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What is the point of having a ‘city of culture’?

20 November 2013

5:10 PM

20 November 2013

5:10 PM

‘Hull has been named the 2017 city of culture. Better luck next year, Luton.’ So wrote the Telegraph’s Tim Stanley on Twitter.

Nadine Dorries said: ‘Hull? City of culture? As one originating from Liverpool, a former recipient, I’m er, surprised but of course, delighted for Hull!’

That summarises the general reaction to the choice of the 2017 UK City of Culture. I’ve never been to the East Riding city, so I can’t comment on whether the widespread view of it as a dump is fair, but certainly lots of the cities that compete for this honour are certified Crap Towns. Dover? Stoke-on-Trent? These are not cities of culture, unless you mean culture in the loosest sense, as in ‘gang culture’ or possibly the culture that grows at the back of the fridge.

I’d be curious to know how much concrete economic benefit there really is, and to what extent the real winners are the various arms of the state-run heritage, culture and arts industry, based in London.

The Department for Culture, Media and Sport says it wants to promote a ‘vibrant and sustainable arts and culture’ scene in the chosen cities, although I would question whether anything that relies on the state can really be called ‘vibrant’ (unless you’re using that word in its euphemistic multicultural sense, which I don’t think they are).

The best way to ensure a lively arts scene in any city is to attract artistic people, and the educated, middle class who will support them, and make them want to stay and have children rather than leave after university. Since crime is a major factor that puts people off, hiring a load of extra policemen in the New York style to patrol the streets for a couple of years would probably have just as good an impact on a town as getting the Arts Council along.

A more cultural and perhaps slightly less fascistic sounding way of attracting culture vultures would be to make towns more beautiful, as this is one of the drawbacks English cities face in trying to permanently regenerate – it’s why Edinburgh and Dublin are much better at attracting the right people and therefore capital.

Hull was actually the city that inspired the system of listing historic buildings after a photographer captured the aftermath of the Hull blitz, the worst after London. Following the war, like with all English cities, most of its beautiful architecture was not rebuilt and what replaced it was sub-standard. You can see what town planners and Nazis between them did to our cities from 1930 and 1970 in Gavin Stamp’s wonderful Britain’s Lost Cities (old Hull, in particular, looks stunning).

So rather than spending time and money on a culture scheme which is going to attract a fair degree of mockery, why not invite cities such as Canterbury, Norwich, Plymouth, Bristol, Worcester, Birmingham and all the others to lobby to have their city centres restored to what they were before the 20th century’s various maniacs got their hands on them?

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