Last-minute 'wobble' could yet benefit Lancashire's City of Culture bid

Lancashire’s bid to be crowned UK City of Culture may have been boosted by an eleventh-hour threat to the title attempt – which was overcome after three local councils committed the cash to keep the county’s dream alive.

Tuesday, 20th July 2021, 4:45 pm
Updated Tuesday, 20th July 2021, 4:46 pm

That is according to one of Lancashire’s leading business figures who was speaking after the county met a make-or-break deadline to confirm that it would be taking part in the competition.

Frank McKenna, chief executive of networking group Downtown in Business, says that the local authorities that are financially backing the project – Preston, Blackpool and Blackburn-with Darwen – now have “a much bigger stake” in trying to ensure Lancashire scoops the accolade.

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Lancashire's City of Culture 2025 bid revived after being axed

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Lancashire has submitted a bid to become UK City of Culture 2025

The team behind the bid was able to submit an “expression of interest” to the government on Monday after weeks of negotiations to put the finances in place to support a year-long series of events should the pitch be successful.

Lancashire County Council withdrew its financial backing for the bid late last month after the authority declared that it could not risk being left to foot the entire estimated £22m bill for the delivery of the programme if Lancashire emerged victorious. However, the authority will still honour a £620,000 pledge made last year to part-fund the development of the county’s proposal.

The Local Democracy Reporting Service understands that much of that money has already been handed over to the team putting the bid together – and the balance will be paid as part of the county council’s final contribution to the project.

Mr. McKenna says that the last-minute “wobble” over whether Lancashire was going to be in a position to bid has strengthened the commitment to securing the title – not just from the three councils supporting it, but the business community that will be key to its success.

“They are delighted, because they could not really understand [why] it wasn’t going forward. Business owners talk to people in places like Coventry and Liverpool [the current and previous holders of the UK and European culture crowns], where big events have acted as the catalyst for huge investment and huge change – so they appreciate the value of these bids.

“I’ve had calls from people asking what they can do to help. Awareness has been heightened about how close we are to putting together a really positive and successful piece of work,” said Mr. McKenna, who added that he “admired” Preston, Blackpool and Blackburn with Darwen councils for putting money into the bid.

As the LDRS revealed last week, the trio – along with Lancaster City Council – had been asked to commit £1m each in the event of a successful bid. Lancaster declined to do so earlier this month, since stating that there was “no guarantee” that the honour would bring the claimed benefits.

The county council had initially been planning to contribute £4m. Prior to Lancaster’s withdrawal, that would have generated a total financial commitment from the public sector of £8m – or 36 percent of the estimated price tag for delivering the 12-month programme.

That is far in excess of the 18 percent proportion which a meeting of Lancashire County Council last week heard had been contributed by the two local authorities whose areas had most recently held the title. Past winners have had the remainder of their costs covered by the government and grants from organisations including the Arts Council.

No details of the revised financial arrangements for the bid – which includes a contribution from the Lancashire Enterprise Partnership – have been revealed, but the LDRS understands that they will be made public if the county makes it to the longlist of six locations which is due to be announced in September.

Frank McKenna says he doubts that officials assessing the bids will be swayed by the question mark briefly placed over Lancashire’s entry in recent weeks.

“I’d hope they’d see beyond that and look at the strength of what is a very innovative and unique bid. The other thing that will hopefully help us is the backing of the Lancashire All-Party Parliamentary Group (APPG), so we have some powerful voices that will be batting strongly for Lancashire in the corridors of power at Westminster.”

The chair of that group, Morecambe and Lunesdale MP David Morris, earlier this month called on the county council to rethink its decision to walk away from the bid – saying that the title was the boost that local communities and businesses needed after the pandemic.

Responding to the news that the bid was now going ahead, Mr. Morris said that he and fellow county MPs and Lords were “delighted” and “hope that all areas in Lancashire will benefit”.

Labour county opposition group leader Azhar Ali – who secured an extraordinary debate last week to push the county council to recommit to the project – also expressed his delight that Lancashire had thrown its hat into the ring.

However, he added: “It would have been so much stronger as a Lancashire [county council-backed] bid, but the sheer incompetence of the Conservatives and the lack of leadership [could] cost Lancashire hundreds of millions in investment.”

Conservative cabinet member for economic development and growth Aidy Riggott said that the authority had been “unable to agree an appropriate level of investment, risk and reward for the Lancashire 2025 bid, despite considerable efforts”.

“We appreciate that Blackpool, Blackburn with Darwen and Preston councils wish to continue to support this proposal, and we will provide the grant of £620,000 which had already been committed to the bid to help them with the work. We wish Lancashire 2025 and their partners well with their bid and hope it is successful,” County Cllr Riggott said.

In spite of the name, the City of Culture title – which is awarded every four years – is now open to “groups of towns”. It was that opportunity which sparked Lancashire’s interest in making a bid.

Frank McKenna paid tribute to Lancashire 2025 chair Tony Attard – who also chairs promotional organisation Marketing Lancashire, which is spearheading the bid – for fighting to ensure the county’s place in the competition.

“He has worked tirelessly for three years, not just the last three weeks, to make sure Lancashire puts its best food forward.

“I think the county is in a really strong position and it’s now a case of refocusing our efforts on convincing the people that need to be convinced that Lancashire should be the place where the city of culture happens.”

Officials will visit shortlisted areas early next spring, with a winner due to be announced in May.

It has previously been revealed that Lancashire’s bid is to be based upon the concept of the county as a “virtual city”.

The creative programme published last year stated that it would focus on what unites the area, while still allowing room to reflect the “cultural personalities” of the four hubs around which the proposal will be designed.

These were identified as 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).