Lancaster City Council explains why it did not back Lancashire's City of Culture bid

The leader of Lancaster City Council says that now is not the right time for Lancashire to bid to become UK City of Culture - because of the financial challenges facing local authorities.
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Cllr Caroline Jackson was speaking after it emerged that the city council had declined to commit £1m to the cost of delivering a year-long series of events, should the county secure the title for 2025

As the Local Democracy Reporting Service (LDRS) revealed on Friday, similar financial contributions being sought from Preston, Blackpool and Blackburn with Darwen councils were yet to be confirmed - with just hours before today’s deadline for Lancashire to confirm it was taking part in the competition.

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Their decisions may influence whether or not Lancashire County Council comes back to the table as the main monetary backer of the bid - after it withdrew its own financial support late last month.

Lancaster City Council was not convinced of the benefits of bidding for the UK City of Culture crownLancaster City Council was not convinced of the benefits of bidding for the UK City of Culture crown
Lancaster City Council was not convinced of the benefits of bidding for the UK City of Culture crown

The team behind the Lancashire 2025 bid was left reeling by that move, with County Hall claiming that the financial risk was too big for it to bear in the event that Lancashire emerged victorious.

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County council leader Phillippa Williamson said last week that the authority had to be “sure that we have some partners in [the process] - and we just don't know”.

It is understood that Lancaster City Council’s decision not to make a contribution was made just under a fortnight ago - after the county council had announced its intention to walk away.

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Cllr Jackson said in a statement: “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,” Cllr Jackson added.

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A so-called "expression of interest" has to be made to the government today (19th July) if Lancashire wants to throw its hat into the ring and compete with Bradford, Derbyshire, Medway and Southampton for the City of Culture title. The LDRS understands that late-in-the day discussions are still ongoing to try to salvage the bid.

The Conservative-controlled county council was criticised by opposition politicians and business leaders last month for its claim that it may have to stump up a bill of £22m to deliver the events programme - 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 emerged last week that the most immediate concern was whether any other councils in Lancashire would share those delivery costs that definitely would be met from the public purse.

In her first interview on the subject last Friday, county council leader - and Lancaster Rural North member - Phillippa Williamson 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.

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“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.

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“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 on Friday while Blackburn with Darwen Council did not respond.

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.