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What’s Left in the Wake of Our European Capital of Culture Bid?

· James Tweddle · Culture

Leeds 2023 has a bold new direction.

Leeds 2023

The European Capital of Culture decision hit Leeds hard, so where do we go from here?

On 23rd November 2017, the European Commission announced that, as a result of Brexit, UK cities were no longer allowed to bid for European Capital of Culture 2023. By this point, Leeds had spent almost £1 million on the bid, so it knocked us for six. Could we have seen this coming? Have we wasted an enormous amount of money? Or can we turn this disaster into a win for the city?

We jumped through every hoop they asked for

Motherload Leeds 2023

Credit: Transform 17

By the time it all fell apart, Leeds was £1 million down. And while £800,000 of that budget came from private investment, the remaining £200,000 was contributed by the council, leaving us to wonder – should we have called it off long ago?

When the UK first voted to leave the EU, there were rumblings that it might affect our European Capital of Culture bid. In fact, the EU tweaked their rules about bidding cities soon after to put a literal asterisk next to the UK’s involvement, which should have raised alarm bells. What’s more, the government’s Department of Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) warned that the title ‘may be subject to the outcome of exit negotiations.’

But it’s not that black and white. The EU may have covered their backs, but our bid was by no means ruled out. From Reykjavik in 2000 to Stavanger in 2008 and Istanbul in 2010, loads of non-EU cities have been the European Capital of Culture in the past and there was no reason to believe that the UK would be any different. In fact, just one month before their dreaded decision, the EU released a fresh list of eligible host countries, with the UK firmly on it.

That’s not all. There were assurances from DCMS that Brexit wouldn’t affect the bid process, they actually told everyone after the referendum that the competition would run as normal. As Leeds City Council leader Judith Blake puts it, the message was clear. “They announced that it was ok to go ahead with the competition. So we were acting in good faith and you’d get the same response from the five bidding cities – we felt the government had pressed the starter pistol, so off we went.”

We’re not buying the European Commission’s excuses

Business Leeds 2023

Credit: Mark Bickerdike

And yet, after years of planning and barely days before the bidding process was due to officially start, the European Commission changed their mind. “Given that the UK will have left the EU by 29 March 2019, and therefore be unable to host the European Capital of Culture in 2023, we believe it makes common sense to discontinue the selection process now”, a statement said.

Common sense. Really? After nearly four years of intensive planning, a million pounds of our hard-earned cash and God only knows how much blood, sweat and tears, now was the time to call it quits? It was two weeks after the final bids had been submitted, the deal was all but done, and they snatched it away without a backward glance.

Were we screwed over? Were they making an example of us or acting out of spite? The council appealed furiously. They hired high-powered lawyers to investigate and even cornered one of the bid’s senior committee members at a conference in Italy. But it was all in vain. Any appeal would be decided by the European Commission, the very people who had pulled the plug. We were left with two options. Cut our losses and lick our wounds. Or build something from the ashes of our failed bid. We chose the latter.

Leeds 2023 is dead. Long live Leeds 2023.

Judith Blake Leeds 2023

Credit: Chris Payne

Leeds 2023 has now morphed into something completely new. Freed of the European Commission’s shackles, it will be a five-year arts, sport and culture programme, culminating in a spectacular, year-long celebration of our city-wide achievements in 2023.

But what does it all mean? Determined not to let the million pound bid go to waste, the powers that be have essentially said ‘we’re going to do it anyway’. So while we won’t officially be European Capital of Culture, we’re still going to host an incredible array of events in 2023 to highlight our cultural clout, from music to theatre, football to rugby league.

They’re determined to keep the best projects from the original bid, including the international sculpture project, a community-style People’s Theatre and, of course, the instantly iconic Leeds Lighthouse. But with a whole year to fill, we’re going to need a lot more than just those three, and there’s a big budget available to create a spectacular programme.

Leeds 2023 Launch

Credit: Chris Payne

Back when we were bidding, the budget was going to be £65 million, with £12 million coming from the council and the rest from private partners and businesses across the city. Now that we’re striking out on our own, there’s only £35 million to play with, but the council are still putting in £12 million. It means the money we’ve already spent won’t have been for nothing, but is it worth the investment without the ‘glory’ of European Capital of Culture?

According to Judith Blake, it’s a small investment when you think that we’re getting twice as much back, with £23 million promised from partners, businesses and Arts Council England. “We wouldn’t get that budget coming from the private sector without the umbrella of the programme, that is the reality,” she told us. “Leeds 2023 is something that is very attractive, and a way of levering in £35 million that wasn’t available to us, and how we can maximise the use to benefit the people of the city.” So while the Council’s money could be spent on transport or social care, it will have a bigger impact with Leeds 2023, because it’s driving investment in the city.

It’s had a rocky road so far, but Leeds 2023 finally feels like it’s on the verge of something big. From the despair of the failed European Capital of Culture bid, we have the chance to show that you can knock us down, but we’ll always get back up. And if we all get behind it, there’s every chance that Leeds 2023 could cement our cultural future.

Cover image credit: Leeds 2023