Coventry’s Cultural Breakthrough

Dr Geoff Willcocks, director of arts, culture and heritage at Coventry University, discusses what Coventry’s UK City of Culture 2021 win will mean for the city in a blog originally published by Insider Media.

It must have been at least three years ago that I had my first serious conversation about whether or not Coventry should bid to become UK City of Culture 2021. At the time I was asked if it was a good idea, if we stood a chance of winning and if we had the right people in place to make a plausible bid. To all these questions I was able to give a wholeheartedly positive response.

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Dr Geoff Willcocks

But even though I was genuinely upbeat about our chances, there were still doubts. Coventry is the city that was devastated by the Blitz. It is the place that lost its major modern industry of car manufacture; the “Ghost Town” mourned in The Specials’ song of that name. Most (in)famously, it is where people are metaphorically sent as punishment. External perception of Coventry was not good, and, at times, even less so within the city itself. I have met many people keen to claim that Coventry as City of Culture would be an oxymoron.

However, since that initial discussion we have undertaken thousands of hours of meetings, committees, consultations, workshops, focus groups and cultural events. We have campaigned tirelessly, revealing to the wider world and to the people here that Coventry was not only capable of being a worthy winner of the title but would be an exceptional host for the next City of Culture year. Then, in December 2017, we had it confirmed that the judges felt the same when Coventry was named winner.

But what, in real terms, does it mean for the city and indeed the region? First, and most obviously, it will increase tourism. 75 per cent of England’s population live within a two hour drive of Coventry, with 1.14m people living within a 30 minute drive. The city is well served by road, rail and air.

Initial estimates put the number of visitors to Coventry over the course of the City of Culture year to be in the region of 1.8m. Not only will this provide a significant boost to the local economy through direct spend, it will also generate opportunities for investment in new hotels, infrastructure, retail and services. In total, the estimated economic benefit will be in the region of £80m within the delivery year itself.

There will be other benefits. Coventry will have the opportunity to showcase itself to the world as an ideal place to live, work and study. It is here that the new Place Partnership will play a vital role, helping to shape and coordinate the development of the city through a holistic approach which joins up all of the city’s civic, cultural, commercial and educational organisations. This is a dynamic collaboration between such previously diverse groups and organisations as Coventry Cathedral, the Ricoh Arena, Culture Coventry, the Chamber of Commerce, and the Historic Coventry Trust as well as the two universities – ourselves and Warwick – which gives the city’s plans for growth realistic sustainability.

Coventry will be able to use culture and creativity to unlock its potential in terms of commerce and trade. Winning the title will also enhance the city’s ability to do what it has always done best – innovate. Potential future innovation lies in part in Coventry’s creative and digital industries. With predictions pointing towards a high number of current jobs becoming automated over the next 50 years, creativity will become an increasingly important feature of the skills market. Jobs with a creative component are amongst the least likely to be replaced. So, the City of Culture celebration is the ideal opportunity to explore how creative skills will be required by the UK’s future workforce.

I believe, however, the true value of Coventry’s year as City of Culture will not be seen in 2021 but will be realised by its legacy over the succeeding decades. The city recently published its ten year Cultural Strategywhich is a vitally important part of this process, mapping, as it does, goals and ‘big ideas’ to help drive the city’s social and economic growth via cultural and creative development through to 2027.

Legacy, of course, is only truly achievable if it is allied to sustainability. Funding one-off, ephemeral projects has to be seen as thing of the past and the focus needs to shift to backing projects that have demonstrable long-term benefits and outcomes.

An excellent cultural example as to how Coventry is leading the way in this respect is the recent agreement between Coventry City Council and the Historic Coventry Trust, which was founded with the help of Coventry University Social Enterprise. The agreement sees the largest ever transfer of historic and heritage propertiesfrom a Council to a Trust in the UK, thus securing the future of these historic properties for generations to come.

This move is being heralded across the UK as a ground-breaking innovation in civic heritage management, embracing as it does respect for our past, creativity, skills development (both new and traditional) and communities.

Overall, Coventry’s year as City of Culture needs to be seen as much more than just an arts festival – important though that is. It is no exaggeration to say that this is a once in a lifetime opportunity for growth, investment, development and meaningful legacy, which reaches far beyond the cultural and into the social, economic and civic regeneration of Coventry itself.

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