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There’s been plenty of talk about it, but what exactly will Leeds be missing out on if it doesn’t get European Capital of Culture 2023?

You might remember at the turn of the year, there were rumblings across the city about whether Leeds is in a position to put itself forward for the 2023 title of the European Capital of Culture – and that’s only intensified since Hull were awarded the UK’s equivalent for 2017. It’s something we should all get behind, because if we don’t get it, we’ll really miss out.

Bringing the world’s gaze back to Leeds

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Leeds already has a strong cultural mix, but European Capital of Culture could take it to the next level, in a way that will bring the world’s attention back to the city – and that’s something Leeds City Council are very much aware of.

Their initial report suggests that Leeds isn’t doing enough to promote itself as the cultural force it could, and European Capital of Culture would go a long way towards fixing.

It happened to Liverpool when they carried the Capital of Culture torch in 2008. By the end of the year, they had an arts and culture audience of 5.6 million people and a 34% rise in tourism from 2007. Their European Capital of Culture bid brought in around 9.7 million additional visits to the city. Is that something Leeds can afford to miss out on?

The figures are impressive. But it’s not just numbers – Capital of Culture brought about considerable investment and regeneration. Liverpool saw a four billion pound boost to its physical infrastructure from 2000 to 2008 as a result of private, local, regional and European funding.

Areas such as the Baltic Triangle became thriving hubs, re-utilising historic space for a new era marked by the city’s togetherness, and as a result, Liverpool is once again viewed as a must-visit destination, for things other than music and football.

In many ways Leeds is even better placed than Liverpool was in 2008 to take this mantle, thanks to our big event experience, improved infrastructure and the miles of rolling Yorkshire countryside that sit on our doorstep. If Leeds can become a cultural hotspot, it can cement its place as the gateway to Yorkshire and give visitors the full package – increasing tourism not just to the city, but also to the entire region.

If there’s one thing we learned from the Tour de France, it’s that Leeds can compete on an international level – and we deserve a little more attention, which is exactly what European Capital of Culture could give us.

Making culture all inclusive

What Will Leeds Be Missing if it Doesn’t Get European Capital of Culture 2023?

Tourists aren’t the only thing we’ll miss out on if Leeds doesn’t get European Capital of Culture. It forces the city’s cultural establishments together and out into the communities, with a new focus on inclusion.

Claire McColgan was the Executive Producer for ‘Liverpool 08’, responsible for the programme of events that took place across the city, and she saw it happen there.

“It consolidated the whole city into one direction” she explains. “The whole regeneration programme of the city came under this banner, so even if we hadn’t of won, the whole city bound together, which everyone bought into at a very tricky time in the city, but it was going through massive change.”

And it’s not just the city’s cultural establishments that are brought together – it also reaches out into the community. Turning areas of the city that are underfunded and rarely in the spotlight into hubs, hosting events that have the power to make a difference.

What Will Leeds Be Missing if it Doesn’t Get European Capital of Culture 2023?

And indeed, a report run by the European Parliament has suggested that “culture is more widely accepted as a driver for economic change, health and social inclusion.” It is these aspects that Leeds needs to use as a driver for their bid – to be able to show how the cultural community can come together to make a tangible impact .

We already have institutions such as Slung Low theatre company and East Street Arts, whose role in the wider Leeds community is hugely important. European Capital of Culture will take that work, multiply it, and keep it going – Liverpool’s £11 million multi-year ‘Creative Communities’ programme is evidential proof.

It’s all about inclusion – giving everyone the chance to experience culture, to discover the arts and see a play on the stage. By doing this, we can plant an important seed while making a real difference, one that will allow us to pass on the torch to a new generation, who can take the mantle from us in years to come.

Investing in the city’s future

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The effects of European Capital of Culture don’t just last for the year of the event itself. It’s a transformative experience and one that will help us leave a legacy we can all be proud of.

“There’s no point doing it to build new buildings. You should do it to energise the (cultural) sector and to give them some power in running the city, and that’s what it (2008) did.” McColgan told us, “Now in Liverpool, the cultural scene, the events that we do and the organisations we support, are seen as such an integral part of the make up.”

Liverpool has shown that once you ‘take the genie out of the box, you can’t put it back’, to steal a phrase from the bid team’s Susan Woodward. Through the cultural offering of 2008, the city gained an insatiable appetite for more, as well as a protective attitude towards its cultural institutions – and because of that, the city has thrived.

Even as we spoke to Claire McColgan, she was heading up the Liverpool International Music Festival, one of events born of Liverpool’s Capital of Culture year. This is just one of a constant programme of events that are proof of the after effects Leeds can look forward if it wins its bid.

What Will Leeds Be Missing if it Doesn’t Get European Capital of Culture 2023?

While folk are rightly anxious about the regeneration of the city, this comes with time. By proving we’re a city capable of putting on the biggest events, by giving it something to strive for, we’ll see the infrastructural improvements arrive hand-in-hand.

This city has gone through unprecedented change over the past few years, but that’s only going to take it so far. Now it needs to look to the next stage of its development – and this is it.

Leeds is planning to together its bid by 2016, and you can rest assured that it’ll be completely different to anything that’s come before. That’s the beauty of an event like this, it’s unique to the city it belongs to – designed to build on and showcase its strengths. In the words of McColgan, “Leeds is a completely different case. It’ll do things very differently, and so it should.”

This is an opportunity that has to be seized, and it’s vital we do it with both hands.

Tour De France image copyright Laurie Cooper Murray.