Council defends Leeds 2023 year of culture spending in face of 'vanity project' criticism

Council chiefs have defended public spending on the Leeds 2023 Year of Culture after one critic branded it an “expensive vanity project”.
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Garforth councillor Mark Dobson claimed the £5.7m spent by Leeds City Council on the year-long festival was “ill-conceived”. He suggested the cash could have funded Bonfire Night displays, which are likely to be axed by the Labour administration as part of a new round of cutbacks, “for the next 54 years”.

But Coun Jonathan Pryor, the authority’s executive member for culture, said spending on the festival represented less than 0.25 per cent of what the Government has cut from its budget since 2010.

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Speaking at a full council meeting, Coun Dobson, who represents the Garforth and Swillington Independents Party, said: “In light of the cost-of-living crisis and the administration again looking to increase council tax at next month’s budget, does (Councillor Pryor) agree with me that Leeds 2023 is an expensive, ill-conceived vanity project.”

Dancers on stage during The Awakening, the Leeds 2023 opening ceremony held at Headingley Stadium. Picture: Steve RidingDancers on stage during The Awakening, the Leeds 2023 opening ceremony held at Headingley Stadium. Picture: Steve Riding
Dancers on stage during The Awakening, the Leeds 2023 opening ceremony held at Headingley Stadium. Picture: Steve Riding

In response, Councillor Pryor said Leeds 2023 was predicted to generate more than 1,300 jobs for the city’s visitor economy and create 1,000 freelance opportunities. He told the chamber: “This boost to our economy is more needed than it was before. We’re not getting it from the Government. The answer to difficult economic times is not to take more money out of the economy.”

Leeds 2023 kicked off on January 7 with a night of music, poetry and dance at Headingley Stadium. Councillor Pryor said coverage of the events was putting “Leeds on the map” and that the council’s own spending had triggered around £20m worth of extra investment from other public and private bodies.

In return, Coun Dobson suggested the ruling Labour group “drop its narrative of having to make tough choices” during a time of austerity. He added: “Would it be mindful that this money would have been able to fund Bonfire Night displays for the next 54 years on today’s prices?”

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Coun Pryor replied: “Tory politicians want people to hear big numbers and think millions and billions are the same – £2.4bn has been cut from this council’s budget. It’s a false argument to pretend if we didn’t have this tiny bit of culture these cuts wouldn’t make any difference. The scales we’re talking about are entirely different.”