badge of authority’ is so important and effective in galvanising cities.
It was acknowledged that cities do of course have their own existing marketing and tourism strategies regarding arts calendars, cultural assets and events. A ‘cultural city’ title however brings national attention and exposure that would be otherwise difficult and expensive to secure, encourages a renewed focus and branding opportunities, and acts as an external marketing device to engage national business communities both within and beyond arts and cultural sectors:
“…the point is, they do do it, this is the interesting thing actually… they do do it because you can go into any city and talk to their marketing and tourism people… they will show you a programme of events that is really interesting, right? The thing that’s missing is national media exposure, and as we always complain being outside London, there’s so much going on that is completely ignored by the national media because it’s all focused on London… it’s all based in London… so what the real prize was, is to bring national media exposure with it. Through doing that, it would also bring the national arts organisations… they would bring the Tate, they would bring RIBA Sterling prize, they would have English Heritage set aside funding for a project every four years. And then by doing that, by having the national media exposure, by creating special events, you then find that sponsors are easier to find… sponsors see that they are getting some return on their money.”
The ‘badge of authority’ also acts as a potential catalyst for internal development and agenda-setting within cities, with culture acting as the connecting theme across agencies, businesses, services and communities. The opportunity to engage people, ‘the public’, in the process and linked activities is especially significant:
“…then they look across at Liverpool and see the level of confidence and well-being that grew throughout 08 and think ‘well actually’ this is an opportunity now to bring something to the people, get people engaged.”
Titles linked to one specific year also bring an added incentive in relation to time-scales and deadlines for the completion of development activities. Projects that may have prolonged completion targets, or be inclined to stall, will gain added momentum when associated with a ‘year of’ award:
“… a lot of things that happened in 08, like the renewal of the city centre, Liverpool One development, building of new arena, refurbishment of the Bluecoat, starting of Museum of Liverpool, all these things may have happened anyway, but it would have been on a protracted timeframe. I have a target year, 2008, 2013, 2017… cities can actually galvanize people to say ‘come on let’s all do it’ for that one year… it gives people that psychological target we all need to achieve things.”
What impressed the most about short-listed bids?
With so much at stake, criteria used for short listing cities and furthermore awarding the title of UK City of Culture should be comprehensive and sophisticated. In this context, it is interesting to know why the four shortlisted cities – Birmingham, Derry-Londonderry, Norwich and Sheffield – were so successful in reaching the final stages of the 2013 competition.
The objective to connect communities was a strong factor in bid appraisal and evaluation, with all four shortlisted cities providing strong indicators of how this might be achieved:
“Two elements really, one was that they all came in with similar projects, which was basically that they wanted to get their disparate communities understanding and talking to each other. Now, Birmingham for example came in and said by something like 2018… they would be the youngest city in Europe, by age of population… so that would give them a particular interest to really connect with young people, and I know that this is often the mantra of policy-makers – ‘must connect with young people’ – but they could see it becoming a huge social and economic issue within the city. The other thing was that Birmingham has got a very wide and diverse population base so they had something like the greatest street party, where different communities would host parties and invite people from other [communities] to come and share their culture, and then they would all reciprocate across the city as a way of bringing people in and talking on a different level. And again by being the UK City of Culture that gave them the excuse to actually do that…”
Building on this key element of connecting communities, the second core strength demonstrated by shortlisted cities was their enhanced capacity for cohesive policy-making and collaborative action:
“…the point is the similarity is that every city you go to has pockets of deprivation, and has pockets of wealth, and it doesn’t matter if you can stand up and say ‘our poverty is better than your poverty’ or whatever, it’s still a comparative problem for them to resolve, so they saw culture, and the badge as an opportunity for different communities to start understanding this and working together… Norwich made great play of its literature if I remember, and they were going to build a new arts centre… again the same thing, similarities across all cities, in this would give them the opportunity to build some kind of iconic structure, where they would get cross party and multi-discipline support, instead of the usual sort of yah-boo, bing-bong politics that goes on saying well why should we be spending it on this instead. With the badge, it can bring people as I said to lower their partisan agendas and collaborate.”
What was Derry-Londonderry’s winning edge, compared to the other three shortlisted cities?
With all four shortlisted cities demonstrating a shared inclination and ability to use the title to good effect in connecting communities and creating a more cohesive way of working towards their year as UK City of Culture, what distinguished Derry-Londonderry’s bid from the other three?
Derry-Londonderry’s recognition of the political and historical significance of culture within the city was the ‘stand out’ quality, which emphasized the theme of connection and how the title might re-connect the city following a long history of turbulent disconnections:
“800 years of history! If you were looking for the first UK City of Culture, after Liverpool, Derry-Londonderry was actually quite an easy decision in the end for the judges, because they had gone straight into the fact of recognising that culture and education is the way to bridge all divisions and crack all boundaries, and their strap line of cracking the cultural code, was about sort of drilling in to what makes us who we are, what we are, where we are and what makes up cities. They made a great play of saying that they would see this as a binding agent that would help bring an end to 400 years of trouble in the city… they didn’t shy away from the fact that their difficult history would be part of their shared future.”
Derry-Londonderry also pre-empted the national exposure and credibility that might be made possible by winning the award, by acknowledging the full canon of Irish culture and ensuring national representation within its bid:
“…the depth of literature and music, arts within the island if Ireland itself… they made a fantastic presentation, with support from Dublin… it became the application not just from Derry on behalf of Northern Ireland, but on behalf of the island of Ireland, so the kind of unified, codified experience was just incredible.”
