Mike Hancock’s City of Culture Confusion

The point of this blog is to correct and comment on a press release about Portsmouth’s City of Culture bid issued by Mike Hancock.  He issued it on May 16th, but I missed it at the time, and in the meantime everyone has been distracted by other controversies involving him.

I’ll deal with the relevant points below, but first a reminder of what the City of Culture bid is about.  Sometime in June (nearer the end of the month) the shortlisted bids for the 2017 City of Culture award will be announced.  This is awarded ever four years, with the bidding beginning 4 years in advance and a final announcement 3 years ahead.  There were bids submitted by

  • Aberdeen
  • Chester
  • Dundee
  • East Kent
  • Hastings and Bexhill-on-Sea
  • Hull
  • Leicester
  • Plymouth,
  • Portsmouth and Southampton
  • Southend-on-Sea
  • Swansea

This is the second running of the competition – both Portsmouth/Southampton and Hull entered for the right to be this year’s City of Culture, but neither got onto the shortlist and it was eventually won by Londonderry, Derry, or whatever else you want to call the place.  Londonderry has a big programme of events running through the year.  It got into a bit of a mess before the year even started, and in the year to May ran up a £611,000 deficit due to poor ticket sales, with the risk falling upon the taxpayer.  Indications now are that the gap is narrowing somewhat, and it may well break-even over the full year – the lousy weather in the first few months can’t have helped.

The City of Culture programme is designed to allow the host to market their existing attractions better and to develop new cultural activities, as well as giving them a chance to host major events organised by national bodies.  However the onus is on candidate cities to put together a programme that meets quite tough criteria in the first instance.  The full DCMS briefing (PDF, 28 pages) is here.

The announcement that Portsmouth and Southampton would again be entering a joint bid came early in March.  Personally I’m disappointed we are making a joint bid; we are of a comparable size to other bidders and have an outstanding cultural and tourist offer on our own.  The point of tying up with Southampton seems to me to be all about scale, and not so much about common ground.  I’m not sure at this point what the cultural virtues of a joint bid are.  But I certainly have no doubts about Portsmouth’s credentials as a cultural centre, or the imagination and commitment of the people running our bit of the bid.

Mike Hancock rarely speaks at Westminster to represent his constituents, but keeps up a smoke-screen of press-releases and Early Day Motion activity.   The full press release is on his website but I’ll quote it extensively for the purpose of review.  I haven’t corrected any mistakes in the original:

“Today Mike Hancock urged Portsmouth residents to get behind the city’s’ joint bid with Southampton for the UK’s 2017 Capital of Culture, and to put old rivalries aside. It is hoped that this ‘unusual’ pairing will set the two South Coast cities apart for their rich maritime history and really demonstrate what the Solent has to offer”

Well, as the bid document makes clear the title isn’t awarded on the basis of history, it’s done in response to what can be done in the future.  It seems unwise to remind everyone in the first paragraph of the release that the two cities have their differences.  Maritime history is all some politicians ever go on about, it’s as if they would be content to see the Navy vanish completely and the Dockyard become one big museum.

As an aside, one of the City Council’s most unattractive ideas (in the “Seafront Masterplan” (see p.79 of the PDF) is to close the Royal Marine Museum at Eastney and relocate it to the Dockyard.  Why?  To “free up” the site for a hotel!  Anybody who was down at Eastney Barracks for the ‘BBC Antiques Roadshow’ yesterday will, I hope, share my view that this is totally barmy.

“The UK Capital of Culture is a Government-led programme which was inspired by the recent success of Liverpool’s time as European Capital of Culture in 2008. Portsmouth and Southampton are amongst 29 cities competing for the title and Bid Chiefs will hope to express the culture of both cities and their people, authors, architecture, artists, theatres and of course football clubs.”

