Where did it all go wrong for Leeds’s Capital of Culture bid?

PIC: Tony Johnson
PIC: Tony Johnson
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How have we ended up in this situation with the Leeds 2023 European Capital of Culture bid? Here, the Council answers 10 key questions about the disallowed dream and what happens next.

1) What exactly happened last month regarding the bid?

On November 23, just a few days before bidding cities were due to go to shortlisting interviews in London, the director general in the European Commission’s Education and Culture Department wrote to the UK Government stating that “the participation of the United Kingdom in the European Capital of Culture action will not be possible.”

The five bidding cities, including Leeds, sought urgent clarification about the letter’s content and the UK’s eligibility.

The Government subsequently confirmed the authenticity of the letter, and the commission’s new stance that UK cities would no longer be allowed to participate in the competition.

Government cancelled the planned interviews and paused the competition.

2) What discussions have taken place since then regarding the decision?

Leeds and the other bidding cities have met a number of times with Government representatives including the relevant minister.

The bidding cities worked together and immediately urged Government to continue its negotiations with the European Commission on the legitimacy of its decision.

In particular we highlighted that although the eligibility rules might not currently allow for the UK to take part after it leaves the EU, as recently as September 2017 the EU a published a calendar confirming the UK as the host country in 2023.

A vital point was also made that the United Kingdom has not yet left the EU and the terms of that departure are not yet agreed.

Alongside seeking clarity the bidding cities started exploring what options were open to make sure all the effort and investment so far was not wasted.

3) How did we not see this coming after the Brexit referendum?

Leeds started bidding to become European Capital of Culture in 2014 following public consultation and a vote in full council, and before the EU referendum.

After the referendum result, which came almost two years later in 2016, bidding cities sought and followed guidance from Government about any potential impact on eligibility and the bidding process.

Whilst a risk was recognised, it was also true that several past capitals and those planned for the future were not in EU member states. It was fully expected that this would continue.

The Leeds bid proceeded in accordance with that advice and we were further reassured as milestones and deadlines were set, and the European Commission appointed its panel of judges.

Cities acted with due diligence and good faith based on all the advice received, and on the actions of both the UK government and the European Commission.

4) Does this mean the Leeds 2023 bid definitely won’t be going ahead?

Whilst discussions are ongoing, we are planning for the likelihood that we won’t now be able to participate in the European Capital of Culture 2023 competition.

As disappointing as that is, we are determined that the remarkable energy, enthusiasm and creativity which has gone into the bid over the past few years is still channelled into a celebration of the city’s communities and cultural diversity.

What format that could take is still to be decided and will be subject to further discussions with Government and the other bidding cities.

But in keeping with our bid so far, the team in Leeds is committed to ensuring the people of Leeds are at the centre of whatever comes next.

5) Why did we bid in the first place?

Winning had the potential to bring major benefits in terms of investment and jobs.

Liverpool was the last UK city to host the European Capital of Culture title, reporting a £750m economic impact and a 34 per cent rise in visitor numbers.

Culture has a unique power to weave us together, recognising and celebrating our differences whilst ensuring those differences do not lead to division, isolation, fear and loneliness.

6) How much have we spent so far as a city on the bid and could this have been spent on other services?

Up to this point, the amount invested in bidding is just over £800,000.

The council has committed £145,000 towards that, while the private and education sector have supported the bid with a contribution in excess of £650,000.

For every pound invested by the council, £4 worth of private sector investment has also been generated to support the bid and culture in Leeds. The amount invested by the council equates to less than 30 pence per person in Leeds.

7) What was the £800,000 spent on?

The bid was written to very specific criteria set by the European Commission and as such was a complex process.

However we also wanted to ensure that we didn’t just follow criteria and that even during the bidding phase there was investment in supporting communities and artists in Leeds, with more than 50 per cent of the budget put towards community engagement, arts programmes and communication. The remainder of the investment was used to enlist specialist help, undertake research into audience engagement and tourism, develop our sponsorship offer and make the European connections and partnerships that form a vital part of the criteria for the competition.

8) Has all that money gone to waste now?

Definitely not. The bidding process so far has brought tremendous benefits to the city in terms of international profile, increased investment in culture, strong partnerships between the cultural and the commercial sector and the creation of the city’s first co-produced culture strategy.

Even if we can’t take part in the competition, it will be invaluable in our ongoing efforts to put culture at the heart of everything we do in Leeds.

Lots of the projects planned for 2023 may well still take place.

9) Shouldn’t they have been spending that money on more vital services?

All services are vital, particularly those that support the city’s most vulnerable residents and neighbours. But it’s not a simple case of choosing between other services and culture – the city can have both, with each supporting and encouraging the other.

Culture itself is a vital service, particularly around issues such as mental health, isolation, and community cohesion.

By winning this competition we are also looking after the long term interests of our citizens, and particularly our young people, by striving to create a great place to live with high levels of sustainable employment.

We’ve already had really positive feedback from potential inward investors that our ambition and commitment to the role of culture in the future development of the city is part of what attracts them to Leeds and that will continue beyond 2023.

That could also mean increased private sector investment in events such as Light Night and the West Indian Carnival.

The bid was also one element of Leeds’s new Culture Strategy, which sets out the vision for culture in Leeds up until 2030, and that will continue to play a crucial role in shaping and guiding future policy decision in the city.

10) What happens next?

The Leeds team is still in discussions with Government about possible next steps. A few suggestions have been made in the media about options too. It is important that things move quickly, to keep the momentum generated by the project.

Conversations to date have been positive despite the significant setback and the next step will be announced as soon as possible.

But without question that this is only the end of the beginning and the Leeds team remains 100 per cent committed to seeing a strong and meaningful legacy from the bid across the whole city.

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