Debbi Lander took a drive round Lancashire at the weekend and admitted: “It blew my mind.”
Between now and February it will be her job to explode a few myths and persuade a predictably sceptical Britain that the Red Rose county, with its stereotypical image of flat caps, cobbles and cotton mills, can be a credible contender for the title of UK City of Culture.
Lancashire a city? Well that is just one of the hurdles Londoner Debbi will have to vault as she bangs the county’s drum as director of the 2025 bid.
Another will be silencing the raucous laughter which will doubtless erupt when news of our entry reaches the leafy suburbs of Surrey or Sussex. Lancashire and culture? Surely not.
But Debbi is having none of it. And as we stroll around Preston’s dock marina in the sunshine, she insists: “I wouldn’t have taken the job if I didn’t think we could pull it off.”
As jobs go, I suggest she couldn’t have chosen a much bigger challenge. Yet, scanning her hugely impressive CV, achievements like creating the UK’s largest programme of regional events for the London 2012 Olympics and delivering the North West’s £10.2m cultural legacy programme for London 2012, suggest she isn’t afraid of going for gold.
“I have to believe we can do this,” she says. “There’s a lot to work with here. But it’s a massive job and, without sounding too dramatic, I feel like I have the future of Lancashire in my hands.”
Debbi only started work at the beginning of July and is still finding her way around the Old Docks House in Preston where she shares the offices of Marketing Lancashire, one of the backers of the bid.
Already she has identified the key strengths and weaknesses of the county and what she and her team will need to focus on if they are to make Lancashire a realistic competitor for City of Culture.
And her starting message to councils, businesses, arts organisations, universities and all 1.5m people here is: “We need everybody on board if we’re going to do it.”
Vast sums of money will need to be raised - Coventry have attracted £35m to fund its upcoming year of culture in 2021. Considering Lancashire has been traditionally starved of Arts Council cash, it could be a big ask.
And the county’s unsophisticated image will need to be changed if it is to have any chance of persuading the Government’s Department of Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) to hand it the baton for 2025.
But the winner’s prize in terms of national and international spin-off investment means it could be money well-spent.
“They laughed at Liverpool when it was given the European Capital of Culture title in 2008,” says Debbi. “I know because I was there at the time and I worked on it. We’re going to need a lot of help. But everything’s already here. What we need for a county-wide bid is county-wide support.
“We have quite a radical vision and a really creative vision. But we can’t deliver that without the collaboration of the private sector and the cultural sector. Liverpool showed what it could do and what it had to offer and we will be doing exactly the same.”
The timeline of the bidding process is tight, considering the amount of work needed to put a submission together. Guidelines for bids are expected to be issued by December and then expressions of interest for the first round are due in around the end of February. By late June a shortlist of candidates will be announced. The successful bidders will then have until the following December to make their final pitch.
Has Lancashire got enough time to put its case together? “It (the initial bid) will go in at the end of February and it will be the best that we can possibly do in the time we’ve got,” Debbi tells me. “I would have liked another six months, but there are other places that are bidding who haven’t even appointed a me yet. There are also others who have been working on this for longer.”
While Debbi has worked in the North West before, one of her first tasks after arriving in Preston was to get back in the car and take a long drive around the county to check out the raw material she has to work with. She was impressed.
“My first reaction was: ‘My goodness, everything’s here.’ But it’s all individualised, so everywhere you go feels like its own place. I feel this is a really fantastic set of opportunities to work with. It has all of life, everything that you would want. Our job will be to show the whole picture through the cultural connections that are between places.”
Debbi is adamant it should be possible to convince the judges that a county can still be a valid entry.
“City of Culture is just a title,” she insists. “OK, so far it has only gone to cities and Lancashire is a rural county. But it might as well be a city the way it functions. In terms of the rules and regulations we can comply. Cities are about people, not bricks and mortar. It’s not necessarily about being an urban physical environment.”
As with most things in life, money will play a key part in Lancashire’s attempt to be taken seriously. But history suggests its starting point is that of a disadvantaged county.
Debbi’s figures show that starkly. “This region could certainly do with more investment from the Arts Council,” she says. “Even in the North West as a whole we are under-funded. But then the Arts Council invests £35 per head of population in Manchester and around £32 in Liverpool. Lancashire gets £7 a head. Why is that? Well, some of it is to do with urbanisation. It’s about how much money goes to cities versus how much goes to rural and coastal areas.
“I will be working with Marketing Lancashire, the Lancashire Enterprise Partnership and the universities to leverage private and public sector support for this project. Coventry raised £35m and that’s only one place. We have a whole county.” Then, with a smile, she adds: “It would be good to have £100m.”
Lancashire’s rivals, so far, are Southampton, Chelmsford, Luton, Northampton, Tees Valley and, the latest to enter the race this week, Bradford. While she knows they are there, Debbi refuses to worry about the competition.
“I can’t look at the rivals to be honest. We just have to get on with our own game, crack on and do what we feel is right for us. We are a county and our 1.5m population is quite a juicy offer for the DCMS.”
She isn’t worried about the “laughing stock” tag.“Like Liverpool, how we are perceived is not actually what’s really going on here. We have a lot more to offer than people imagine. That said, we do need to change the image, although I don’t think that will be a difficult task. It’s already here, people just need to catch up with it.
“My message to everyone in Lancashire is this: Please back the bid. We need everyone to get behind it. We are going to put Lancashire back on the map and prove rural places are not cultural backwaters. They are just under-invested in.
“The biggest reason for going for this is we need cultural development - that is the key to developing a successful and prosperous county. And everyone has a stake in that, everyone is responsible for trying to make that happen.
“Lancashire can deliver a project of this scale. And it would be a real game-changer if we were to win it. It is a title that actually gives you access to large amounts of national funds and also gives you a place on the world stage.
"There is no reason why we shouldn’t win it. But if we didn’t then I’d hope there will be enough momentum and enough support and enough interest in our vision that we can implement it in part anyway.”