Wednesday, 20 January 2016

Becoming the UK's City of Culture could show the world what Stoke is made of.

Last night members of the council's cabinet voted to back Stoke-on-Trent bidding to become the UK City of Culture.

Speaking to the Sentinel cabinet member for leisure Terry Follows said that Stoke was 'a city which is awash with culture' adding that a successful bid see the city 'achieve recognition throughout the world.'

It could certainly see prestige events like the Turner prize and the Brits come to the city, previous holders of the title have seen their economy receive a significant boost, £5 for every £1 spent in the case of Derry, Hull set to be the next City of Culture in 2017 expects to see an extra £60 million added to its economy.

There is a considerable cash outlay, just making a bid will cost £165,000 with an extra £10 million bill if the city is successful. This makes it a tough sell at a time when funds are tight and the public has been made cynical by seeing too many grand schemes come to nought.

You can see why there isn't exactly dancing in the streets at the thought of another project that might deliver less than it promises every time you ride a bus into Hanley and look upon the multi-coloured mess that is Smithfield. The last administration ran up a huge debt to build what is essentially a speculative development no different from a Spanish timeshare that might or might not ever turn a profit.

Proponents of the bid, and I am one, with some reservations, might point to the fact that in this instance we won't have to build anything and there is a fair chance that they, visitors, will come. That isn't though to say that we should be starry eyed about things, far from it, to succeed a bid to be UK City of Culture must be ruthlessly pragmatic.

For a start the risk has to be spread, local businesses will benefit from extra trade and so should be expected to put up much of the funding, the role of the council should be primarily as a facilitator and project manager. Whoever puts up the cash the budget has to be watched closely, there cannot be an overspend, largely due to poor planning, of the sort that plagued Smithfield.

Despite the risks involved making a bid, even an unsuccessful one, provides a golden opportunity to market Stoke-on-Trent to a wider audience and attract much needed outside investment; so what's holding us back?

In part its the, not unreasonable, concerns about cost and official competence outlined above, but there is another and much darker reason why so many people may be sceptical about our chances. One that goes to the heart of the flawed psychology that has so often held this city back.

Stoke is a city afflicted by a massive inferiority complex, a cultural cringe that has lasted for decades and left us feeling that we aren't quite good enough. We're the salt of the earth, hard working and nice enough in our way, but 'culture'; that isn't for the likes of us.

Nothing could be further from the truth, Stoke is a city with creativity hard-wired into its DNA. You can see this in the mostly unsung artistry shown by generations of pottery workers. It can still be seen the city's outstanding music scene, whistle down an alley in Fenton and you're likely to get a cracking guitar riff back.

We've got one top university and another on our doorstep, both are producing the artists and innovators or tomorrow. A world famous football team, two depending on which part of town you live in and a history that takes in everything and everyone from the Spitfire to Jackie Trent composer to the theme tune to Neighbours. That's more than enough culture for a city twice the size.

Most of all we have, even those of us who will never compose a symphony and can't draw much beyond stick figures, the unique character that comes from living in Stoke. This is a famously friendly city with a refreshing dislike of pretension and an original sense of humour.

The trouble is as a city we have spent so long on our knees we've forgotten that we might just be a bit special. Its time to stand tall again, to challenge the negative image of our city perpetuated by an insular elite, most of whom have seldom left the confines of Islington, and show the world what we can do.

Culture is not the property of a single class who then get to dole it out like parish charity; it belongs to all of us because making or appreciating it is central our humanity. That idea more than anything should be at the heart of our bid to make this a city of culture, whether we win the official title or not.

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