Planning for Cultural Cities

Comments from Richard Percy, Partner

This month culture secretary Ben Bradshaw announced that the race was on to find the UK’s first City of Culture. Following on from Liverpool’s success as European Capital of Culture in 2008, the winning city will become a focus for national attention in 2013 – with lasting economic and social benefits the intended legacy.

With the bidding cities (and closely linked urban areas) expected to put forward their own visions for what makes a City of Culture, they will each need to demonstrate a high quality cultural programme that supports diversity and reaches a wide variety of audiences, as well as demonstrating how they will use culture to bring about lasting social regeneration and engagement.

It’s true that the benefits delivered to Liverpool following its stint as European Capital of Culture have been widely acknowledged. Indeed according to Professor Peter Stoney, a business expert at the University of Liverpool’s management school, the city’s Capital of Culture status has helped to soften some of the detrimental effects of the current nationwide recession. And the Liverpool effect is no fluke; Glasgow also did well by its European Capital of Culture award in 1990, with Scotland’s largest city’s central areas transformed from the depressed municipality of the early 1980s (although admittedly parts of the wider city area are still the focus of severe social deprivation).

However, it’s important to recognise that ‘culture’ is about more than a varied programme of events. As beneficial it will no doubt be to bring the Turner Prize, BBC Sports Personality of the Year, The Brits and the RIBA Stirling Prize to the winning city, to create real, lasting regeneration, we must look towards the buildings and spaces in which we live and work.

Superlambananas and a 50ft mechanical spider may have raised the profile of the city and attracted visitors, but Liverpool’s real success is in no short part down to an extra one million sq ft of retail space, the development of Liverpool One, a new museum and an impressive new arena.  Add to this the delivery of affordable housing to the city and surrounding districts through the Government’s Housing Market Renewal Initiative (HMRI), and it’s clear that Liverpool’s regeneration has resulted from a wider impetus.

A further concern which simply can’t be overlooked is the relevance and risk of such initiatives in the first place - particularly as it will be up to bidders to find the necessary resources for bidding from their existing budgets and those of partners. With colleges across England reported to have lost millions of pounds after the Learning and Skills Council encouraged colleges to plan expensive building programmes with levels of funding which couldn’t match demand, and the Super-Casino proposal ditched after £1 million of taxpayers money had been invested in the bidding process – we must be assured of the viability of such schemes up front. Certainly with a general election due to occur within the next twelve months, there are no guarantees that any new government would support the initiative anyway. Furthermore, with the costs associated with the London 2012 Olympic Games escalating to over double the original costs to the taxpayer despite the current economic climate, we must take a more calculated approach towards the long-term benefits of any new initiatives.

Now more than ever it’s vital that we adopt a long-term approach to the benefit of the entire UK. Indeed, with the current UK planning system ranked *61st in the world, surely it’s more important to look at ways in which to free up the planning process rather than focusing on initiatives which can appear to be little more than PR stunts.

While there may be benefits to be had through the latest City of Culture initiative, we must not overlook the bigger picture – that long term, sustainable urban development is brought about through key improvements to infrastructure, public spaces and transport, leading to effective urban spaces and in turn, open, prosperous, and engaged communities.

In short the need for effective urban planning simply cannot be underestimated when considering the wider sustainable regeneration debate.


(July 2009)