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Does the ‘City of Culture’ award really benefit its recipient?

ByBea Bray

Oct 28, 2017

In 2008, Liverpool was bestowed the title of European Capital of Culture, resulting in 9.7 million visitors to the city that year, an increase of 34 per cent from the year before. It has been estimated, based on a five-year research programme, that £753.8 million was generated as a direct consequence of the award.

Having assessed Liverpool’s success, the UK Department for Culture, Media and Sport launched a national version of the award, the UK City of Culture, given to a city in the UK for a one year period. The most recent holder of the award is Hull, who took over the title in 2017 from Derry.

Competition is high for the title of City of Culture, as it is only awarded every four years. Presently, the main contenders for the 2021 title are Coventry, Stoke-on-Trent, Sunderland, Paisley, and Swansea. Why do cities want this award so much though? And does it really have a tangible effect on their economies?

One of the main things that makes winning the award so desirable is the £3 million grant from the Heritage Lottery Fund. If the city can utilise this money to improve its facilities, arts, and culture, this should provide a boost to tourism, and therefore the city will in theory become more economically stable. Nonetheless, can we really measure the lasting impact of this sudden economic spike?

In 2017, when Hull was awarded the City of Culture, a series of sound and light installations known as Made in Hull were installed across the city, attracting more than 25,000 visitors. By the end of the first week, 342,000 people had participated in Hull’s celebrations.

The economic rewards of being awarded a cultural title are apparent in both the cases of Hull and Liverpool. There are longstanding benefits, linked to publicity and tourism to the cities, as well as a positive effect on their citizens. It is reported that nine out of 10 people living in Hull experienced at least one cultural event in the first three months of 2017. Moreover, seven out of 10 residents agreed that there has been a positive impact upon the lives of local people.

Rebecca Ball, Director of Sunderland’s 2021 City of Culture bid has argued that “these fantastic statistics show the sort of huge benefits we’d enjoy from a successful bid. It would boost the city economically, socially and culturally, and like Hull we’d also expect to see significant increases in levels of well-being, confidence and pride”. This seems apt, given the abundance of statistical evidence supporting the community benefits from the award.

So, clearly in its previous years the UK City of Culture award has had a positive impact upon its recipients. But does this mean its success will be ongoing? Although it helps cities develop on a national level, arguably the title of European Capital of Culture would bring more international tourism, and therefore more substantial economic benefit to a UK city.

Furthermore, it is difficult to measure the exact impact and benefits of the UK award, as it has not been established for long enough for analysts to fully understand its impact. Although it does appear to increase tourism and subsequently benefit the economy, its long-lasting effects are currently hard to evaluate accurately.

If we base our assessment of the award’s impact on that of the European award however, considering that the scale is smaller, it does seem plausible that the impacts will be ongoing and beneficial to the economy and general psyche of the residents of the city to which it is awarded. In the case of Hull, there seemed to be a general perception that the city lacked culture, and the award of this title enabled it to position itself on the map as a city worth visiting in the UK.


Image: Richard Croft via Geograph

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