New figures show cash-strapped local authorities have spent millions of pounds on failed bids to become Britain’s next City of Culture.
Bradford was announced as the winning candidate last summer after promising to host 1,000 events for the 2025 jamboree.
But 15 local authorities – some in financially precarious positions – spent more than £4 million trying to persuade the government to host the year-long festival. The Independent can reveal.
The staggering amounts were revealed as another local authority, Birmingham City Council, declared effective bankruptcy this week, while 26 other local authorities across the UK are also said to be at similar risk of economic collapse.
Those who failed to win the City of Culture 2025 title included Southampton, which spent £1.59m in a bid before declaring this summer it was at risk of “financial failure”, and Durham, which burned through £345,000 despite having since announced it would run out of money unless it can save £52m over the next four years.
Other major donors included Wrexham Council (£305,000), Armagh City, Banbridge and Craigavon Borough Council (£227,352) and Medway Council (£190,000). Bradford themselves spent £1.16 million on their own bid.
Critics are now asking themselves how the enormous expenditure on the City of Culture’s tenders could even be justified in a time of such need.
Both local residents and national cultural activists say the money – which covered marketing materials, hosting judge visits and consulting fees – would have been better spent either securing reserves or at least improving core services such as road maintenance and library supplies.
Laura Swaffield, chair of the national library campaign group, said: “This is about councils trying to win something big and shiny, which gets good headlines but ultimately has very little benefit to the vast majority of people – certainly these people brings.” in all areas that didn’t even win.
“The fact that this is happening despite most local authorities in the UK having spent years slashing the budgets of institutions such as libraries and museums – the backbone of culture – is particularly galling.
“If even a fraction of that money had been donated to good libraries – those operating on tight budgets – it would be transformative and of long-term benefit to local people in a way that I imagine as a city of culture “I’m not sure.”
In the case of Bradford, the £1.16m was spent despite the council’s reserves – according to a report published in July – now being “close to depletion”. The 2023-24 budget will see an additional spending of £50 million.
Brendan Stubbs, leader of the LibDem group on the Labor-run council, said: “We have a childcare service that has been in special measures for effectively four years and a social care system that is collapsing under pressure, so I think that is the case is.” very difficult to justify.
“Having won I’m sure there will be benefits, but the other side of that argument is that we will now be spending even more to deliver the thing at a time when we need to dip into our reserves , just to cover the essentials.
“That’s not how well-run institutions work. In economic terms, they are illiterate. You do the boring, basic things well and then you can think about the extras.”
But supporters say the money was a good investment.
In Bradford it is official that the City of Culture will lead to an estimated £700 million worth of private and public investment in both the cultural sector and the regeneration of public spaces, while creating up to 7,000 jobs.
The proposal is that the festival will boost both civic pride and visitor numbers in one of Britain’s poorest cities, while also allowing it to attract additional funding from bodies such as Arts Council England and the National Lottery Heritage Fund.
A council spokesperson said: “The City of Culture will bring a welcome boost to our local economy, not only through the scheme itself but also through the lasting positive impact it will have on businesses through increased visitors to the Bradford District.”
Meanwhile, unsuccessful councilors say the tender process has resulted in an improved national profile and generated significant local interest in cultural projects.
A spokesman for Wrexham Council said: “The City of Culture bid was one of the largest cultural events ever to take place in Wrexham, bringing communities of all kinds together in their shared love of Wrexham culture.” The nationwide exposure made Wrexham the United Kingdom, and the advertising alone was worth far more than the money spent on the offer.”
Neither Southampton Council nor Durham Council responded to requests for comment.
The Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport, which runs the competition, said Bradford would now receive £275,000 in seed funding from the government, while the shortlisted candidates – Durham, Southampton and Wrexham – would receive £125,000 for cultural funding projects would receive.
Previous winners of the title have been Derry in 2013, Hull in 2017 and Coventry in 2021, with research providing a decidedly mixed picture as to the extent of long-term benefits for each location.