Eight years out, preparations for a third UK city to be European Capital of Culture are already underway

The "superlambanana" figures were one of the symbols of Liverpool's year as capital of culture. Image: Getty.

In 2023, a UK city will hold the title of European Capital of Culture. This may seem a long way off – so long, in fact, that we still don’t know which city it’ll be. But the scale of the forward planning required by host cities means that, for those who have decided to bid, preparations have to begin now.

Since the title was first instigated in 1985, the title has been held by two UK cities, in two very different contexts. When Glasgow hosted it in 1990, the EU was still the EEC. What was then the “City of Culture” title was originally conceived as a way of celebrating traditional cultural centres, like Amsterdam, Florence and Athens. Consequently, there was a great deal of scepticism about a focus on culture in a city devastated by industrial decline.

Fast forward to 2008 when Liverpool held the title. To win it at all, it had fought off fierce competition – from Cardiff, Birmingham, Bristol, Newcastle-Gateshead, Brighton, Oxford, Belfast and Bradford amongst others. Back then the UK was in the midst of a “cultural boom”, with new arts facilities opening across the country. And in contrast to 1990, the government had a staunch belief in the regenerative power of culture for declined cities.

This belief had been inspired in part by things such as the impact that the Guggenheim museum opening in Bilbao had on that declined port city. Richard Florida’s now much critiqued book The Rise of the Creative Class – which suggested that luring in “creative types” could solve economically-deprived cities’ problems – played a part, too. Meanwhile, the Credit Crunch was just kicking in, and was beginning to shake the foundations of much ideology – including that of the EU.


Now, the UK is going through the bidding process again, and we’re once again in a very different era. Now public spending is being cut, and arts facilities are more likely to be closing than opening; the focus on development in our cities has shifted, allegedly, on to science, technology and engineering.

In contrast to the last biding process this time only three UK cities have so far definitely thrown their hat into the ring: Leeds, Milton Keynes and Dundee. The spending cuts no doubt made many authorities shy away at the money required to be involved. The European Project that saw the birth of the title, meanwhile, has not seemed so precarious in decades.

The Liverpool experience

I was born in Merseyside and was working in the arts in Liverpool during the build up, delivery and aftermath and that city’s title. I now work in Leeds as it ramps up its bid and, although much about the context is different, the sense of déjà vu is palpable.

I have often been asked about my experiences by Leeds residents. Questions like, “What effect did it have on Liverpool?”, “Was it ‘good’?”, “Did it change the city?”, and “Did it benefit the people?”

These are big questions which, to me, do not have simple answers – but I think it was positive for Liverpool and has had lasting effects. At a fundamental level I believe it helped transform the attitude of the city. Despite the terrible impact of spending cuts, in particular on some of the city’s poorest residents, seven years on from holding the title, Liverpool is still thrusting to develop in a way that was unthinkable in my youth.

Back then, the area had been psychologically brought low by extremely rapid economic decline and the huge social effects of this. Merseyside lost 80,000 manufacturing and transport jobs between 1972 and 1982, a rate that, ironically, only really Glasgow could be compared to. By the ‘90s, there was almost an acceptance of failure and malaise, as demonstrated by the consistently thwarted attempts to build an arena for major events.

2008 also saw this 50 foot mechanical spider on the side of a Liverpool office block. Image: Getty.

 

When the 2008 bid was won it was a game-changer: the city had to up its ambition to deliver this huge project. Since then, it’s managed to keep much of that momentum, despite its spending power being hammered by central government cuts. There were of course other factors in the city beginning to turn itself around – increased private investment; government and EU Objective One funding – but 2008 provided a crucial focus and concentrator for change.

The development of the Capital of Culture programme for Liverpool was a bumpy road, with changes of management and direction, political point scoring and media cynicism to contend with. But in the end a large and diverse programme was delivered, which for the most part visitors and locals appreciated.


The challenging thing about Capital of Culture bids are that it’s a lot harder than organising the Olympics. With the latter, you know, pretty much exactly, what’s expected of you. But what is “culture”? Museums, opera, architecture – okay. But what about pop music, poetry slams, graffiti, graphic design, comedy, sports, food, dialect, philosophy, ways of living? Trying to please everyone is a real challenge – and, as with all forms of art, subjective.

Liverpool demonstrated its fair share of fine art collections, historic architecture and cutting-edge theatre, but the city was also canny enough to include the everyday and pop culture in its bid. It even hired Keith Carter, a local comedian playing his “Scouse character” Nige, to meet the judges, rather than trying to gloss over the way that the city has been viewed. From pub singing to experimental eletronica, giant street theatre to community projects, Gustav Klimt to Bill Shankly: in 2008, all these things were showcased.

