'Devastation' at collapse of Lancashire's UK City of Culture bid - and what about the cash already spent?

Lancashire County Council is being urged to rethink a bombshell decision to withdraw its backing for the county's bid to be declared UK City of Culture in 2025.

Tuesday, 29th June 2021, 6:53 pm
Updated Wednesday, 30th June 2021, 3:44 pm

It is more than two years since Lancashire revealed that it would be attempting to become the first county-wide area to scoop the accolade.

However, with just weeks to go before the region was due to submit a formal expression of interest, the county council has pulled the plug on the ambitious plan - effectively leaving it dead in the water.

The move has seen opposition politicians and business leaders line up to call for the bid to be brought back from the brink, amid claims that a chance to secure status and investment for the county is being blown.

Could brighter days have been on the horizon for Lancashire if it had been crowned UK City of Culture in 2025?

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Lancashire's City of Culture bid has collapsed

As the main financial backer for the scheme, the Conservative-controlled authority says that it no longer feels able to underwrite the cost of delivering the programme of events should the bid be successful.

But the Local Democracy Reporting Service (LDRS) can reveal that an as-yet-undeclared proportion of the £770,000 that the county council has previously committed to the project has already been spent - yet there is little chance of a significant return on that cash if the bid is not now submitted.

The authority stumped up £150,000 for initial scoping work and, last July - under previous Tory leader Geoff Driver - committed a further £620,000 towards developing the bid itself, with the document due to be submitted to the government next March.

The LDRS has approached the county council for details of exactly how much of that combined pot - which was distributed to the team involved in designing the proposal - has so far been swallowed up. It is understood that at least some of the funds remain unused.

The entire bidding process was estimated to have a price tag of just under £3m, with the remaining contributions coming from other local authorities in the county, as well as universities and the private sector.

Blackpool Council had been considering a £50,000 commitment to the bid costs, but that had not been approved by members before the county-wide plan was ditched. A spokesperson for the authority said it had been "supportive of the idea" of submitting a bid.

Lancashire County Council said that the £22m estimated cost of the delivery phase of the project - should the county emerge victorious - is the reason it is no longer able to take a shot at securing the prestigious title.

However, papers presented to the county council’s cabinet last summer acknowledge that while there is no guaranteed funding associated with being declared UK City of Culture, previous holders of the honour have secured cash from the government's Department for Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) and organisations such as the Arts Council in order to help realise their winning visions.

If similar amounts were to be offered to Lancashire in the event of a successful bid, it was estimated that around 85 percent of the delivery costs would have been covered - meaning the county council and any other local partners would have been left liable for just over £3m.

Reaction to County Hall walking away from the bid as it nears its final stages ranged from dismay to condemnation.

Labour opposition group leader Azhar Ali said he wanted to see the decision reversed – and revealed that he was calling for an emergency meeting of the full council.

“It’s a massive kick in the teeth for our creative industries and tourism – and for Lancashire as a place to visit, work in and enjoy.

“This would have created hundreds, if not thousands, of jobs – and this new Tory administration has just kicked it into touch.

“It just shows that they are totally inept – and they have wasted hundreds of thousands of pounds of taxpayers’ money instead of investing in Lancashire.

“This was a great opportunity to put Lancashire on the map across Europe and beyond – and now we’ve not even got a damp squib,” County Cllr Ali said.

Tony Attard, chair of Lancashire 2025 and promotional organisation Marketing Lancashire, said it was with “great sadness” that he had to announce Lancashire was no longer in the race – especially as he believed the title was within its grasp. But he added that without the county council’s support, the project was “untenable”.

“The idea for Lancashire to become City of Culture 2025 is one that has matured over a four-year period and included councillors and officers from Lancashire County Council and the district and unitary authorities, as well as the Lancashire Enterprise Partnership.

“A significant amount of work has been undertaken by the many people involved, including talented people from the private sector. We have undertaken research and liaison with the Department for Culture, Media and Sport at a very high level, to create a compelling innovative and original bid.

“Bidding for City of Culture is a competitive process because the rewards for winning are so significant. Lancashire has five of the most deprived areas in the UK within its boundaries and we have been hit harder than most places by Covid-19 – the people of Lancashire should not be denied these rewards.

“We had a very strong chance to win this prestigious title, we have put in the work and created the partnerships that put us ahead of the competition. That we are being forced to pull out now, just three weeks before we were due to submit our formal expression of interest is devastating,” Mr. Attard added.

