Some people call for a town of culture award, but smaller communities should be able to benefit too
• Phil Redmond is chair of the UK City of Culture independent advisory panel, and a TV screenwriter who created Brookside and Hollyoaks
Another year over, a new one just begun, sang one of Liverpool’s great songsmiths. And with each one that passes, a new anniversary is formed. Last year was significant for me, as it was not just the 40th anniversary of Grange Hill but also the 10th anniversary of what will, probably, soon be known as England’s one and only European capital of culture.
This year will mark a decade since, having seen the impact on Liverpool, I suggested and began shepherding the UK city of culture project. Last week the Labour MP Yvette Cooper suggested there should be a town of cultureaward to sit alongside it.
She was right to identify culture’s catalytic effect. Such titles encourage people to come together collaboratively, using culture to explore common interests and opportunities for change.
But these awards are not a panacea. They do not come with any promise of direct funding, only what every city outside London craves: a year of unprecedented media exposure that attracts visitors, alters perceptions and through that builds confidence and aspiration, especially in younger residents. The designation should therefore be seen not as the solution to, or end of, anything, but the start of a new phase in a city’s life and a launchpad for strategic plans.
It is up to each recipient to decide what, when, where and how to use funding from supporters such as the BBC, Arts Council England and the Heritage Lottery Fund, while at the same time recognising the responsibility to maximise the potential for participation.
Liverpool embraced the Euro-branding, and focused its future civic, political and corporate ambitions on that one year. It attracted 3 million extra visitors, and numbers have remained high – the visitor economy has doubled to about £4bn, dwarfing the annual EU grant of £100m incidentally, and allowing the mayor, Joe Anderson, to claim culture as the rocket fuel of regeneration.
I have no doubt a town of culture accolade would be a positive re-energising tool, but the proposal only takes us back to 2009, when the project wrestled with the entry criteria. How big a city or town? Could a county enter? What about joint bids? Eventually a consensus emerged that to achieve the “Liverpool effect” it had to be a recognisable conurbation, but it could be any town or city that could demonstrate local identity and need.
In other words, a place had to have a cultural story everyone could understand. The only city excluded, for once, would be London. The primary reason that Derry-Londonderry, Hull and Coventry have succeeded is that their stories were, if not better, then more fully developed than those of others.
It is also worth bearing in mind that there have been only three rounds, each one providing a better understanding and opportunity to improve the process. Size and geographical scope are actively under review. As is frequency. Why wait so long between awards? Initially the idea was for an annual award, but that was felt too onerous for the national supporting organisations, as well as, perhaps, diminishing the impact.
Would enough cities enter to make it worthwhile? Ten years on, it is clear that the demand is there, and that the cultural landscape has changed. People and places are, like Liverpool, realising that creativity and culture go hand in hand. There is a clear demand to use culture’s catalytic power, just as there is a growing understanding of the role our national organisations, such as Tate and the V&A, can play outside the capital.
Another idea to deal with the city-v-town issue is to alternate the award cycle. As with the European Championship and the World Cup, different-sized competitions would leapfrog every two years. That might help resolve the urban situation, but it is too narrow a focus. Before Coventry was awarded the city title for 2021, it had become demonstrably clear that there was also a need to support rural, semi-rural and seasonal economies. Such places and areas are home to about 50% of taxpayers, the ultimate funders of our public arts bodies.
This was articulated well by Perth, St David’s, Wells and Hereford as the “quiet crisis”: smaller places struggling with the same challenges as bigger ones but drowned out by “urban chatter”. Losing the local pub, shop, bank or bus service in a big city or town is an inconvenience; elsewhere it can sound a death knell.
Nothing is set in stone. The discussion around greater cultural intervention is already live, but we have to be careful not to raise the urban decibel level. The real need is for a broader debate about cultural intervention being used for the many, not the few.
• Phil Redmond is chair of the UK City of Culture independent advisory panel, and a TV screenwriter who created Grange Hill, Brookside and Hollyoaks
• This article was amended on 7 January 2019. An earlier version said Liverpool would “soon be known as the UK’s one and only European capital of culture”. Though Liverpool is the only city in England to have been awarded that distinction, Glasgow was European capital of culture in 1990.