Members of the Derry-Londonderry bidding team have since reported immediate impact, which reflects the cultural significance of the award:
“…they received the award in July , and they reported back in September that just receiving the title had accelerated the pace of social integration by 3 to 5 years. They said before the 19th July it was very clear when you spoke to someone in the city if they said Derry or whether they said Londonderry, so that on the 20th July, everyone said Derry-Londonderry. They said it was just incredible.”
What impact has the bidding process had on participating cities?
Stories emerging from Derry-Londonderry relating to the impact of winning UK City of Culture 2013 will be of some reassurance and satisfaction to those behind the programme and members of the Independent Advisory Panel. Of equal interest are the ongoing experiences of the other bidding cities and the impact that engaging in the process has had upon them. According to Phil Redmond, the greatest impact of bidding has been the extent to which the process has enabled genuine conversations to take place within participating cities:
“The one that stays with me the most is Hull, because they had great ideas but they probably didn’t have the capacity to build it… as they themselves said, the project allowed them for the first time to sit around the table and have conversations with each other. So they had often sat around tables and people had spoken a lot but they had never had a conversation… that often happens across cities, it happens in big bureaucracies, and so they came together for the first time across the city and said they would continue building on it. I think that’s the kind of feeling you get from them all.”
What type of research would be useful for the UK City of Culture programme?
Undoubtedly the UKCoC programme creates significant opportunities for ongoing research within the fields of culture, regeneration, and social and economic impact (amongst others). Research on culture-led regeneration for example is still not convincing enough in some quarters. Phil Redmond referred to the GLA Economics Working Paper 48 ‘Culture and regeneration – What evidence is there of a link and how can it be measured?’(published May 2011), which he considers to be inconsistent and incomplete (perhaps deliberately so), as it contains no reference to Liverpool 08 and the accompanying Impacts 08 evaluation research programme:
“…the GLA working paper throws up the proposition that people talk about culture helping regeneration but that there’s no real evidential data… This is exactly what we need to be doing… The only trouble is that they with their paper, perhaps strategically, take a look at everything pre-2008, it completely misses what happened in Liverpool, and what’s happening in Derry, and they quote Beatriz Garcia’s work from 2004 but completely miss Impacts 08.”
Research of this nature also needs to be more collaborative with other agencies and service providers in order to interrogate the true social and economic impact of cultural intervention in relation to public service provision. Research that is responsive to anecdotal evidence from professional sectors will help to constructively improve the evidence base for culture, not just in providing evidence of an economic reason to invest in culture, but of the cultural shifts that may also be achievable:
“…we need to get more research done alongside health and police and transport on the anecdotal basis that they themselves say that the increase in confidence and wellbeing in Liverpool in 2008 [for example] reduced the demand on their services, and it did it from a health point of view by reducing mild depression… Mersey Care anecdotally tells me that £1 invested in a reading group, to which they can send somebody who is developing mild depression, can ultimately save them £38,000… They are slowly pulling their own data together on that, because they need the evidential data, because to go back to their oversight Board, or the regional health authority whoever it is, they’ve got to be able to go back and say we’d like to keep spending money on reading groups and cultural activity because it saves us this down the line. Same with the police… the police anecdotally say that they discovered from 08 that if you get say 1,000 smiling volunteers out at a large scale city event they can withdraw 200 officers, now 200 officers is a pretty hefty cost, but it’s not just that… why withdraw 200 officers with their commando this and that, shields and crash helmets… it changes the very nature of the event, it changes the nature of the city.”
More systematic, action research that explores culture in city communities, including the role, value and impact of cultural habits and lifestyles is also desirable:
“…if we can give people cultural alternatives to life, other than you must go to work, and you must buy this X Box, and you must do this, but if you can convince people that actually what it’s about is having a good time… again in 08 I went to so many events out in the communities like Croxteth and Kirkdale and Norris Green where people just came together for an entire day and just enjoyed themselves with their own community, they didn’t need to go to Liverpool One, they didn’t need to go to a concert or whatever, they just had a fantastic time doing their own talent show, doing their own garden festival, doing whatever… if we can get people to kind of see that they can enjoy themselves in many ways… it’s about research that’s examining what is the real cultural cost of living.”
As a final comment, Phil Redmond stressed that research in this context should be participative and community-led, in order to fully understand what communities want based on their opinions, experiences and preferences:
“… when I was on the Youth Commission I asked to speak to a couple of the kids who had been disestablished from the curriculum and were now under special provision… after 15 minutes they became 13 year old kids just wanting someone to talk to… and in this conversation with them, they said ‘why did they bother building that new sports facility’… in the old one [they] had 12 footy pitches, and two gyms and could do this, that and the other… in the new one [they have] got one pitch and an Olympic swimming pool… and then they say, and the other one was free and this one costs us £2.75 and it’s crap… so instead of spending £20m, if they had said to the local community, here’s a million, tart it up… another couple of million to subsidise it for the next 20 years, that would have gone a hell of a lot further than this iconic, PFI white elephant…and it’s that kind of thing, we need research on that, that communities can do it themselves… we need to kind of get into the community and do the research, that goes back to policy makers and says that actually this is the way it is, and this is really what the big society is about, never mind all the political rhetoric or whatever, it’s about turning round to the community and saying what do you want? … There are 30,000 people that have been [displaced] because they took the industrial estates away from them, you can’t keep throwing out that, you’ve got to turn around and say what are we going to do? It needs going right into it [in anthropological sense]… not go in as a tourist and do a focus group.”