UK City of Culture – does the hype live up to reality?

Following on from the perceived and touted successes of European Cities of Culture (EuCoC) such as Liverpool and Glasgow (2017, Boland, Mullan et al. 2018) the UK Government looked to replicate this through a UK organised simulacrum with the hope that the reported benefits of the supranational events would be replicated on a national event evidencing the trend of cultural “neoliberalisation” (McGuigan 2010)where culture is mobilised for alleged economic benefits (Boland, et al., 2018) (DCMS, 2017). The benefits posited included significant economic and social impact (Philip Boland, 2018) (Derry City and Strabane District Council, 2018) and demonstrate the development of a common narrative where culture is used as a tool of economic development (Van der Borg & Russo, 2005) (Cunningham, et al., 2018). This was crystallised in Department for Culture, Media and Sport’s (DCMS) mapping document: “The Creative Industries” (CITF, 1998) under the New Labour government of the time. Although the actual measurable benefits have been branded as “dubious” by some highly sceptical critics of neoliberal cultural regeneration such as Jim McGuigan (2010) and other commentators such as Beatriz Garcia (2004,2005) who also cast doubt on some of the claims made for the potential impacts claimed of City of Culture (CoC).  Some of the impacts promised for Uk City of Culture (UKCoC) were in fact, highly measurable, such as the forecast £100 million of media coverage and £300 million of capital investment (Derry City and Strabane District Council, 2018) and increases in visitors by 563,000 and increases in Hotel occupancy (Derry City and Strabane District Council, 2018) (ILEX, 2014) great promises were also made regarding halting the “brain drain” and in improving retention of young people, although no quantifiable targets were given in UKCoC documents (Derry City Council , 2010) (Derry City Council, 2013a) (Derry City Council, 2013b) (Boland, et al., 2018)

With the object of providing some insight into the direct economic impact of UKCoC, key datasets were identified, and relevant information extracted for analysis.  Sources included Northern Ireland Statistics and Research Agency (NISRA, 2017) UK Office for National Statistics (Office for National Statistics, 2020) Derry City and Strabane District Counci (Derry City Council, 2013a) (Derry City and Strabane District Council, 2018)l, ILEX (Derry development Company), Hull City Council (Hull City Council a, 2020) (Hull City Council b, 2020) and Humber LEP (Hull City Council b, 2020) and Centre for Cities (Centre for Cities, 2020).  It should be noted that where possible data has been sourced from organisations external to the UKCoC organisers, who may have a perceived bias to reporting only the positive facts (Hankinson, 2004) (Harvey, 2012).  This research is planned to contribute as part of a dissertation study of the impact, value and opportunity cost of UKCoC and its efficacy as a tool of urban regeneration and place-making.

There is an interesting contrast between the promises made for the UK’s City of Culture  (UKCoC) 2013Derry/Londonderry and those made for Hull’s bid for 2017 where some of the rhetoric – especially regarding measurable economic impact – was scaled down or readjusted to be measured in “soft” impacts rather than “hard“ impacts.  These “soft” impacts are more challenging to measure compared with the the easier to quantify “hard“ impacts such as employment levels  and can include such things as tourist expenditure, improvement in topophilia or reopening of formerly unused buildings for cultural activities and other, more intangible or indirect benefits  (Van der Borg & Russo, 2005). It might be overly cynical to assume a policy of deliberate obfuscation by UKCoC organisers and stakeholders – who were heavily invested in demonstrating UKCoC as a success – however a comparative analysis of the initial bid documents and subsequent post event impact reports by both Derry/Londonderry and Hull UKCoC organisers – ostensibly the local government authorities – show a disconnect between the promised “hard impacts” and the reporting of the actuality which often measures different indices and creates a difficulty for accurate quantifiable data analysis that would allow conclusions to be drawn as to whether the hyperbole was matched by reality – especially in terms of economic impact (Boland, et al., 2016) (Garcia, 2005). This is particularly noticeable in the Derry/Londonderry case where the post event evaluation report claims improvements but often don’t give baselines (Derry City Council , 2010) (Derry City and Strabane District Council, 2018).

One criticism of the seductive rhetoric of of UKCoC and European CoC is the appropriation of successes that are unrelated to the CoC bid (Connolly, 2013) (García, 2004).  The infographic attempts to represent this utilising the specific example of job levels, which were promised to increase through the efforts of Derry/Londonderry UKCoC (Derry City Council , 2010)and Hull UKCoC (Hull UK City of Culture 2017 Ltd, 2015). As shown in the infographic employment rate improved in the Hull NUTS3 area did have a faster rate of improvement c.f. national employment rates.  However the infographic demonstrates the importance of the port sector to employment in the city and that preceding and over the period of Hull UKCoC, Hull had become the base for supporting the world’s largest offshore windfarm with Siemens alone creating 1000 new jobs (Hull City Council a, 2020).This demonstrates the complexity of measuring the any proposed causal relationship for the longer term economic impact of UKCoC  (Liu, 2014) (Li & McCabe, 2012)

The long term legacy of the UKCoC programme was expected to include: culturally led regeneration, youth retention, youth employment, overall employment, inward investment both direct and indirect, increase in tourism, increase in media coverage and in the case of Hull a drop in retail vacancies (Derry City Council, 2013b) (Hull UK City of Culture 2017 Ltd, 2015)

Infographics can be used to explain an object, idea or process using clear illustrations in a way that unlocks the information being provided to give insights and clarity or present data in an interesting format that paints a narrative (Lankow, 2012) The attached infographic aims to present a critical analysis of some of the secondary data sources which represent the recorded impact of UKCoC and which challenge some of the existing narrative from organisers (Arts Council England, 2012) who almost consistently represent UKCoC as a driver for economic growth and job creation.  As such, rather than provide an holistic view of the impact of UKCoC, data sets chosen were those which emphasised the quantifiable impacts, especially, although not exclusively from an economic impact. The infographic exposes dichotomies between the hype and the reality of the impact of UkCoC and invites further analysis of the value proposition of UK CoC and whether it is ‘life and place changing’ or a ‘12 month party’? (Boland, et al., 2016), it further invites research into the opportunity cost of staging events such as UKCoC  as, if the wished for outcomes are – for example – a new cultural venue, more hotels, inward investment and more jobs, the question could be asked as to whether resource should be applied to achieving the outcomes directly rather than indirectly through a proposed and seemingly unproven “economic osmosis”. Indeed the major success in Hull in creating jobs seems unrelated to the CoC initiative but relate to port and wind farm activity (Hull City Council a, 2020) (Hull City Council b, 2020)  These questions become more pertinent as cities around the UK and the wider world face difficult decisions about the future shape of their place as the ongoing decline of traditional retail and the effects of Covid 19 impact the vitality of city centres and traditional uses. The homogenisation effects of assigning resource to, what appear to be, top down imported CoC “roadshows” could in fact act as a dampener on the creation of home grown local talent and the diminishing of indigenous, authentic and potential Foucauldian heterotopic assets within a city, that offer the promise of a more sustainable conduit to coherent communities, wealth and job creation. (Ntounis & Kanellopoulou, 2017)


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