Demand for investigation as fallout continues in Leeds from 2023 culture capital bombshell

Leeds 2023 steering group chair Sharon Watson and Coun Judith Blake with bid volunteers in 2015.
Leeds 2023 steering group chair Sharon Watson and Coun Judith Blake with bid volunteers in 2015.

Opposition councillors in Leeds are calling for an investigation into the city’s seemingly doomed bid to be named European Capital of Culture 2023.

The European Commission dropped a bombshell on Thursday when it announced that UK cities would not be eligible for the title after Brexit.

Leeds and its fellow UK contenders formally submitted their 2023 bids at the end of October, nearly 18 months after the EU referendum.

Decision-makers in Brussels faced an angry backlash following Thursday’s announcement, with one MEP accusing them of “needless and spiteful posturing”.

But one high-profile figure on Labour-run Leeds City Council is also questioning whether the authority took full account of the possible impact of Brexit before pressing ahead with the bid.

Coun Mark Dobson, who resigned from the council’s Labour group in February and is now leader of Garforth and Swillington Independents, told the YEP: “What appears to be emerging is a picture that Leeds and other British cities would not be eligible.

“Where was the council’s due diligence, even the most basic checks, to ensure we were on solid ground before the recent launch?

“The independents have referred this matter to Leeds City Council scrutiny with a request for a full investigation.”

Coun Dobson acknowledged that, until his resignation, he was part of the Labour group that backed Leeds’s 2023 bid.

He said being obliged to vote in favour of what he described as “vanity projects” had been a factor in his departure.

Coun Ryan Stephenson (Con, Harewood) told the YEP that he and other members of the authority’s culture scrutiny board were “categorically” assured by the administration at a meeting earlier this year that Brexit posed no issues for the bid.

The final cost of Leeds’s bid – which has been in the pipeline since 2014 – is expected to be £1m, with around £200,000 coming from the council.

Council leader Coun Judith Blake said yesterday: “Following the referendum result, which came in 2016, we sought all available guidance from the Government’s Department for Digital, Culture, Media & Sport about any potential impact on eligibility and the bidding process.

“As is the case with all the bidding cities, our bid then proceeded in accordance with that advice.”

Arts Council England has said it hopes the European Commission will reconsider its decision to ban UK cities from the competition.

The Department for Digital, Culture, Media & Sport (DCMS) was yesterday continuing “urgent discussions” with the commission.

And, reacting to the news that talks were ongoing, an Arts Council England spokesperson said: “We hope that the conversation DCMS is having with the commission will revisit this decision, ensuring that Britain might be able to host the 2023 European Capital of Culture and that a UK city may go on to be successful in realising their cultural ambitions.”

Members of the European Capital of Culture judging panel have spoken of their appreciation for the “work and enthusiasm” of Leeds and the other candidate cities.

Writing in an open letter, they said: “We understand that, due to Brexit, relationships between the United Kingdom and the European Union need to be redefined, but fruitful cultural exchange and joint projects should remain an aspiration deserving support to the mutual benefit of all citizens.”

The panel members, who represent countries including France, Germany and Spain, added: “Culture and the arts can play a crucial role to bring people together and to build bridges and collaboration.”

Richard Wilson, secretary of the Leeds For Europe anti-Brexit campaign group, said: “We have no doubt that had this bid been allowed to proceed then Leeds would have had an excellent chance of being awarded the honour of being the UK’s next host city.

“This is a particularly cruel blow given that Leeds voted to Remain in the EU in the referendum of June 2016.”

Cluny Macpherson, Leeds City Council’s chief officer for culture and sport, tweeted: “Grateful for all the support we had from Leeds, and widely across Europe today. Thanks all #leeds2023.”