Call for Lancashire to show "ambition" as City of Culture talks continue with days before deadline

The financial risk to Lancashire County Council of backing the county’s under-threat bid to be declared UK City of Culture 2025 is “not acceptable” in its current form.

Thursday, 15th July 2021, 11:15 pm

That was the message from the authority’s deputy leader as an attempt to force the Conservative administration to rethink its recent decision to pull out of the process failed.

Alan Vincent said that there was a question mark over how much other local authorities in the county were willing to contribute to the cost of the bid.

However, county council leader Phillippa Williamson said that "ongoing" discussions were taking place with all the organisations involved in the title attempt - with just days to go until a key deadline which, if it were missed, would be the death of Lancashire’s lingering hopes of scooping the accolade.

The county council came in for criticism for its decision to withdraw support for a bid for Lancashire to become UK City of Culture 2025
The county council came in for criticism for its decision to withdraw support for a bid for Lancashire to become UK City of Culture 2025

The pair were speaking at an extraordinary meeting of the county council - called by a cross-party coalition of opposition politicians - which sought a renewed commitment to support the bid.

It saw the ruling Tory party come under sustained attack for a decision variously described as “short sighted” and “absolute madness”.

Labour group opposition leader Azhar Ali demanded to know what had changed in the 12 months since the previous Conservative cabinet had agreed to spend £620,000 to help develop the county's pitch.

“There is basically a choice here today - either we show ambition for our county, we show trust in our partners...or we retreat into a situation where we lose face not only with our partners, but [endure] the huge reputational damage that will be done to Lancashire County Council if we do not submit [an] expression of interest,” County Cllr Ali said.

That submission - the precursor to a full bid - has to be made by next Monday. In recent days, Derbyshire has indicated that it will join Bradford, Southampton and Medway in the race for the culture crown - something which County Cllr Ali said amounted to the area “pinching our idea” of making a bid covering an entire county rather than a single city.

Liberal Democrat Preston West member John Potter said that a cultural offering was “the way forward” for many of Lancashire’s towns and cities, rather than retail-focused regeneration.

“The cultural industries within this county have been decimated by Covid...and to throw them under the bus at the eleventh hour is so short sighted. Either [the administration has] to take responsibility for a really bad decision previously [to start the process] or you go ahead with this bid, you can't have it [both ways] - you're incompetent or scared,” County Cllr Potter added.

However, County Cllr Vincent said he had to consider “all the potential risks and costs” of making a bid, including the need to underwrite the full delivery cost of £22m in the event that county was victorious - and should other expected pots of cash from the government and organisations like the Arts Council not emerge.

He told the meeting that the proposal as it stood projected that Lancashire would spend £8m from “the public purse” on delivering a successful bid - half of which would come from the county council. He said that represented just over 15 percent of the likely bill, but noted that it would leave the bid team having to find “a great deal more money...from other sources” than either the current or previous title-holders Coventry and Hull, whose local authorities each contributed just over 18 percent to fund their events.

County Cllr Vincent said that if Lancashire county Council had to bridge such a shortfall, it would equate to another £1.89m. He added that there was also “uncertainty” about how much other local authority partners in the process - identified as now only being Blackpool, Blackburn with Darwen, Preston and Lancaster councils - would be pitching in.

“If say only two of them [contribute], that adds another £2.5m or so to the requirement from Lancashire County Council - and we end up looking at a figure from [us] of around £8m,” he said, noting that inflation had not been factored into any of the “old figures” being discussed.

Meanwhile, County Cllr Williamson sought to explain the near-silence from the administration in the fortnight since news broke that the county council was withdrawing its financial support.

“All our discussions with partners on this have been carried out in private. We have respected the potential impact and sensitivities and how they play out publicly.

“It is a great pity that...others and those behind this motion didn’t pick up the phone to...ask about the decision-making. By jumping in feet-first and encouraging a lot of noise about this decision, [they have] simply destabilised our attempts to work with partners and to find a potential solution,” County Cllr Williamson said.

She added that £2.5m was still required on top of the £620,000 committed by the council a year ago - just to get the bid to the point of submission. The recently-elected leader said that the authority had suggested how to mitigate the risk to the county council of underwriting the delivery of a winning bid, but that none had been accepted.

However, dispassionate talk of figures did little to put out of the flames of an increasing testy debate.

Labour's John Fillis said that businesses in the county were willing to back a bid that would make Lancashire an international name for itself. He asked whether the county wanted to come out of the pandemic “on our knees or standing tall - are we proud of our county [and] the people in our county?”

“Then we should be telling the rest of the world we’re proud of them, County Cllr Fillis added.

His Labour colleague and Fleetwood East county councillor Lorraine Beavers said that opting not to submit a bid at this late stage would be like telling the people of Lancashire “we aren’t good enough to win”.

Meanwhile, Green Party group leader Gina Dowding said that the situation showed that the government's model of requiring match-funding from local authorities for schemes like City of Culture was not feasible after council resources had been “stripped down to the bone”.

However, the Conservative side of the chamber defended the cautious approach to committing cash to the bid.

Cabinet member for adult services Graham Gooch said: “We’re being asked for more money to spend on the project...just spend a bit more and we’ll make a fortune. I get emails like that from West Africa.

“I would rather spend what money we have on supported living and mental health services, on keeping people well, on reablement of people following illness and injury, on the aged and infirm, those with dementia, the autistic and the vulnerable....than on an extravaganza of song, dance and play-acting,” he said.

County Cllr Aidy Riggott, who holds the economic development brief on the authority, said that district councillors calling for the county to commit to the culture bid might like to consider the impact the expense could have on “real, tangible economic development” schemes in their areas.

“You can only spend the money once,” he said.

The motion - which called for urgent discussions with stakeholders and MPs, along with a late, overarching demand for the county council to support the bid - was defeated by 43 votes to 31. Conservative Heysham county councillor Andrew Gardiner abstained.