I almost forgot that 2008 is Capital of Culture year.

That means all eyes will be on Liverpool to see what it can do with the poisoned chalice – sorry, I mean prestigious title – of being Europe’s cultural hot-spot for the year ahead.

There is a big programme of events planned for Liverpool 08, but so far some seem to be dwelling on the things that won’t be happening.

Although those behind Liverpool’s cultural calendar are critical of such negativity, the cynicism is understandable given the less than inspiring history of the EU Capital of Culture initiative and the contest (sic) to pick the UK’s representative.

I was working on The Birmingham Post when the contest was announced and spent the best part of 18 months writing a lengthy series of articles, interviews and features on why Birmingham’s bid deserved to be successful. I wasn’t wholly convinced the city needed to try so hard for such an award of dubious value, but this attitude didn’t fit well with the newspaper’s tub-thumping stance.

The most interesting part of the 18 months was travelling to some of Birmingham’s rivals to assess the quality, or otherwise, of their Capital of Culture bids.

The two that stood out were Liverpool and Newcastle-Gateshead, but for very different reasons.

Newcastle-Gateshead’s joint bid probably deserved to win the contest. The progress made in the North-East at that point, in terms of social and economic regeneration, together with the ambitious plans that were already under way and the cultural programme it was putting together, suggested it would benefit the most from the national and international exposure this year would provide. Plus, their track record suggested they could make the most of the limited benefits of the 2008 title.

By contrast Liverpool’s bid felt too obvious and predictable. It smacked more of a city with its cupped hands stretched towards London looking for yet more help and hand-outs to give it a much-needed leg up than a vibrant, self-confident and ambitious bid.

There was a stark difference to the approach of Birmingham, Newcastle-Gateshead and some of the other leading contenders (Bradford, Cardiff and Bristol). These cities had decided to largely go it alone, to try and achieve something and create a lasting legacy whereas Liverpool seemed more intent on seeking approval, support and direction.

I wasn’t surprised Liverpool won. One of the UK’s principal cities was heading downhill fast and the Capital of Culture title was the Government’s only way out – it couldn’t be seen to be simply bailing Liverpool out, whilst other cities were managing to pull things together on their own.

The contest merely served to show just how far Liverpool had slipped behind the rest of the UK.

As well as the other shortlisted candidates, those cities not in the contest – such as Leeds, Manchester, Edinburgh and Glasgow – were also showing they were light years ahead.

There was a fair amount of anger and frustration amongst the great, good and indifferent gathered at the Ikon in Birmingham to hear Liverpool announced as winner of the Capital of Culture contest. Likewise there were plenty of frowns and more than a sprinkling of indignation in the North-East.

But time tells a different story.

Arguably, both Birmingham and Newcastle-Gateshead have and will continue to benefit in the long run from the failure to land 2008’s most tarnished glittering prize. The Capital of Culture bandwagon brings short-term gains in a fairly weak spotlight and would have distracted from the bigger picture.

Progress continues to be made in the Midlands and North-East and the programmes for change stretch onwards into the future.

In Liverpool, all eyes have been on this year and this year alone. The fact that some of the more ambitious, long-term schemes have failed to materialise says it all – Liverpool is looking for a short-term feel-good factor rather than the long-term legacy other UK cities are engineering.

All roads might be leading to Liverpool in 2008. But Birmingham, Newcastle-Gateshead and all the rest are better off putting some distance between themselves and this poisoned chalice.

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  1. […] bid to become the 2008 European Capital of Culture – I still believe Liverpool deserves this poisoned chalice – was the lack of iconic landmarks in the […]

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