In a way the process of developing and submitting the bid was almost as important as the win – and this is something other cities would do well to remember.

Liverpool began by examining what was already culturally great and significant about it, which was an important boost to local pride and confidence. Once prompted to think about it, Liverpool citizens realised it had a lot going for it, despite its negative national image at the time. Post-2008, this negative image continues to be slowly chipped away at: the city was recently highlighted as a top 10 global destination by both Lonely Planet and Condé Nast Traveller.        

Lessons learnt

In Leeds, the context is different. It has a stronger economy, and in many respects a better image.

Yet, by its own admission, it lacks a national cultural profile – this despite boasting one of the highest concentrations of dance companies in the UK, three art schools, the principle opera company in the north of England; despite being a centre for sculpture; and despite having one of the biggest fields of learning disability arts in the UK. So what should Leeds’ bid be?

I would suggest the same thing to any place that is considering bidding: a city should ask itself exactly why it is doing it. What does it want to achieve with the title? Only when it has answered should it ask, “What is unique about our city and how do we want to celebrate it?”

It’s important for cities to learn from the successes and failures of others – but copying slavishly or trying to create a programme, merely to appeal to bid judges, is doomed to failure. By focusing on a city’s strengths, and through talking to those across the wide spectrum of its arts and cultural community, from grassroots initiatives to international directors, the outline will begin to write itself.

There’s one thing that urban authorities should have learned over the last few years as more and more places have competed to be “cultural cities”: having the same things as everywhere else is not necessarily helpful. In the globalised art world, why would you travel far to look at a Jeff Koons work in Leeds, Dundee or Milton Keynes rather than Venice, New York or Miami? A point of difference and celebrating local cultures in their many forms serves the tourists as much as the locals.

“International” culture is still important: bringing in the best from around the world can inspire both citizens and visitors and give new perspectives to local artistic communities. But the focus should still be on the city itself – asking, what does it want to achieve and develop – then working with international artists to enhance that, rather than slavishly following trends.

This happened too. It involves the Women's Institute and Sky, but we don't claim to understand it. Image: Getty.

As well as celebrating what is already great in a city, the title can be brilliant as a catalyst for new initiatives. Often this has manifested itself in a big new cultural building.

A new building can be great, but it can also be a burden and a folly if it is unneeded and unsustainable, and the title can also be a spark for developing things in other ways. Is there an art form that is neglected in the city? A local talent from the past forgotten? A historic site in need of a new use? What problems is the city facing that arts can maybe help contend with?

In other words, cities shouldn’t merely use the arts to gloss over problems or demolish “problem” areas for new venues. They should use them to ask questions and involve people in conversations, looking for solutions at a more holistic as well as a large-scale level – something exemplified in Liverpool by projects such as Homebaked and the Turner Prize-winning Granby 4 Streets.

This wider involvement is, to me, the other key. Every city of any size has a band of creative people toiling away to make interesting things happen. A city that wholly ignores its own talent pool for “better known” or “international” artists is doomed to issues and lack of legacy.

Similarly, though, the title should not just be about pleasing the agendas of local artists and arts organisations: just as crucial is the enthusiasm and engagement of the wider populance of the city. In Liverpool, indeed, the judges said that local enthusiasm for the bid helped swing the title in the city’s favour.

So mass participation and large-scale events, yes, but also in-depth engagement with local people. Liverpool being European Capital of Culture, and the boom in arts around it, aided me, from a pretty humble background, to have a career in the arts. It can do that for citizens of other cities too.

Those leading bids should not be afraid of “fringe” programmes, even if they question what’s going on in the “mainstream” one. One of the best things about Capital of Culture in Liverpool was how the very concept was creatively questioned and scrutinised. Artists and activists in the city used the attention the title brought to create work which questioned UK-wide issues such as the Housing Market Renewal Pathfinder and orthodoxies around culture and regeneration. This in turn helped shift the national conversation around them and open up paths to new views and ideas. If deconstructing the very idea of the title and its effects isn’t cultural, I don’t know what it.

“Legacy” is a word that comes from the lips of everyone involved in such titles – but creating one is easier said than done. A big new building is a legacy, but only if it can be sustained. More grassroots spaces for arts might be another one, but not if there’s already plenty.

