What’s the best way to bring about cultural and economic regeneration in Leicester? The bidding process is underway for the UK’s Capital of Culture 2017, and Leicester is one of the four towns and cities that has reached the shortlist, as well as Dundee, Hull and Swansea Bay. There is now an intense round of bid writing in each of the the competing cities as they build their case and try to put themselves forward in the best possible light.
The model for the UK Capital of Culture came from the success of Liverpool’s as a host for the European Capital of Culture in 2008. Anyone who knows Liverpool well will acknowledge the transformation that being the Capital of Culture catalysed, and how the lasting effects can still be seen in a city that is now on the map of European cultural destinations.
The question that has to be asked, then, is Leicester being realistic in it’s belief that it can pull-off a similar trick? There is talk that a successful bid from Leicester might pull-in something like £100m of media coverage for the city. Is this a reasonable and realistic prospect? Most important, does Leicester have the capability of sustaining a successful transformation of it’s cultural horizons?
There are several issues that are not boding well for the bidding process. Firstly this £100m figure seems to have been pulled out of the air. If it is talk of media coverage, then the people supporting and writing the bid have to be clear that this is a reflection of a marketing priority rather than money spent on actual investment in resources, building, services or events.
Secondly, the expectation is that each city will have to draw on it’s existing resources in order to facilitate the events and the activities. Let’s face it, Leicester has not invested well over recent years in arts and cultural spaces. The Curve theater is dominated by commercial productions. There is no dedicated art gallery space. Concerts and music events are on a very low scale and consist of touring productions at De Montfort Hall, or cover bands and DJs at Leicester University’s O2 arena. There is no repertoire theater company providing space for new writers, and the library services have been whittled away over successive years to a rump of cultural engagement with little leadership.
Austerity has hit public services in a big way in Leicester, and the need for funding to be directed towards essential care services and functional services like road maintenance is acute. I suspect that if a survey was undertaken of people’s priorities for Leicester, there would be clear demand for a road resurfacing blitz rather than money being spent on prestige arts projects.
There is some great work done in Leicester, with small scale arts organisations struggling to make themselves heard and some niche events taking place, but the tendency is that they are too often compartmentalised and don’t break through into the mainstream. I suspect that the vast majority of people in Leicester are not interested in ‘culture’, though they may enjoy aspects of it from time to time, such as a trip to the theater or cinema. Leicester, it has to be admitted, is on the whole a conservative city when it comes to culture.
Rather than promoting a cultural policy for Leicester, it would be more productive to promote a full-employment and economic regeneration policy. Get people into jobs and full-employment, and Leicester’s cultural policy will follow. It might be an old-fashioned view, but the demand has to be there to ensure that sufficient people will take-up and engage with the activities that might be offered. For many residents of Leicester ‘bling’ is more of a priority than enculturation.
Liverpool’s regeneration was founded on huge investment from the European Union in terms of infrastructure, building, economic development and cultural esteem. There is a strong back-story in cities like Liverpool and Manchester, which are now making their mark culturally, whereas Leicester has a very weak backstory, latching on to the discovery of Richard III’s remains in so whole-hearted a way is a symptom of deep-seated problems elsewhere. Leicester’s cultural renaissance won’t be possible until an economic and industrial renaissance is locked-in first.