'Preston could not let culture title chance slip', says city's leader

Preston is perfectly placed to capitalise on the benefits should Lancashire be crowned UK City of Culture 2025, the leader of the city council has said.

Tuesday, 20th July 2021, 3:31 pm
Updated Tuesday, 20th July 2021, 4:26 pm

Matthew Brown was speaking after the authority became one of three - along with Blackpool and Blackburn with Darwen councils - to commit an as-yet undisclosed sum to ensure that the county could confirm its intention to enter the competition.

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The Post understands that if the bid is successful, Preston and surrounding areas in Central Lancashire are likely to take centre stage during summer 2025, as the focus shifts to different corners of the county throughout the year-long celebration of all that Lancashire has to offer.

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Preston City Council leader Matthew Brown says "a bit of courage" was needed to back Lancashire's City of Culture bid

Preston should have even more to show off by that point, when many of the projects funded by the £20.9m that the city secured from the government’s Towns Fund earlier this year will have come to fruition.

They include the refurbishment of the Harris Museum - which is also being supported by grants from the lottery and other sources - a scheme that it due to be completed a year before Lancashire could take up the City of Culture title. The aim is to turn the historic Grade I-listed building into the UK’s first blended museum, art gallery and library - and make it more accessible.

Projects to improve the public realm in that part of the city - and use it for a rolling programme of arts-led events - are also expected to have been realised by that point. Plans for a Youth Zone and cinema will ultimately complete the overall package to transform the area.

Cllr Brown says that the timing could not be better - and would provide Preston with a high-profile platform to refocus its offering to visitors.

“It does tie in really well, especially with us investing in the Harris Quarter. When that comes to an end, hopefully we will have the City of Culture to build on.

“If you look at places like Liverpool [which was European Capital of Culture in 2008], it lifted the whole community up and brought out creativity in people, which is an essential part of a forward-thinking economic model.

“It’s about creative industries and expressions of culture, because traditional high street activity is declining at the moment.

“We are already seeing a lot of creative expression around the city centre, with art going up - and I think we really need things like that moving forward. It’s obvious we need something new in terms of a post-Covid recovery and the shift in economic trends away from retail in city centres to something like this,” Cllr Brown added.

It was for that reason the Labour leader says Preston could “not not let an opportunity like this slip”.

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 Post 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.

As the Post revealed on its website last week, the trio of councils that have now committed cash to the project - along with Lancaster City Council - had been asked to stump up £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 Post 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.

Cllr Brown says that he believes Preston City Council will be able to afford its cash commitment, even though it is not “awash with money” after more than decade of austerity and nearly 18 months of the pandemic.

“If you are successful in these things, you do find other partners [then] come to the table. Potentially there will be an uplift to business rate revenue [as a result of a successful bid], so it could, to a degree, be self-sufficient - but we need to have a bit of courage.

“We are ambitious and we would benefit from [the title] greatly. I think it's something we have got to do for the city and also the wider county."

In addition to funds to implement a winning bid, the Post understands that the city council has also committed a lesser amount to add to the county council's contribution to fund the development of the proposal.

BID COULD BE BETTER OFF AFTER "WOBBLE"

Lancashire’s UK City of Culture bid 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.

That is according to one of Lancashire’s leading business figures who was speaking after the county met a make-or-break deadline on Monday 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 - including Preston City Council - now have “a much bigger stake” in trying to ensure Lancashire scoops the accolade.

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.

He says he doubts that officials assessing the bids will be discouraged 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).

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