Cash crunch over Lancashire's City of Culture bid as clock ticks down to deadline
Decisions by a trio of Lancashire local authorities over whether to commit £1m each to help fund the events that would be laid on if Lancashire were crowned UK City of Culture 2025 could be key in determining whether a bid is made at all.
The Local Democracy Reporting Service can reveal that the potential financial contributions from Preston, Blackpool and Blackburn with Darwen councils are yet to be confirmed - and the authorities' next moves may influence whether or not Lancashire County Council comes back to the table as the main monetary backer of the bid.
It comes with less than 72 hours to go until a key deadline which, if it is missed, will mark the end of Lancashire’s lingering hopes of scooping the accolade.
The team behind the Lancashire 2025 bid was left reeling late last month when County Hall declared that it had withdrawn its financial support for the title attempt. It claimed that the risk to the authority was too big to bear in the event that Lancashire emerged victorious from the competition.
The Conservative-controlled county council was criticised by opposition politicians and business leaders for its claim that it may have to stump up a bill of £22m to deliver the year-long series of events - when previous winning areas have had around 85 percent of their costs covered by the government and funding from organisations like the Arts Council.
That potential risk remains a sticking point for the authority, but it has now emerged that the most immediate concern is whether any other councils in Lancashire will share those delivery costs that definitely would be met from the public purse.
Details of ongoing, late-in-the-day discussions to see if the bid can be salvaged emerged at an extraordinary meeting of the county council on Thursday. It was called by a cross-party coalition of opposition councillors demanding that the authority reinstate its support for the bid.
A so-called "expression of interest" has to be made to the government by Monday if Lancashire wants to throw its hat into the ring and compete with Bradford, Derbyshire, Medway and Southampton for the title.
In her first interview on the subject, county council leader Phillippa Williamson has now revealed more about the reasoning for the authority’s bombshell decision. She said that of the 14 other councils in Lancashire, only Preston, Blackpool, Lancaster and Blackburn with Darwen had still even been considering stumping up some cash.
“It started off with an assumption from the bid team that all the local authorities would be making some kind of contribution. But very quickly, the other councils dropped out.
“The idea [then was] that we would pay £4m and [the remaining four] would pay in £1m each, but early last week, Lancaster pulled out.
“Since then, Preston, Blackpool and Blackburn have kept talking, but they haven’t clarified their position on the financing as yet.
“And that’s been the issue all along for us. We can't enter into the bidding process unless we are sure that we have some partners in it - and we just don't know.
“We've been talking about this for weeks, but doing it behind the scenes - and we have done absolutely everything we can to de-risk this for the county council,” County Cllr Williamson said.
She added that there had also not yet been any agreement as to how a separate £2.5m bill for preparing the bid would be split between the authorities. The county council has already paid £620,000 towards bid development, as well as £150,000 for an initial scoping exercise.
Preston and Blackpool councils declined to comment on their current positions when approached by the LDRS, while Blackburn with Darwen Council did not respond.
Cllr Caroline Jackson, leader of Lancaster City Council, said: “Given the financial pressures facing local authorities, the city council does not feel this is an appropriate time to bid for City of Culture.
“To do so would require a huge investment in terms of money and other resources and winning would cost even more, with no guarantee that it would bring the benefits that have been suggested.
“There is a long road ahead of us as we begin the recovery from Covid and this is where the council must concentrate its limited resources. Without the financial support of Lancashire County Council, continuing with the bid is simply unsustainable.
“The city council is proud of the support it already provides to arts organisations and will continue to work closely with its partners to further develop the district's cultural offer.”
All of Lancashire's other councils were also approached to comment, but only two responded. Wyre Council said that it had never received a request to make a cash contribution to the bid, while Pendle Council pointed to a decision taken by the authority last October to decline a request to contribute £50,000 towards the bid preparation process.
NOT BIDDING WOULD BE “SHORT SIGHTED”
During an often testy debate on a defeated motion which claimed that the collapse of Lancashire’s bid would cost millions of pounds in lost investment and jobs - and which demanded that the county council once again support the project - the ruling Tory group came under sustained attack for its decision to walk away from the process.
>>> See a full round-up of the debate here or a summary below .
Labour opposition leader Azhar Ali demanded to know what had changed in the 12 months since the previous Conservative cabinet had agreed to help develop the county's pitch.
“There is basically a choice here today - either we show ambition for our county, we show trust in our partners...or we retreat into a situation where we lose face not only with our partners, but [endure] the huge reputational damage that will be done to Lancashire County Council if we do not submit [an] expression of interest,” County Cllr Ali said.
That submission - the precursor to a full bid - has to be made by Monday. In recent days, Derbyshire has indicated that it will join the race for the culture crown - something which County Cllr Ali said amounted to the area “pinching our idea” of making a bid covering an entire county rather than a single city.
Liberal Democrat Preston West member John Potter said that a cultural offering was “the way forward” for many of Lancashire’s towns and cities, rather than retail-focused regeneration.
“The cultural industries within this county have been decimated by Covid...and to throw them under the bus at the eleventh hour is so short sighted. Either [the administration has] to take responsibility for a really bad decision previously [to start the process] or you go ahead with this bid, you can't have it [both ways] - you're incompetent or scared,” County Cllr Potter added.
Fleetwood East county councillor, Labour’s Lorraine Beavers, said that opting not to submit a bid at this late stage would be like telling the people of Lancashire “we aren’t good enough to win”.
However, deputy county council leader Alan Vincent said that the Lancashire bid was based on the county council contributing the equivalent of around £1.89m less than had been the share committed by the local authorities that backed the current and last title-holders, Coventry and Hull. He said that, coupled with a potential scenario where only two other authorities made financial contributions, could push the county council’s slice of the committed costs to around £8m.
Meanwhile, cabinet member for adult services, Graham Gooch, said he would rather spend the money the authority had on “the aged and infirm, those with dementia, the autistic and the vulnerable....than on an extravaganza of song, dance and play-acting”.