Why Leeds could be the capital city of Europe

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Leeds is kicking off 2014 with a bang. Today (Jan 7) a meeting is being held to decide if the city should bid for the prestigious title of European Capital of Culture. Jayne Dawson reports.

There are times when it pays to think big. Very big.

So if you are, say, a northern UK city, don’t think about beating London, that’s too easy: think about beating the rest of Europe.

This is a strategy that is currently working for Leeds anyway.

First we jumped in there and grabbed the start of the Tour De France from under the noses of all those European cities, from Barcelona to Berlin, who had their eye on the prize and now, having got ourselves on something of a roll, we are after another, even bigger, prize.

Or at least we could be. Depending on how discussions go, Leeds could soon be battling with the major players across the Continent for the title of European Capital of Culture.

This is not a prize to be confused with the one recently bestowed upon that other Yorkshire city of Hull.

In 2017, Hull will become the UK City of Culture which is a great accolade, but the title Leeds is going for is a much bigger one.

Previously it has been held by Glasgow and by Liverpool, and you probably remember that because winning European Capital of Culture is a big deal.

And to win it would probably be an improvement on Leeds’s previous titles which have included “Motorway City of the 70s” and, in more recent years, “Knightsbridge of the North”.

But don’t expect anything major to happen yet because we are talking about a title that will be bestowed for ten years time, in 2023, because that is the next available slot for a UK city to be crowned.

So between now and then a lot has to happen, starting with city-wide discussions about whether to put in a bid.

The people at the helm of these discussions are, currently, Coun Lucinda Yeadon and Cluny Macpherson, chief officer in charge of culture and sport.

Mr Macpherson recently joined Leeds City Council after working as the regional director of Arts Council England for 13 years.

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Coun Yeadon (Labour, Meanwood) is the executive member for leisure, culture, jobs and skills.
And because even the biggest of projects have to start with a meeting somewhere, this one is launching with a meeting at Leeds Town Hall today.

Everyone has been invited to give their opinion, either for or against, and after that talks are expected to continue amongst different groups, in different parts of the city, for several months.

If Leeds decides to bid for the title - and it is hard to imagine that it won’t - then that bid will happen in around 2016 or 2017 because these things require long-term planning.

Coun Yeadon is aware that some people might think this is not the right time to get involved in a project that will inevitably cost money, but she doesn’t think that should stop us.

“The council does not have the money it used to have so we have to balance that fact against our ambition for the city.

“But what we can’t do is not have ambition, we just have to achieve things in a different way. And we are not the only city in this position, other cities are also having to find new ways of working. But we are sensitive to the fact that people are in difficult circumstances.”

The cost of achieving the title would also be spread with grants from other sources, from the Arts Council to the government to the EU, and sponsorship would also play a big part.

If the city should win the prize, Liverpool’s experience in 2008 gives an indication of the impact of holding the title.

The city estimated that there had been almost ten million extra visits, bringing an additional £753m to the city.
Cluny Macpherson believes the benefits to Leeds would be huge:

“It really is a once-in-a-generation opportunity. To win it would bring economic growth to the city, it would increase the profile of Leeds and it would make people proud to live here.

“People tend not to make an association with Leeds and culture. Leeds is seen as a bit less than the sum of its parts because it has marvellous cultural activity, but it is more known for its retail.

“But we can change that, and it is really important that the year would be a celebration of all the communities in Leeds, not just focusing on the big things.

“We would want it to make a difference to the lives of everyone, especially those who are young in the city now.”

The bid would basically be a programme of events for the year. It would include plans for shows and performances by our big guns, like Opera North and the Northern ballet, but much, much more, showcasing the city’s diversity, its festivals and its rich musical talent. In fact, what tends to happen is that once a city is declared a future Capital of Culture, big events gravitate there for that year.

Even a new building is up for discussion, though there are no specific plans yet.

One thing is certain, a building or even a piece of art has the power to alter a city. Wakefield is feeling much better about itself since The Hepworth gallery opened there, and Leeds is hoping for good things from the recently opened Tetley art gallery.

And the city of course has many claims to a cultural heritage. It is the birthplace of film after Louis Le Prince shot the first moving images on Leeds Bridge. It has writer Alan Bennett, sculptor Henry Moore, and screenwriter Kay Mellor.

It has West Yorkshire Playhouse, the beautiful Grand Theatre and the new Arena.
Coun Yeadon hopes that the discussion about whether the city should bid will not divide along political lines.

“Culture shouldn’t be about politics and in any case the political landscape could change a lot in ten years. But everyone is invited to join in the discussion.”

So what are the chances of Leeds bagging the title?

The truth is it’s impossible to say at this stage even what the competition will be. So far Aberdeen, Dundee and Coventry are believed to be planning to bid, but Cluny Macpherson and Lucinda Yeadon feel we have a good chance.

Mr Macpherson said: “In Leeds we have an incredible amount to offer but we’re not confident about boasting about it. If we can change that it would be a success in its own right, even if we didn’t actually win the title.

“But basically we want the other cities to be intimidated by us.”

Neither feels the fact that Leeds is not particularly high up the league of deprived cities will hinder the bid.

Mr Macpherson said: “The European Capital of Culture is not just awarded to cities that have a problem that needs fixing, it can also be a celebration.

“It wouldn’t go to a city already in the first tier of culture, like Paris, but it could easily go to a city with ambition, like Leeds.”

Coun Yeadon said: “The groundswell seems to be all in favour of it, but it is important that if we bid we do it in the right way. We need to bring together not just the cultural groups in the city but people from business and from education, as many people as possible.

“We think we have a strong case, but let’s talk about it over the next few months.

“The Tour De France is our first big test in terms of being a credible performer. If we can pull that off we will have shown what we are capable of.”

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