Speaking to the LDRS, Frank McKenna, CEO of business organisation Downtown in Business, said that it was a “big mistake” for the county to throw in the towel – and rubbished the suggestion that the county council would be left on the hook for anything like £22m.

“Marketing Lancashire have already done a lot of work showing that hundreds of millions of pounds can be generated within the Lancashire economy [by a successful bid]. Although the county council would underwrite it to the tune of £22m, the vast majority of that would be met by the lottery and DCMS funding – the idea that that’s not going to happen in this instance is for the birds.

“We’ve got a great chance of winning – and I’d just urge the county council to look down the road at Liverpool and see the transformation that the city has embarked upon since being crowned European Capital of Culture – it’s those sort of big initiatives that can catapult your economic growth prospects.

“I’m asking the leadership of the county council to review their decision, because I think this is a short-term solution that will cause us some longer term challenges. It won’t be received well in Westminster and certainly not in the business community of Lancashire.

“I’ve not seen anything which has brought people together as much as this bid – and I think it sends out all the wrong signals in terms of the future collaboration that we are hoping to see develop,” Mr. McKenna said.

The county council’s Green Party group leader Gina Dowding said that arts and culture “have so much to offer our wellbeing and economy” – and that the collapse of the bid was “hugely disappointing” as a result.

“The bid for City of Culture in itself would have raised the profile of our cultural offer at a national level and helped with the post-Covid recovery across the county,” she added.

However, the recently-appointed deputy leader of Lancashire County Council, Alan Vincent – who is also responsible for the authority’s finances – said the bid was a risk the county could not afford to take.

Earlier this month, he told a cabinet meeting that the authority needed to save a total of £43m in the current financial year after the pandemic caused the authority to miss a £30m savings target during 2020/21.

“We have carefully considered the potential costs and benefits of the bid and have decided that Lancashire County Council can no longer underwrite it. We know this will be disappointing to those who have worked so hard on this project over the past couple of years, but feel it is the right decision for Lancashire County Council.

“Whilst the proposal was strong and ambitious, we felt that underwriting the bid to the tune of up to £22m created too great a financial risk to the council at a time when there are significant pressures on services and our costs, and continuing financial uncertainty following the pandemic.

“Lancashire County Council remains committed to an ongoing programme of arts and culture which is both good for the county’s residents and local economy.

“We are continuing to work towards sustainable and reinvigorated offers for our museums and we are fully committed to cultural services across Lancashire. We will also continue to invest in our libraries and support innovative schemes such as the Re-imagining the Harris project in Preston.

“We will seek to adopt elements from the proposal as we develop a new culture and sport strategy in the coming months and years,” County Cllr Vincent added.

It is a far cry from last summer when then cabinet member for economic development Michael Green said that the title could be a “key part of our bounce back from the current crisis.”

“It will help us to drive cultural, social and digital skills…and raise the profile of Lancashire at a national and international level,” he said in July 2020.

The county’s bid was set to be based upon the concept of Lancashire as a “virtual city”.

The creative programme published last year stated that it would focus on what unites the diverse county – “dissolving our real and imagined borders to build a truly representative view of Lancashire” – while still allowing room to reflect the “cultural personalities” of the four corners of the county around which the proposal would have been designed.

These were to be centred around areas described as “downtown” (Preston, Chorley and South Ribble), “uptown” (Lancaster, Ribble Valley and Pendle), “light coast” (Blackpool, Fylde, Wyre and West Lancashire) and “the valley” (Blackburn, Burnley, Hyndburn and Rossendale).

It was only in February that bid director Debbi Lander presented the fine details of the proposal to a meeting of the Lancashire Enterprise Partnership’s innovation board.

Lancashire would have been up against Bradford, Medway and Southampton for the title, which is handed out every four years. The Tees Valley pulled out of the race for 2025 earlier this month.

Tourism generated over £300m for Hull during its year as UK City of Culture year in 2017 and it is estimated that £3.4bn worth of investment has flowed into the city since it was revealed as the winning bidder four years earlier.

The process of bidding for the title is thought to generate benefits even if the crown ultimately goes elsewhere - with the potential for the spotlight to lead to spin-off cultural projects and attract investments from arts organisations. The boon that bidding brought to Norwich and Stoke-on-Trent was presented to Lancashire County Council cabinet members last summer when they approved the £620,000 investment to back their own bid.