More ephemeral things like committing to long-term training programmes or youth arts initiatives can have more impact, including in the economic sense that all local authorities have an eye on. But more than that, they have the potential to genuinely inspire the next generation of artists in a city who’ll lead us who knows where.

I’m glad that, despite the harsh climate, some UK cities are still bidding for European Capital of Culture. And I wish them well. Winning the title won’t solve all the problems of a city or transform it, socially or economically. But it can be an amazing celebration and a rewarding process, a catalyst for change, a training and testing ground for many – and an inspiration for many more.

 
 
 
 

It’s time to rethink how the British railway network works

Nothing doing: commuters await a long-delayed train. Image: Getty.

The recent meltdowns on Northern and Thameslink not only left many passengers besides themselves with frustration about not being able to get to work on time, if at all. It also led to a firestorm of criticism and condemnation from politicians and media alike.

With the immediate shock of that first Monday morning of the meltdown passed, there’s a now a bigger debate about whether the way that rail services are provided for cities needs some far reaching reform. But before coming to that, the first thing to say – and as we set out in our Rail Cities UK report, launched today – is that the fundamentals for urban rail remain very strong.

Here’s why. All cities want to become denser, more dynamic places which attract the best people to the growth sectors of the economy (including the ‘flat white economy’ of media, communications and information). In order to achieve this, as well as to improve air quality, cities are also reducing space for motorised traffic in favour of space for people.

It’s very difficult to see how this can be achieved without expanding rail networks and their capacity. What’s more, if housing need is to be met without creating more sprawl and traffic congestion, then again its rail that will be key – because it opens up former rail-connected brownfield industrial sites, it extends commuting range, plus housing can be built above or around new or existing rail stations and interchanges.

In some ways there’s nothing new here. From Metroland to Docklands, successful cities have always grown with their rail networks. And to be fair, there is significant investment going into urban rail at present. Northern will get a lot better (the pacers are doomed) and both Merseyside and Tyne & Wear are getting a whole new fleet of trains for their urban rail networks.

However, much (but not all) of this investment is incremental, or replacing rolling stock on its last legs. It stops short of the wider vision for the rail cities that we need.


What would that look like in practice? There comes a point when the biggest cities need more cross-city routes, because running trains in and out of edge-of-centre termini can’t cope with the numbers. That explains the push for Crossrail 2 in London, but also the need for more cross-city capacity in cities like Birmingham (on the Snow Hill route) as well as in Manchester (on the Oxford Road to Manchester Piccadilly corridor, as well as a potential new underground route).

Tram-train technology can also help – allowing the lucky commuter that benefits to get on board at their local station and get off right outside their city centre office on main street in the city centre, rather than piling out at a Victorian railway terminal on the edge of that city centre.

Tram-trains aren’t the only tech fix available. Battery packs can extend the range of existing electric trains deeper into the “look ma, no wires” hinterlands, as well as allow trams to glide through city centres without the expensive clutter of overhead wires.

More mundane but equally useful work to increase capacity through signalling, station, track and junction work offers the opportunity to move to turn-up-and-go frequency networks with greater capacity and more reliability – networks that start to emulate the best of what comparable German rail cities already enjoy. Interlocking networks of long distance, regional express, regional, S-bahn, U-bahn, trams and buses, all under common ticketing.

But in talking about Germany and common ticketing I am now getting back to where I started around the debate on whether some fundamental change is needed on how urban rail networks are provided. Obviously there is a bigger national discussion going on about whether the current structure is just too layered, with too many costly interfaces and too fractured a chain of command. And in addition another, on whether the railway should be publicly or privately owned and operated.

But it’s been heartening to see the growing recognition that – regardless of how these debates are resolved – more devolution for urban and regional services should be part of any solution. That’s not only because fully devolved services have been out-performing comparators both operationally and in passenger satisfaction; it’s because local control rather than remote control from Whitehall will mean that the dots can be joined between rail and housing, between rail and the wider re-fashioning of city centres, and between rail and local communities (for example through repurposing stations as wider hubs for local community use, enterprises and housing). It will also allow for rail and the rest of local urban public transport networks to be part of one system, rather than be just on nodding terms as is all too often the case at present.

The crisis on Northern and Thameslink has been a miserable experience for rail users, affected cities and the rail industry. If any good has come out of it, it is that it shows how important rail is to cities, and opens up a space for some bigger thinking about what kind of rail cities we will need for the future – and how best we can make that happen.

Jonathan Bray is the Director of the Urban Transport Group which represents the transport authorities for the largest city regions. You can read the group’s full report here.