The name of the programme is ‘UK City of Culture’.  The reference to “29 bidders” is a mistake – he is thinking of the 2013 competition which attracted that many bids.  Additionally, as the DCMS guidance makes clear, sporting activities are not a direct consideration in assessing bids.  We are rightly proud of our football club, but it’s not a help to us in this.

“This really is a historic moment for both Portsmouth and Southampton who, despite their differences, are uniting for a shared goal. This is a great opportunity to showcase the Solent which, if we win, would bring the cities an estimated £100m in investment and tourism.

Always be careful when a politician talks about “investment”, especially when it’s “estimated”.  Portsmouth Lib Dems have been talking about “£1Bn of investment” being generated by their existing Masterplans.  Beyond a couple of planning applications for new hotels, there are few signs of private enterprise investing in accordance with them, and no sign at all of Northern Quarter (yes, that again) being built.  If work was started on Northern Quarter tomorrow, it would still be a building site in 2017.  A half-share of £100m of investment would be welcome, but the City Council certainly doesn’t have any ability to guarantee it.  Labour Southampton City Council has a record of management as inept our our own Lib Dem-run fiasco, so any bid will need careful scrutiny.

“Portsmouth really does have a lot of to offer as not only has it been the home of the Royal navy for centuries, but it is also been the residence for two world famous authors; Arthur Conan Doyle and Charles Dickens not mention our architecture, people and arts. I hope this rich cultural legacy when added to that of Southampton, which is the home of the Merchant Navy, will be enough to win the title.”

If we can have a 300-foot tall gold-plated statue of our latest great Pompey literary figure, Christopher Hitchens, I might be more enthusiastic.  Hancock has put down an Early Day Motion in support of the bid in Parliament listing some of our other great cultural figures.  Unfortunately, when it came to Southampton the most recent example available was Benny Hill (no, really).  But back to the press release:

“Both Portsmouth and Southampton are working hard to make the most of their cultural achievements, the highlights of which are Southampton’s SeaCity museum and the soon to be completed, Mary Rose Museum in Portsmouth. Not only would winning this title bring extra revenue in tourism but it would also see the cities used as the venue for international events such as the Brit Awards, Electric Proms and BBC Sports Personality of The Year.

The Mary Rose museum is fantastic; I actually had a tear in my eye when I saw it, because it took me right back to watching her emerge from Spithead on TV all those years ago, and because for a long time she was quite a forlorn sight in a haze of water-spray in the Dockyard.  The new museum, however, does her every justice and is one of the finest in the whole world.  But again sadly Mr Hancock is obsessed with our maritime pasts, and not our cultural futures.

There is also no guarantee that the events Hancock mentions above would be held in either Portsmouth or Southampton should the bid be successful, and particularly not the ‘Electric Proms’, which the BBC axed three years ago.  He seems to be relying again on out-of-date PR blurb.  Of course deciding which city gets which event would be a contentious process.  I see Londonderry has had Radio 1’s ‘Big Weekend’ event this year – anyone who remembers the huge crowds the old Radio 1 Roadshow used to draw to Castle Field will see the obvious potential in Southsea.

“It is hoped that this EDM will drum up support and Mike will continue to monitor the progress of Portsmouth and Southampton’s bid closely.

Hancock is referring to the Early Day Motion I mentioned above.  To date, nobody else has signed it to show their support, which is a pity, but probably a reflection of the standing of our part-time MP with his peers.

The bookies presently make Chester 4/1 favourites, with Portsmouth/Southampton at 8/1 (you can follow the market here if you fancy a punt).  I don’t set much store by those odds myself, but we’ll see what happens nearer the end of the month.  Hopefully we’ll make it onto the shortlist and we’ll see what goes into the fuller bid document with interest.

Hopefully Mr Hancock’s future public statements on the matter will be of a higher standard.

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One Response to Mike Hancock’s City of Culture Confusion

  1. Pingback: Portsmouth City Council Meeting 11/6/13, Part 2 | @Lord_Palmerston

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