After more than two years spent preparing a pitch to help Lancashire become the first county area to scoop the accolade, the ambitious project appeared to have collapsed on Tuesday when Lancashire County Council withdrew its financial support. The Conservative-controlled authority said that the potential cash commitment required if the title had been won would have been too big for it to bear.
An extraordinary meeting of the full council has been scheduled for 15th July after the Labour opposition group demanded a public debate on the issue.
Meanwhile, the chair of the team behind the bid is calling on Lancastrians to show their support and sign a petition calling for a rethink.
Tony Attard also says that “discussions” are ongoing about ways that the project could yet continue. Earlier this week, he feared that it was “untenable” without County Hall’s support.
He told the Local Democracy Reporting Service (LDRS) that Lancashire 2025 had been poised to launch the digital map that was to be one of the key planks designed to position the county as a “virtual city” of the future as part of its pitch. The map’s pending promotion was meant to be a way in which individuals and firms could demonstrate that they backed the bid – but it is now being held up as one of the many reasons to save it.
“One of the most important aspects we were trying to achieve was to engage with everybody in Lancashire. The map is one of the great things to come out of [the work so far] – to create a virtual city in Lancashire.
“There’s no reason any more why cities should be confined to boundaries – because there are no boundaries. Communities are defined by their interest groups on the internet – that’s the new city, various communities connected digitally.
“It’s new technology and will enable people to actually [contribute] their ideas and thoughts about creative aspects of Lancashire. You can create your own little pin mark on the virtual city – it’s quite amazing what has been done,” Mr Attard said.
However, for anybody interested in cold, hard cash as much innovation, Hull – the holder of the title in 2017 – saw £300m in tourism spending generated during its year in the spotlight.
“There are no downsides – if somebody said to me in business that for a £4m investment, I was going to get £200m or £300m back, I’d be doing it now,” Mr. Attard said.
The county council says that the cost of delivering the year-long programme of events is actually £22m. However, papers presented to a meeting of its own cabinet last July state that other City of Culture winners – while not guaranteed any set funding – have received sufficient cash from the government and organisations such as the Arts Council to cover 85 percent of those delivery costs.
As the LDRS revealed on Tuesday, County Hall has previously committed £770,000 to the preparation of the bid – an as-yet-undisclosed proportion of which has already been spent getting the scheme to this stage.
Mr. Attard also told the LDRS that there were plenty of benefits even to a losing bid. Just by putting its hat in the ring, the county could have been in line for “preferential access” to other regeneration funds, he said.
“The bid documents actually say that even if you don’t win [City of Culture], you will be allowed to bid for lots of other projects – things like regeneration of town centres and high streets. [They say] if you bid, we will listen to you and talk to you about these other projects.”
And as he appeals for the county council to reconsider and for the county’s own residents to help ensure Lancashire is not left looking at what it could have won, Mr. Attard has a simple message:
“Save the bid – because it will be to everybody’s benefit.”
Tweeting her support, Lancashire 2025 bid director Debbi Lander said: “People power changes things. The more signatures we get, the more power we have to affect change.
“We need you to sign our petition to bring back [the] Lancashire 2025 bid. We want investment in culture in Lancashire, regardless. The more we champion, the more likely that becomes.
Lancashire County Council has been approached for comment.
In a statement issued on Tuesday, deputy leader Alan Vincent said: “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.
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.
WHAT WAS IN THE BID?
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).