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UK City of Culture 2017

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Phil Redmond

Chair of the City of Culture Independent Advisory Panel

Television producer and screenwriter, Phil Redmond, creator of popular series Grange Hill, Brookside and Hollyoaks and Chair of the UK City of Culture independent advisory panel, on how the competition galvanizes bidding cities.

It is fitting that the announcement of the 2017 competition Londonderry-Derry_.jpg
comes only days after Derry-Londonderry launched its year as the inaugural UK City of Culture 2013. What Derry-Londonderry did with their opening Sons and Daughters concert clearly defined their own culture (one of the main criteria for any bidding city) and set out how that culture is defined: by the people of the city itself.
And what the people of Derry-Londonderry will discover, as Liverpool did during its year as the UK host for European Capital of Culture 2008, is that the year acts as a reminder to the rest of the world of the city’s past cultural heritage.
As with Liverpool, it will highlight that despite media headlines which can distort external perceptions, it is the power of culture that defines what we think and feel about things.
Power to explore
In today’s climate it could be argued that austerity is hitting ‘culture’ hard. While I personally take the view that culture is ‘the’ frontline service, because it shapes everything we do together, it is a view that begs the question: whose culture? Cultural endeavour is more than funding. It is about creative intervention.
This is also the power of the UK City of Culture award, for it becomes a badge of authority. And with that authority comes permission for people to explore what they can do together, as much as what they can experience apart. Not simply to enjoy more of their own culture, but experience that of others. To try something different. To understand difference. And to do it all within whatever resources are available.
And therein lies the great challenge for every potential bidding city. How do you define a common culture? What step change can that culture bring about? How can you do it within available resources? How can a city do it with its own Sons and Daughters?
Why take part?
The UK City of Culture award offers a prize well worth competing for. Twelve months in the media spotlight based on both the evidential data from the Impacts ’08 longitudinal academic study of Liverpool 2008 and the BBC’s commitment to provide coverage no less than Liverpool and Derry-Londonderry, worth an estimated £100m in media exposure – no small prize for any city.
But the prize is so much more than this. In 2008, a European Union directive defined culture as ‘arts, literature and shared lifestyle’. I have come to understand that cities are not homogenous; they are more a collection of urban villages and diverse villagers. There is not one common lifestyle but many, with their own arts and literature, just as creativity is not restricted to traditional art forms or industry sectors. There is as much creativity in the science lab as there is in a writers’ workshop.
Uniting people through creativity
That is why I now prefer to think about culture as the ‘sum of all our creativity’. It is about people, their ideas and how they interact. Whether in an opera hall, sports stadium, arena, online, in a science lab or design studio, everything starts with someone having an idea. A moment of creativity.
The task then is to discover what binds different people with different interests into one shared cultural experience.
For those bidding to be City of Culture 2017, it is not only their own past they can draw on, but the experiences of Liverpool, Derry-Londonderry and London 2012, and before that the experiences of Manchester hosting the Commonwealth Games in 2002, and Glasgow’s time as European City of Culture in 1990.
What binds may be geography as in Liverpool’s case, a divided past as in Derry-Londonderry, or a moment in time, as in London with the Olympics. But the common link is that each host city discovered the power of culture to bring people together. Not only to share ideas and events, but to capitalise on how culture creates footfall, and footfall means people, and people mean tourism, and tourism means cash – and cash is the fuel of the regeneration engine.
Shaping a shared future
The other main criterion for any bidding city is to define what step-change or major impact will be brought about through its own cultural year. The trick is to learn from the past, to inform the present and help shape a shared future.
Yet, we must not fall into the trap of thinking that ‘culture’ will in itself bring about economic regeneration or prosperity. It will not be one cultural event or art form that will bring long-lasting change, but the confidence and spirit of collaboration that come from staging major cultural events.
Because the UK City of Culture award will give the people of any bidding city the opportunity to try different things. It’s a win-win competition. Win the award and the media spotlight will be on your city for 12 months. But just the act of entering will give you a new sense of collaborative effort to first define a common culture, and then figure out what to do with it.
The lesson of recent history is that the spirit of collaboration lasts. That in itself is worth competing for.
Further information

Photos courtesy of Derry City Council on Flickr. All rights reserved. Picture credits: Martin McKeown, Lorcan Doherty Photography

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